Every year I make my students attempt a villanelle.
They complain, whine, contemplate spontaneous combustion.
An aspiring Dante consigns me to my own private ring in Hell.
They tell each other the guidelines are impossible,
swear to me the assignment requires unattainable perfection.
I urge them not to think of the villanelle’s
form as a constraint, but as a container—a vase, a well—
into which words are poured. They laugh sourly at my suggestion,
convinced of conspiracy: one more teacher’s maliciously-designed Hell.
I demur, though not demurely, tell them filling the form well
is one art, playing with it an equally valid option.
As evidence I offer Carruth’s extended villanelle
and Klappert’s “Ellie Mae.” For a few the stanzas start to gel.
To their surprise they find a friend in repetition.
The assignment becomes a puzzle rather than a sentence in Hell.
One student wakes more slowly to the task, Monday’s 8:30 bell
ringing as he prints out his formal explosion,
cursing not the darkness but his father in his villanelle—
a curse disguised as a blessing for his adolescent Hell.
"Teaching the Villanelle" originally appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Minnesota English Journal.