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Villanelle Therapy

By Elizabeth Gracen:

I’ve written personal poetry off and on throughout my life, but it’s been a long time since I used to wake up and write poetry to start the day. Robert Bly’s practice was the inspiration, he himself imitating the poetry practice of his friend, poet William Stafford. The idea was to allow an image or memory to come to mind and simply follow it, write it down, holding on to the thread of thought, letting it take you to what William Blake called “heaven’s gate.” The belief is that the revelations found in the words can take you to another realm of thought where the mysteries of your life hide away.

No, none of that morning poetry of mine was really any good, but I didn’t care. The release it gave me was undeniable. Since I was the only one reading it, there was a freedom in the words, and I seldom second-guessed my first thought once I found the thread to write it down. I was always left calmer, more centered from when I began.

Studies about the therapeutic benefits of reading and writing poetry reveal that the medium provides relief from stress, depression, anger, and fear, gives the opportunity for self-reflection, and promotes emotional resilience and well-being. There is something quite magical about poetry's mix of meter and metaphor in combination with that golden thread of thought that unlocks our authentic selves while providing a way to express it. Now that I write this, I am more than tempted to begin the practice again; but for the moment, I’ve found another key to open the door to the heaven’s gate.

It’s called the "villanelle."

No, it's not the glorious Jodie Comer character I obsessed over in Killing Eve (who was named after the Comtesse du Barry by the author Luke Jennings and not the poetry form).

The villanelle I'm talking about is one of the oldest poetic forms on record, first written during the Renaissance by a Jean Passerat. However, the form did not gain wide popularity until the nineteenth century, evolving from pastoral themes into the contemplation of deeper themes of love and loss.

I first heard of the villanelle one afternoon while I was waiting in the parking lot of AAA, where my seventeen-year-old kid was about to take their first driving lesson. I pushed back my carseat and opened one of my new favorite books, The Making of a Poem, edited by Eavan Boland and Mark Strang. I turned the page to the first chapter: "The Villanelle."

Villanelle Form:

  1. It is a poem of nineteen lines.

  2. It has five stanzas, each of three lines, with a final one of four lines.

  3. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas.

  4. The third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas.

  5. These two refrain lines follow each other to become the second-to-last and the last lines of the poem.

  6. The rhyme scheme is aba. The rhymes are repeated according to the refrains.

Considered one of the more difficult forms of poetry to write, only a few villanelles have found fame. "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas may be the most famous villanelle.

And Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle, "One Art," is widely considered to be one of the best.

At first I thought the poetry form was too restrictive. The repetition. The circular pattern. The rhyme. Never escaping those two damned lines in the first stanza! How the hell did Mary Oliver break the code? The villanelle is strict and confining; it was nothing like the free form morning poetry of my past.

I read the chapter again. What the hell? Let’s give it a go.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Where is the thread? What is my heart trying to tell me? These words popped into my mind:

The fiery bird flew the nest . . .

And so it began. Thirty minutes later, I had written my first villanelle, and I was in tears.

Suddenly, my kid got back in the car and relayed the anxiety they’d felt during their first time behind the wheel. I listened and gave assurances that it would get better every time. It was going to be okay.

“Mom, have you been crying?”

“Uh, yeah. I wrote my first villanelle. It’s a poetry form. You wanna hear it? It’s not long.”

“Okay. I guess.”

I made it to the third stanza, and then my voice cracked.

“Are you going to cry again?”

“I’m trying not to. I’ll talk faster.”

I made it to the end and sniffed.

“Wow. You’re a mess.”

“Yeah, I guess I am. I love you, kid.”

“Love you too, mom. Pull yourself together.”

“I'm working on it.”

Since that day, I’ve written a couple villanelles a week, and each time, a secret is revealed. It’s always a pushed-down emotion, a shoved-in-the-corner line of thought that I have refused to address. It’s a brilliant release. A relief to get it out of me. I don’t rewrite them, but I could, and I might, but that's not the point.

I really don’t want to share such a raw poem with the public, but I think it’s the only way to end this piece.

You need to see the thread.

You need to find your own threads.

You need to write a villanelle.


Photo by Paul Hayes

Fiery Bird

The fiery bird flew the nest

Feathers scattered on the breeze

Off into the sunrise like all the rest.

Flecks of light upon its breast

Up ever higher with such ease

The fiery bird flew the nest.

Morning glow it loves the best

The dew tapped leaves if you please

Off into the sunrise like all the rest.

What holds the future like a test

And gathers the waters into the seas?

The fiery bird flew the nest.

Let it wend its way to your behest

Never to trick nor to tease

Off into the sunrise like all the rest.

Sweet bird of fire fly on and be blessed

All the days bright with morning bees

The fiery bird flew the nest

Off into the sunrise like all the rest.


Elizabeth Gracen is the owner of Flapper Press & Flapper Films.

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