Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “The Dress Code” and “Wish,” by Caitlin Doyle

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Both poems this week are in form, and together they help make a point I’ve been pushing for some time in these columns: form can set you free in your writing and reading of poetry. “The Dress Code” is a villanelle, a “repeating” form, meaning that elements of it are repeated, and also a “received” or “fixed” form, meaning that rules have evolved for how and when those repetitions occur. A villanelle traditionally consists of nineteen lines organized into five three-line stanzas (tercets) followed by one four-line stanza (quatrain). There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first stanza alternating as the last line in succeeding stanzas until the last stanza concludes with both repeated lines. Stated another way, the first line of the first stanza comes back as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line of the first stanza comes back as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas, and then both lines return to close out the poem. The repeating lines work the way refrains do in music and are called “repetends.” Typically, the repetends rhyme with each other and also rhyme with the first lines of succeeding stanzas. In contrast, the second lines of stanzas all end on a second, different rhyme. Famous examples of the villanelle include Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,”  Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gently into that Good Night,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” which you can read here, here,  and here. For a deeper discussion of the villanelle, see Julie Kane’s  introduction to the anthology Villanelles (Everyman’s Library, Pocket Poets Series 2014), Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms (University Press of New England 2000) or Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms, Miller Williams (LSU Press 1986).

Using A and B for the refrains and lowercase letters a and b for the rhymes, the form can be diagrammed as follows:

 

Stanza 1   

A1
b
A2

 

Stanza 2

a
b
A1

 

Stanza 3

a
b
A2

 

Stanza 4

a
b
A1

 

Stanza 5

a
b
A2

 

Stanza 6   

a
b
A1
A2

 

[Source: www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/villanelle]

As this diagram shows, the villanelle has just two repeated rhyming sounds, one that concludes the repetends, and another that concludes the second lines in each stanza. In “The Dress Code,” lines 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 15, 18, and 19 all rhyme or slant-rhyme with “young,” and lines 2, 5, 8, 11, 14, and 17 all rhyme or slant-rhyme with “there.” A repeating pattern is present, too, in the meter which, like many villanelles, follows regular iambic pentameter, with five beats per line in a rising pattern of unstressed followed by stressed syllables ( ~ /). These repetitions build an echo chamber resulting in sonic saturation that creates anxiety and urgency that keep tension taut in the poem.

Repetition is a powerful force in the written and spoken word. One of my classmates in grad school, the wonderful poet Jamaal May, wrote his thesis on how it conveys what he called “sonic authority,” whether in writing or in words spoken from a podium, soapbox, or pulpit, and I wrote my own thesis on the use of repetition in “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, “Psalm and Lament” by Donald Justice, and “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost. If the origin of poetry is in song, then the origin of both poetry and song is in repetition. “We are pattern-discerning animals,” Robert Hass says, and the urge to make patterns and forms is as ancient and primal as heartbeat and breath [Hass, Robert. “Listening and Making.” Twentieth Century Pleasures (Ecco Press 1984), p. 112.] Fundamental to all language, repetition figures in every kind of human expression, from the sequence of steps in a grand ballet to the notes in a musical composition and even the alternation of texture and color in an Oriental rug. In writing, it has enormous potential both as a constant against which to unspool the vagaries of human expression and also as a fruitful source of expansion and deepening of that expression. All writing relies upon repetition to organize and complicate the articulation of meaning. In prose, repetition tends to be conceptual as a theme, event, image, or symbol recurs from section to section or scene to scene. Poetry, maybe more than fiction, uses language to trigger the senses. In some poems repetition works exclusively at the sensory level, for example, foreign-language verse that seduces the ear without being understood or a shaped poem that forms a visual image on the page.

The sense stimulated most often used in poetic repetition, though, is sound, not just as perceived by the ear (in rhyme, for example) but also as felt by the body in the patterns of stress and unstress that we call meter. Phonemic repetitions, including alliteration and rhyme, are at the most basic level of sonic repetition that can add musicality and atmosphere to a poem, for example, in “The Bells” by Edgar Allen Poe. As the repeated bits rise to the level of discernible words with meaning, however, the mind becomes increasingly engaged; for example, a baby’s repetition of “m-m-m” transforms into something miraculous when we hear “ma-ma,” and Poe’s nonsense syllables in “Jabberwocky” likewise acquire meaning over the course of the poem. Meaning also makes pattern easier to remember. Any repeated unit of sound can, like a meditative “om,” have an incantatory effect, but lexical repetitions involving words, phrases, and sentences have a peculiar power, fusing sense with sensibility and thereby ensnaring the mind and the heart.

Today’s villanelle follows the form diagrammed above, with variations. In “The Dress Code,” the first line is modulated twice, in the second and fourth stanzas, before coming back verbatim in the poem’s concluding couplet. In the first variation, the line “I should have acted up when I was young” transforms to “if I go goth or grunge? I’ve read my Jung,” with the punning “Jung” substituted for “young.” The notion of Jung is not just a throwaway; it too repeats, with references to “Freud” in line 10 (Jung was Freud’s most famous disciple), a direct quote from Freud’s case histories in lines 12-13 (“The patient’s young”), and another mention of Freud in line 16. The second repetend, “if I shave off my hair or pierce my tongue,” also goes through interesting changes, revising to “and everyone’s gone home. What good’s a tongue?” in line 9 and “(Freud knew I’d see it all but hold my tongue)” in line 15 before returning verbatim in the last stanza.

Note that the variations are not just in words and meaning but happen also in punctuation; successful practitioners of the villanelle routinely break their repetends into any number of syntactical subunits. The modulations keep the form from sounding wooden, and are, some say, the secret to its success. Variation can be subtle, as in Roethke’s “The Waking,” or more overt, as in Bishop’s “One Art,” famous for its virtual deconstruction of the form in mimicry of the effects of the whirlwind of loss that is the poem’s subject. Sometimes the repetends do not change at all, as in “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” where the poem’s emotional progression is accomplished by other means. What is important—as with most poems—is that there is some change and not merely a circular, static restatement of the same idea. As I am writing this, though, it occurs to me that even a thoroughly circular, static villanelle might work if that circularity is in service to its subject, say in a poem about the mind-numbing effects of reality TV.

Try reading “The Dress Code” without changing its repetends and see if you don’t agree that it is stronger with the variations. Besides keeping things interesting by being different, they bring in Freud to remind us that the childhood trauma suffered by the speaker had a lasting and profound psychological impact. The repetends in “The Dress Code” are an important source of progression and deepening of the poem’s emotional content, as childish rebellion (shaving your head, piercing your tongue) becomes a more frankly sad and adult expression of loneliness and despair in “everyone’s gone home. What good’s a tongue.” Other sources of emotional progression and depth occur in the second lines of each stanza, as well as in Doyle’s calculated use of parenthetical phrases in most of those lines locating the source of the speaker’s trauma in domestic abuse she witnessed as a child. In a nod to “One Art,” the most painful, hard-to-look-at material occurs within parentheses, as if the author could not bear to express them without some privacy or extra layer of protection.

In the same way that a great jazz musician improvises on a theme, the villanelle’s form begins with a pattern, but allows room for significant and imaginative variation. It can be difficult to find repetends that work both on their own and also together when finally linked in the last couplet, and it’s a challenging form to do well. The good news that once you’ve come up with two really strong repeating lines, your villanelle is nearly half finished. If you are a writer who fears the blank page or who likes writing towards a destination, this could be a fruitful form for you.

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  • Jessica McGowen March 26, 2018 at 8:04 am

    Love

    Reply