Josh Luckenbach reflects on the way that form influences content in his musings on the villanelle and its spell-like qualities. His poem, “The Worst of It,” appears in Issue 72.1.
My poem, “The Worst of It,” came out of a villanelle phase that I went through starting maybe two and half years ago, around the time I first read Kiki Petrosino’s Witch Wife. Nearly half the poems in that book are villanelles, and there are a handful of other poems written in refrain forms too.
Her book reminded me of something my former teacher, Gregory Orr, says about poetry. He says not to think in terms of repetition because repetition sounds boring, but rather to think in terms of incantation. I remember hearing him discuss Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” in that way—how both the heartbreak and celebration in Hayden’s poem culminate in that incantory ending: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Greg’s point was that even just repeating the same phrase does something to it—it changes it somehow because it’s nearly impossible to repeat the same words without at least subtly adjusting the emphasis. For me then, incantation is a way of moving beyond language, beyond the sayable, perhaps even beyond more concrete modes of meaning. If the words said one thing and only meant what it said, there’d be no reason to repeat it. Petrosino’s Witch Wife leans into incantation so much that the poems feel like spells.
Of course, in a good villanelle, there should be a reason why it’s important throughout to weave in those lines—those two threads that do their best to avoid each other until the poem’s end. For me, that often means that refrain forms seem especially suited to writing about obsession, to exploring avenues of thinking that call for frequent turning back (memory, trauma, etc.) or frequent reexamining (inheritance, cultural values, etc.). The obsessions of the poems in Witch Wife are many—sometimes examining history, other times questioning the pressures put on women and their bodies by society—but the villanelle’s turns of phrase become a central way of scrutinizing obsession. Refrain forms seem ripe for such scrutiny, for reevaluating what things matter, reevaluating the past and/or the lines we continue to utter—because nothing is unchangeable, because everything happens according to decisions.
One of the many poems in Witch Wife that I fell in love with is “Sermon” which is equal parts blues and villanelle—two forms that rely on small turns of phrase, partially to prod obsession but also partially to incant a spell that moves beyond language. Beyond language—that’s the reason the blues is something we feel.
In my poem, “The Worst of It,” I’m playing with these two lines in a way that begins to question what they say so that, by the end of the poem, when the lines come together, they turn in a way that sort of resists or moves beyond one mode of meaning—at least, that’s my hope. Ultimately, my villanelle phase yielded to an infatuation with refrain forms more broadly—with turning and twisting a phrase to get as much as possible out of it.
As I write this, I’m also thinking of the ways in which reading is inseparable from the writing process. The poems that came out of my villanelle phase did not resemble Petrosino’s except in certain formal aspects, but I think of Witch Wife as book that ultimately inspired a lot of my writing for a period of time. I think it’s crucial to find those poets that help you write poetry and to keep their books handy.