This week, I went for a coffee with my husband. On the table was a Christmas menu card, in the shape of a cracker. Except, it wasn’t actually in the shape of a cracker; it was just a straightforward, straight edged, open-ended cuboid.
What made it look like a cracker was the triangle shape cut out from each corner near the top, and a dark band of colour intersecting the excisions, giving the appearance of the bit at each end of a cracker, where your hand grips when you pull it. Even though each side was completely straight up and down. It was very effective.
My husband is a graphic designer, and he pointed out how the constraints presented by the form, probably chosen for cost reasons, had sparked creativity. It had pushed the designer to come up with something slightly unexpected, when complete freedom of form might have resulted in a more conventionally cracker-shaped object, which would probably have been less engaging.
This is why I enjoy working with poetic forms like the villanelle.
The word villanelle is derived from the Italian villanella – a folk dance or song – stemmed in turn from the Latin villa (farm) via villano (peasant or farm hand). Jean Passerat is credited with the first literary imitation of these rustic songs, in sixteenth century France. Many well-known poets have written villanelles: Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, WH Auden, and Dylan Thomas.
Villanelles are composed of 19 lines of any length, grouped into five tercets (a stanza of three lines) and a quatrain (four lines). It has two rhymes: the tercets rhyme aba; in other words the first and third lines rhyme. The quatrain rhymes abaa. It helps to actually see these principles put into practice: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas is a famous and very effective use of the form
But what makes the villanelle interesting, I think, is not structure but repetition. The first and third lines of stanza 1 are repeated in the other stanzas in a set pattern. Line 1 ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is repeated as line 6. Line 3 ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ as line 9. This happens again as lines 12 and 15. In the quatrain, these two lines together conclude the poem.
This allows the poet to play around creating subtly different meanings for those significant lines, using the rest of the stanza. For example, in Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, sometimes the line ‘I shut my eyes and all drops dead’ is the start of something happening, when followed by ‘I lift my lids and all is born again’, for instance. Other times, its meaning is an ending, reflecting its position at the end of a stanza: ‘And arbitrary blackness gallops in / I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead’. When I write in this form, I am often surprised by the creativity that is ignited by the need to find words that rhyme and also that make logical and lyrical sense.
This villanelle was inspired by another constraint requiring creativity: adapting a sticky port gravy recipe, so my coeliac mum can enjoy it. It’s a bit rushed and unsubtle, I dashed it off while making the gravy (I didn’t want to get too absorbed and leave the ‘bits’ to get to the wrong side of burnt!) starting with a few lines from the recipe itself, which kept referring to the ingredients as ‘bits’. I played around with the tenses, and changed one or two words on the repeated lines so it makes sense. When I have more time, I might go back and improve it.
 Lyric Forms from France, by Helen Louise Cohen)