So you want me to write a Villanelle: Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” and other obsessive verses

Looking through the feedback I received in my last workshop, no less than three people made note that they’d be interested to see me write a villanelle. I will be honest, before being reminded of the form when we talked about Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” in class, I wouldn’t have been able to think of what it was off the top of my head: a poem of 19 lines, five tercets and and one quatrain, often in iambic pentameter, often with an ABA rhymeand utterly dependent on two refrain lines, so you’d better get them right. It’s not a form than I ever felt overwhelmingly drawn towards, but I’m guilty of thinking that way about anything that isn’t “whatever-feels-right” free verse. In any case, as far as I’m concerned one is a suggestion and two is a request, but three is a challenge.

I’ve read a few villanelles while thinking about writing one, and although many poems classified as villanelles on the Poetry Foundation website don’t quite conform to the textbook definition, I’m focusing on what a villanelle needs, as far as I can tell, in the strictest sense. Let me tell you, this form is all my fears about rhyme personified. Villanelles, like a lot of rhyming poetic forms, evolved from the patterns found in folk songs. I have no sense of music and I’m starting to wonder if one can have two left feet, but in a literary sense.

A more critically thinking part of my brain that isn’t busy complaining about how poetry is hard is wondering if idyllic pastoralism just isn’t suited to the cynicism of today. The villanelles I’ve seen  that lean in to pastoral themes do so cheekily, and most of them – like Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “House on the Hill” trend towards the disquieting with themes like mortality, decay, etc. Robinson’s poem was published in 1894, however, so this trend is hardly new. Most poets seem to be aware that a poem which such a rigid structure can easily sound hackneyed or hokey. There’s a reason Plath didn’t write a standard ‘love song’ with it (well, besides the fact that she’s Sylvia Plath.) The sentimental quickly becomes saccharine in this format.

I will gladly admit that “Mad Girl’s Love Song” is what has really stirred my interest in the villanelle. Few of them do as much for me as this one does, and I have a feeling that its success is a case of the form being “an extension of content,” as we are so fond of quoting. “Mad Girl’s Love Song” works as a villanelle—one could argue, must be a villanelle because the love it describes is an obsessive, compulsive, manic, rapturous, dangerous-sounding love. The fact that it is called a ‘love song’ is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the villanelles origins, and serves to further highlight how Plath is twisting it. It never feels like she’s tried to cram in anything that doesn’t belong there into this neurotic, repetitive verse.

I still have some reservations about approaching a poem like this. When it comes down to it, you have eleven lines to tell your story—excluding the first and last lines of the first stanza that will become the reprise. I’ve written plenty of poems shorter than that, but the thought that a good 70% of the poem becomes devoted to two lines is daunting. Perhaps it’s a mistake to think of them as taking up space like that, because as the poem progresses their meaning changes and the mounting tension they bring is kind of the whole appeal of the villanelle as a vehicle for the obsessive.Before that, of course, I’ll have to tackle the issue of the subject matter. Plath’s angle is appealing to me, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t lean into it. To find my villanelle, I need to find a fixation—something to warrant it.

Clearly I’m still in a very abstract, contemplation-heavy stage of ‘writing’ this thing (read: no pens have touched paper so far), so if anyone has thoughts about or has written a villanelle, let me know. 

One Reply to “So you want me to write a Villanelle: Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” and other obsessive verses”

  1. Olivia,
    I enjoy the way you eloquently flirt with the villanelle in this post. Three mentions of the form certainly is a challenge, and I look forward to seeing you take the challenge. (This is a fourth encouragement to give it a try!). Although I have never written a villanelle myself, this post inspires me to try it also. Your statement observing that the repeated lines gain new meaning throughout the course of the poem is accurate (especially in “Mad Girl’s Love Song” and “The House on the Hill”) and has sold me: Maybe this is the point of the villanelle, to twist things and tame them until the reader is uncertain where they started or where they are being taken.

    Villanelles, if they avoid being hokey, as you say, can be kind of creepy. Disquieting. Ominous. These are all feelings that a good reader will appreciate a poem doing to them.

    I again encourage you to give it a try. Let me know if you do!

    Abby Barrett

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