Villanelle: A poem with a pulse

The word ‘villanelle’ sounds like it ought to be the name of a dance – and perhaps that’s not so far off from what it really is, as a poetic form.

The essence of a villanelle is its mix of repetition and variety: two lines weaving and interweaving through the poem, like figures in a square dance, hand clasped and loosed, switching from one line to another. Just as every dance has its own tempo, and is shaped by the music and the very selves of the dancers who move through it, the villanelle can take on many moods.

Image by Martyn Hearson via stock.xchng
Image by Martyn Hearson via stock.xchng

The repetition built into the poem means that whatever the mood may be, it builds as the poem goes on; it intensifies. It might be the poignancy of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” – with “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” building from lighthearted carelessness to heartbreak at the end. Or it could be the fiery intensity of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” It might be Theodore Roethke’s eerie “The Waking,” whose “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow” becomes, if anything, more mysterious by the end of the poem. Or it might be a quiet mood, growing more reflective as the poem moves through its steps, like Dan Lechay’s “Ghost Villanelle” or my friend Malcolm Guite’s “Salvage.” (It’s here, but also in his new collection The Singing Bowl.)

Perhaps what I like best about the villanelle is the way that its conclusion can provide a surprise or a new insight, even though it comes from the same lines that have been weaving in and out of the poem all along. Or perhaps that’s the reason it works: the villanelle works like the human mind works. When I’m thinking something over, I don’t progress from point A to point B to point C like a machine or a logic problem; rather, I mull things over, turning ideas, facts, remembrances over in my thoughts to see what I can make of them. Insight, at least for me, usually comes as a sense of fittingness: the realization that I’ve glimpsed the pattern, seen the way things make sense, or how they could make sense if I go forward in a certain way.

The villanelle, like the process of my thoughts, is more than the sum of its parts; it is a kind of poem that has a human pulse.


Holly is a poet, teacher, and apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway’s reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at


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