Poetry Friday: A Brooding Bit of Dance

The Pleiades

The thing about this group of stars is that they are all relatively young and hot, though of varying sizes. Star people have placed them between 75 and 150 million years old, if you go in for that kind of ageism; really, though, I think seven sisters might just lie about their age pretty much any time you ask. Mythologically, the brightest of the seven are Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygete, Celaeno, and Alcyone; their parents are also in that cluster, a little ways off, watching them dance in their circle. And, if you drive a Subaru, the weird little symbol is supposed to represent these stars. They’re fiction and fact, they’re mentioned in the Bible as being bound and loosed only by God, and they’re routinely awesome.

This week, they’re our Poetry Seven symbol. Doesn’t it fit? Seven stars, varying ages and sizes, but all young and hot. Uncontrolled brilliance. Luminosity.

Oh, yes. That’ll do nicely.

Liz Garton Scanlon, fresh from the success of the splendorific All the World (* Kirkus Best Children’s Book, * New York Times Best Illustrated Books, * NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, WOOT!) threw down the gauntlet this time, establishing the rule of repeated words – thanksgiving, whether the proper noun or verb form, and friends. We scooped it up and looked at it, and said, “Oh, wait. Why’d we say we’d do this, again? This villanelle thing is harder than it looks.”

Can we just say MUCH harder?

It’s not the form: only nineteen lines, six stanzas, a rhyme scheme of aba until the final stanza, which goes abaa. It’s that the first and third line from the first stanza repeat throughout the entire poem, at varying times. Thus, those stanzas must be quite carefully crafted. They have to make sense throughout the entire work and retain their punch; there has to be justification for their repetition. That’s not easy.

A villanelle, before the mid 1500’s when Frenchman Jean Passerat (1534-1602) made it literary, was actually a folk song form with a dance that went along with it. Repeating lines makes sense in a song, as well as repeating steps in a dance. I imagine that it was, as are most folk dances, light and lively, moving mercurially between slow and quick passages. Just like poetry.

I truly believe that anyone can write poetry. Anyone can follow the rules, and rough out the villanelle form. But oh, the challenge in making the pedestrian lines actually dance, turn, take quick steps and slow, the way they are meant to do.

I am not entirely successful with this dance analogy — mental illness is more my thing. As one professor of poetry says:“…the villanelle is often used, and properly used, to deal with one or another degree of obsession… There is even the potential for the two repeating lines to form a paradigm for schizophrenia….The mind may not fully know itself or its subject, may not be in full control, and yet it still tries, still festers and broods in a closed room towards a resolution that is at least pretended by the final couplet linking of the refrain lines.” Modern Versions of the Villanelle,” by Philip K. Jason. College Literature, 1980.

Festers. Broods. Right. Here’s my broody dance.

Thanksgiving Away

It’s friends who keep the winter dark at bay;
Their distant points of luminescence sing,
And keep in tune the soul Thanksgiving day.

Expatriate and lost in “everyday” —
Late buses, rewrites, laundry, raincoats, bills —
It’s friends who keep the winter dark at bay.

Though Yuletide presses, urged by store display,
I turn my inward ear to harvest hymns,
And keep in tune the soul Thanksgiving day.

The Ties That Bind so “blessed” can sometimes fray.
Discordant stanzas skew and sour our tune —
It’s friends who keep the winter dark at bay.

And, never minding that our feet our clay
Friends hear, and share, and sing us into grace,
And keep in tune the soul Thanksgiving day.

“Old friends are gold,” is the oft-said cliché.
Gold bends. Instead, seek friendship’s carbon steel.
It’s friends who keep the winter dark at bay,
And keep in tune the soul Thanksgiving day.


The Seven Sisters are villanelle dancing today at:

Poetry Friday is hosted at graciously hosted at Wild Rose Reader.

20 Replies to “Poetry Friday: A Brooding Bit of Dance”

  1. Really lovely–I agree with what Adrienne said. And can I just say how much I love astronomical mythology?

    I'm thinking about doing a 30 Poems in 30 Days challenge with some local writers here…not sure if I'm up to it but we do get daily prompts so I might go for it. You've definitely inspired me.

  2. I'm just finally reading these today. I think you made some poetry in the paragraphs leading to your villanelle, and I love the villanelle itself, too. Friendship sustains me through so many things.

