Culture Shock: Villanelle Contest. Hard.

Why Do Haiku? Villanelle Is Swell.

John Bear
3 min read
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Haiku is fun. The haiku contests at the Alibi are a big hit (look for the 2011 edition in September). It’s a chance to show off one’s 5-7-5 chops.

I recommend haiku while driving. HWD is a sort of low-tech text message to no one in particular, maybe the paramedics. A favorite topic of mine is always “To the jerk talking on the phone next to me in traffic.” Another is “Dear God, I’ll be there in a minute.”

After one is guilty of HWD, however, the thrill of composing short poems in the tradition of Japanese monks may wear thin. Even if you don’t generally drive while writing, you might find yourself wanting for a more challenging form.

villanelle is a poetry style that emerged during the 19 th century, in English. I just found out about it, and I’m intrigued. Therefore, it’s the first annual (and probably last) villanelle contest.

It’s kind of tricky. A villanelle is 19 lines long. It is comprised of five three-line stanzas followed by a final four-line stanza. The first and third lines of the first stanza must be repeated alternately as the third line of the remaining three-line stanzas and then put together as the last two lines of the poem.

I realized I was punching myself in the head while I wrote that. For clarity, here is a villanelle by
Sylvia Plath titled “Mad Girl’s Love Song.”

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,

And arbitrary blackness gallops in:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed

And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:

Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,

But I grow old and I forget your name.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;

At least when spring comes they roar back again.

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

So much for freedom of expression, huh? Oh yeah, the whole thing has to rhyme and you can only have two rhyming sounds. (Ms. Plath played a little fast and loose with the rhyming, but we still love her.) It goes aba / aba / aba / aba / aba / abaa. Don’t worry about meter.

There aren’t any categories and no prizes other than knowing—not thinking, but knowing—you are a gangster, at least among the poetry nerds. Send your villanelles to Entries must be received by March 15 at 5 p.m. Include your name and contact information. If you find the Internet repugnant, send entries to 413 Central NW, Albuquerque, N.M. 87102. The three best poems will be printed in the March 25 issue of the
Alibi .

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