Writing in Form: The Villanelle

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Publication News, Writing

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

Photo by Christine Matthews

In Spring 2012, my poem, “A Villanelle While We Wait for a Future When the Other Cheek Is Never Turned,” was published in the Traditional Forms issue of Blast Furnace, Volume 2, No. 2. It also appears in my poetry collection, Every Door Recklessly Ajar published by Cayuga Lake Books in 2015.

What is a villanelle? At the Poetry Foundation’s website, we learn that a villanelle is a “French verse form consisting of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. These two refrain lines form the final couplet in the quatrain.” Two famous examples are “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,”.

What is a villanelle? At the Poetry Here’s what The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition has to say about it:




  1. A 19-line poem of fixed form consisting of five tercets and a final quatrain on two rhymes, with the first and third lines of the first tercet repeated alternately as a refrain closing the succeeding stanzas and joined as the final couplet of the quatrain.
  2. A poem in a fixed form borrowed from the French and allied to the virelay.
  3. A poem written in tercets with but two rhymes, the first and third verse of the first stanza alternating as the third verse in each successive stanza and forming a couplet at the close.

As you can see, I played around with the “rules” of the form a wee bit in my poem.


An iron staircase winding down or up
through shrapnel penetrations that leave brick
and opened doors inviting some to leap.

To what beyond? A pine branch glossed with sap
while crooked crosses, bullet-stricken, list?
That iron staircase, winding down or up

toward skies where emigration is a stop,
and guides the disregarded, safely, quick
past opened doors inviting some to leap.

As if there can be answers beyond pap
when human lives are flung and pyres lick
an iron staircase, winding down or up.

Perhaps it’s only questions we should ask.
The why and why and why — eternal trick,
those opened doors inciting all to leap.

And so, we’re kismet-bound, straight for the trap
where hatred casts us infidels, swift kick —
that iron staircase winding down or up.
Those opening doors inviting us: Do leap.

Nancy Flynn
Follow me
Latest posts by Nancy Flynn (see all)