  3. Villanelles are so hard to write–this is lovely! I especially like "friendship's carbon steel." And I, too, was thinking of the Mary Poppins chapter about one of the Pleiades…

  4. Wow, Tanita. That's all I can say. Wow.

    (When all else fails, quote Kevin Henkes.)

    I may be wrong, but I believe Mary Poppins Comes Back features the Seven Sisters in a poignant chapter– one of Travers' best.

  5. The problem with being one of the last in for comments is that all there's left to say is, "Yeah. Ditto what they said."

    LOVE the seven sisters as the constellation. You seven guide our way with your poetry and light up our sky with your word dances. Thank you for turning our eyes to the sky and our hearts to Thanksgiving and Friends.

  6. A true tune for this season between the fall feast and yuletide time…and it DOES dance, and beauifully. After your intro with the stars I wasn't sure what to expect. A toast to friendships is delightful. Hope to see you if you are stateside in December!

  7. This is simply lovely, Tanita. It's beautiful.

    I love the repetition of "And keep in tune the soul Thanksgiving day." but my favorite line is, "I turn my inward ear to harvest hymns,"

  8. *on the floor*

    I'm swooning over this luminescence and hotness and beauty and gorgeous lyricism of your villanelle. Loved your starry intro and remarks about the form. Your "mental illness" remark cracked me up. You come from so many directions, and amaze me each time.

  9. "I am not entirely successful with this dance analogy — mental illness is more my thing" HA! And wit is your thing, honey. Indeed.

    My favorite, favorite bit of luminescene in your poem—and there are many— is "keep in tune the soul." That line is going to be my mantra this holiday season. I may get a tattoo.

  10. Tanita this is perfect! I LOVE your seven sisters connection. I hope I can keep up with the rest of you hot young luminoustresses.

    You did a wonderful job of explaining the form. I saw that bit from Jason about mental illness, and I was thinking about it when writing mine. It helped me a lot in feeling my way through the themes. I guess it let me throw caution to the winds and let the crazy out.

    Your poem is so evocative. It brings me back to the real joy of holidays when I do have so many loved ones around me, and I am home. I hope you are finding comfort and joy wherever you are too…

    My favorite lines:

    "And, never minding that our feet our clay
    Friends hear, and share, and sing us into grace,
    And keep in tune the soul Thanksgiving day."

    Yes Lord Amen!

  11. Ooh, I love being part of Casseopaeia–young and hot. Ha! Sounds good to me.

    And I think the mental illness analogies are apt, but we'll just ignore those for now.

    My favorite two stanzas are:

    Expatriate and lost in “everyday” —
    Late buses, rewrites, laundry, raincoats, bills —
    It’s friends who keep the winter dark at bay.

    Though Yuletide presses, urged by store display,
    I turn my inward ear to harvest hymns,
    And keep in tune the soul Thanksgiving day.

    I could SO relate to these, and yet they hummed with beauty that feels otherworldly, too. Wonderful!

    P.S. My name links to Andi's blog right now…my villanelle is at http://laurasalas.livejournal.com/187230.html.

  12. Luminous, indeed. That is beautiful. I love what Liz gave you all to work with, and I'm enjoying reading them all.

    It might have brought about a bit 'o' schitzophrenia, but it's an uplifting read for us.

  13. Whether dance analogy or mental illness, you've captured it all here. Thank you for allowing us to shine.

    I love this stanza:
    Though Yuletide presses, urged by store display,
    I turn my inward ear to harvest hymns,
    And keep in tune the soul Thanksgiving day.

    I'm going to ignore those store displays and turn inward to other hymns as well.

    Oh, this is beautiful. Safe home, my dear!

  14. I can honestly say I've never been called "young, hot and luminous". Once upon a time I was young, and occasionally some guy friend or my husband might use the word "hot", but luminous? I love being luminous.

    Your poem, so couched in your Scotland experience of living away from the US during Thanksgiving, is glorious all on its own, but this post – this post is swoon-worthy, with it's star image and intro and the way that star image is echoed in the start of your poem.

    Wishing you safe travels.

  15. Young, hot and luminous?
    Fiction and fact?
    Loosed by God?
    Bring it on, Tanita.

    (Ignoring the possibility of schizophrenia for now; sticking with star imagery…)

    Your poem DOES dance — I love it, and especially "It's friends who keep the winter dark at bay."

    Ain't that the truth.
    Thanks, Tanita. You're a wonder…

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