Having recently read the American poet Elizabeth Bishop’s moving villanelle, One Art, written in 1976 after the ending of her relationship with Alice Methfessel, I’ve needed to study the form again in order to respond to the homework challenge, which is to write a villanelle. Bishop re worked hers several times. It’s a very moving, personal piece of writing. Can I write a villanelle? Daunting!

So what is a villanelle? Six stanzas seem to be the norm, of three lines each. Except the sixth, which has four lines. With me so far? The first and third lines of each stanza rhyme, and all the second lines rhyme, so the pattern is:
Stanza One A, B, A,
Two A, B, A,
Three A , B, A,
Four A, B, A
Five A, B, A
and Six – wait for it – A, B, A (a repeat of the first line) B.

That’s 12 different rhymes for A, 6 for B. Quite a tall order.

Hmmm… The first thing to do, I thought, is to create a store of good rhymes, so I got the rhyming dictionary out just in case and set to work:

Understood/could/should/likelihood/food/ crude/reviewed/misunderstood/rude and with a bit of poetic licence, confused/mood. A first line was starting to take shape:

‘The kindness of strangers isn’t understood’

Yes, I quite liked that. We live in a suspicious age and it’s not hard to see why. I have to remind myself of the many times when people I never met before were good to me, for no good reason, except that that’s the kind of people they were. Not millionaires or do-gooders, just nice ordinary people.

On to the second line rhymes: know/show/bestow/below/so/no

‘It’s hard to trust the people that you know’ This had to flow on to another line ending with an A rhyme:

‘Without suspicions making you seem rude’. I didn’t like the ‘you’, altered it to ‘me’ but didn’t like that either.

I completed six stanzas keeping to the rules and finally this emerged:

The kindness of strangers isn’t understood.
It’s hard to trust the people that we know
without suspicion making us seem rude.

Strangers offering accommodation, food,
we fear may in the end just show
us up to be rejecting, or ungrateful, crude

in our distrust of others. The likelihood
of having to give something back, bestow
some gift or other, which we’ve misunderstood;

this fear prevents us from engaging as we should,
ignoring gifts of kindness, thoughtfulness, and so
we blunder on, we’re never in the mood,

and block out these attempts at discourse, unreviewed.
‘No thank you,’ ‘I don’t need that. No.’
Strangers stay strangers then; that’s understood.

People play tricks. We’re easily confused
by promises of things; the lure of what’s on show.
The kindness of strangers isn’t understood
Testing it out’s the only way to know.

Well, it’s a first draft, and I have written a villanelle. I shall go and make a cup of tea now.

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