elizabeth bishop and the art of the villanelle

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of Elizabeth Bishop’s birth. I remember first learning of Elizabeth Bishop in a creative writing class. We read “One Art” and then wrote our own villanelles. I was entranced by the particular poem–its depth under the casual tone and references–and by the form–the villanelle. I love formal poetry. I think the sonnet is probably the perfect form of writing, period. But I love the interconnecting repetition of the villanelle. It’s a six stanza form with two refrain lines. The first and last lines of the first stanza become the alternating refrains, so it looks like this: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2. (For a fuller description, here is the Wikipedia entry for villanelle.)

The villanelle I have most often taught and which is probably better known than Bishop’s “One Art” is a little thing by a Welshman named Dylan Thomas about not going gently into that good night: “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” Note how those refrain lines echo in our consciousness: “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Good stuff.

Now, imagine Bookgirl as a college sophomore reading too many fantasy novels (seriously–I have a sonnet written from F’nor to Brekke a la Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonquest from that period) and taking as many creative writing classes as the English major allowed. The two villanelles above are about loss and grief, and it works well for the villanelle, but in my own writing it tends to be a more lighthearted form. This is purely in fun and for fun and I can’t quite believe I’m actually posting it (and I have no illusion that it’s actually good), but blogs are nothing if not narcissistic, right? The date on this poem surprised me. It is dated 20 years ago tomorrow. I am sitting on my hands to keep from tinkering with and editing this for my 19-year-old self.

February 10, 1991


I wish the mythical beasts were true;
Making all things bold and brave and fun
In every shape, size, or hue.

One could become a Vampire anew;
The bite would be a phenomenon
If the mythical beasts were true.

A unicorn of course would have to do
Even if it’s the most overused one
In every shape, size, or hue.

Then there’s the Sphinx with her clue;
Her sage wisdom to be won
If the mythical beasts were true.

And of course a Dragon, too;
What’s fantasy without an awe-ful dragon
In any shape, size, or hue?

They’ll never be held within a zoo
Or feel a shot from a hunter’s gun
Even so, I wish mythical beasts were true
In any old shape, size, or hue.

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