Don't hate the villain, hate the villanelle
With these picky rules and odd jigsaw rhymes
Curses, these verses are my prison cell
They Might Be Giants,
“Hate the Villanelle,” Dial-A-Song (2015)
The next time you find yourself on YouTube, key this into the search window: “in a dark time roethke”. The first result will be a short from public.resource.org, where you can hear the poet himself recite “The Waking” (2:50-4:18), the poem that concluded and titled the work that won him the 1954 Pulitzer Prize. What is heard is, by turns, elegiac and celebratory, haunting and sonorous, miasmal and crystalline.
Sylvia Plath, Carolyn Kizer, and Jack Gilbert are among those who were deeply affected by “The Waking”. And, while the readership of Theodore Roethke /'rɛtki/ has precipitously fallen since being hailed by two former Poets Laureate of the United States—Stanley Kunitz and James Dickey, respectively—as “the poet of my generation who meant the most” and “the greatest poet this country has yet produced,” his star continues to burn bright among MFA students in creative writing workshops.
Perhaps one reason for this is that Roethke was, besides, himself a brilliant and generous teacher of poetry, as his posthumous essays in On the Poet and his Craft reveal. Born in 1908 of German parentage in Saginaw, Michigan, Theodore Roethke earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Michigan and briefly attended law school at Harvard, where he met Robert Hillyer, who encouraged his pursuit of poetry. He would go on to teach at Penn State, Bennington, and Lafayette. In 1940, while at Michigan State, he began to experience severe episodes of bipolar disorder—bifurcated states of extreme joy and abject depression whose metaphysics would come to exercise a lifelong and powerful influence upon his work.
The dueling rhymes (the back-to-near-back diphthong, /oʊ/ [and the occasional, close-backed vowel, /u/]; the rhoticity of the close-fronted vowel, /ɪr/ [and the occasional, the open-central vowel, /ɛr/]) heighten that previously-mentioned, twofold effect upon the listener of “The Waking”. Indeed, as a villanelle, the echoes in this poem are designedly redoubled: Since the publication of Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” in 1606, the form has been impressively fixed at two end rhymes that couch two refrains over the course of nineteen lines in six stanzas (of five tercets and a quatrain).
As Maxine Kumin explains in Finch and Varnes’ An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art: “The first refrain recurs as the final line in triplets 2 and 4; the second refrain performs the same function in triplets 3 and 5. In the concluding quatrain, the penultimate line consists of the first refrain and the final line, the second refrain. Although some metric regularity is common, there is no set line length. The rhyme scheme runs A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2. A1 and A2 stand for the two refrain lines.”
Though grounded in medieval Italian and founded in Renaissance French, most villanelles, curiously, are in English, which is comparatively rhyme-poor. In the nineteenth century, most examples of the form—such as Oscar Wilde’s “Theocritus” and E. A. Robinson’s “The House on the Hill”—were written in iambic tetrameter. More than one hundred years later—with the notable exception of the doggerel that James Joyce had Stephen Dedalus pen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—iambic pentameter, that irrepressible muscle of Shakespeare’s model line, continues to hold sway.
Consider Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” and W. H. Auden’s “If I Could Tell You”: Like Roethke’s “The Waking,” these twentieth-century villanelles sculpt a mirror of mad obsessiveness, where unbounded flights of ungrounded flitting are reined in by refrained reflection and, thereby, transmogrified into artfully wrought monologues worthy of Hamlet and married to the descendants of a ribald song.