Villanelles – Banana Pudding

I love formal poetry, particularly villanelles.  I will write about the exact form (a traditionally French embrace of repeating lines and rhymes) tomorrow.  (I hope.)

Today, I’ll just say that the form itself generally ensures a villanelle a certain amount of built-in music and irony.

The form is a bit complicated, however.   So getting your villanelle to more or less follow the rules, and also to make sense, is often about all you can hope for. Profundity must be left to the sidelines. (Traditionally French, remember?)

My view is, well, who really cares that much about profundity when you’ve got built-in music and irony? (I don’t. But remember that I’m also someone who has spent a not insignificant amount of time blogging about Robert Pattinson.  See e.g. posts re same. )

Another reason I like writing villanelles (besides their music) is that I am fundamentally (or perhaps I should just say, mentally) lazy. This makes a villanelle kind of perfect for me because (a) as mentioned above, profundity is often left at the sidelines, and (b) the whole poem revolves around two repeating lines.  Which means that once you get your repeating lines right, you don’t have to come up with all that much else.

The poem also involves only two different sets of rhymes: the rhyme of your repeating lines and the rhyme for the intersecting lines.   This limited rhyme scheme definitely narrows your options, a great benefit for someone like me:  a narrowed field of choices means fewer places to get lost, side-tracked.

As I was thinking about all this on the subway this morning (hungry),  I realized that the seeming complexity (but actual simplicity) of the villanelle is very much like Magnolia Bakery’s Banana Pudding.

Although the dessert, a layered concoction of creamy custard, banana slices, vanilla wafers, and whipped cream, seems very elaborate, it is in fact made with a relatively small number of ingredients, several of which are prepackaged (as in the vanilla wafers and the bananas).  What the recipe does require, however, is planning;  i.e. your pudding needs time to set, your bananas must be more or less uniformly sliced (and not too soon before assembly); your cream whipped, your wafers unboxed.  Without that planning, the whole concoction is flat, runny.

Which is amazingly like writing a villanelle.  Because you really do need to spend a bit of time getting your repeating lines right, and choosing flexible rhymes. Otherwise it will just collapse.

But once you have your base ingredients ready, the assembly is really quite fun.

Unfortunately, villanelles, like many poetic forms, seem to have fallen from fashion in modern poetry. (I’m guessing it’s the whole profundity thing.) Some critics might even say that villanelles, like Banana Pudding, are essentially a Trifle. (As in an English confection of sherry-soaked cake, fruit, custard, cream.)

All I can say is that Trifle, like Banana Pudding, is pretty terrific stuff.

*                   *                   *

Despite the similarities to Banana Pudding, most of my villanelles are not particularly light and fluffy. As a result, I am re-posting one that I posted several weeks ago simply because it is one of my more cheerful, and suits the end of summer. I’ll put some different ones up later in the week.

The two repeating lines are “our palms grew pale as paws in northern climes” and “in summers past, how brightly water shines.”  Rhymes are based on climes/shines and skin.


Swimming in Summer


Our palms grew pale as paws in northern climes
as water soaked right through our outer skin.
In summers past, how brightly water shines,

its surface sparked by countless solar mimes,
an aurora only fragmented by limb.
Our palms grew pale as paws in northern climes

as we played hide and seek with sunken dimes,
diving beneath the waves of echoed din;
in summers past, how brightly water shines.

My mother sat at poolside with the Times’
Sunday magazine; I swam by her shin,
my palms as pale as paws in northern climes,

sculpting her ivory leg, the only signs
of life the hair strands barely there, so prim
in summers past. How brightly water shines

in that lost pool; and all that filled our minds
frozen now, the glimmer petrified within
palms grown pale as paws in northern climes.
In summers past, how brightly water shines.

Copyright 2008, Karin Gustafson, All rights reserved.

If you like elephants swimming, please check out 1 Mississippi at the link above or on Amazon.

For more on Villanelles and how to write them, click here.

Explore posts in the same categories: poetry, Uncategorized, villanelle

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