I’ve had a number of questions from people looking for writing tips about poetry. So I called on the expertise of some of my very talented poetry writing colleagues, and they’ve generously agreed to share their knowledge here over the coming months in a POETRY WRITING TIPS blog post series.

My first guest poet is Sherryl Clark who writes amazing verse novels and poetry plus many other things.  Sherryl was also my teacher at the Victoria University Professional Writing & Editing Diploma course I completed, and I learned so much from her.

Sherryl  has a poetry website for children and teachers at www.poetry4kids.net Her latest novel is Dying to Tell Me (Australian edition) and her author website is at www.sherrylclark.com She also has a site that provides information and help for writers at www.ebooks4writers.com

And if you’re in Victoria, you’re invited to the launch of Sherryl’s latest book on 1st March,  but make sure you RSVP to the number shown below.

dying to tell me launch inviteLBR jpegVillanelles and Pantoums by Sherryl Clark

Poet Robert Frost reputedly said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” He’s implying that the only kind of poetry a “real” poet writes is that which rhymes or is in a form. While I don’t agree, I do think writing form poems is a great way to challenge yourself and learn more about writing poetry at the same time. It also tests your use of rhyme in a fun way. Instead of being tempted into doggerel (tedious rhythm and awful rhyme), form poems such as villanelles provide you with a structure. Think of it as poetry-by-numbers, if you like!

How to write a villanelle

Firstly, you should know that it has 19 lines and two repeating rhymes. The lines are in three-line stanzas (tercets) and one four-line stanza (quatrain). What helps your poem is that two of the “starting” lines repeat, which makes it easier when it comes to dealing with the rhymes.

Villanelles started out as dance songs, and have a certain rhythm – it might help you to think of them as musical. In order to get a grip on the rhyming and repetition scheme, it’s easier to look at an example: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

Sherryl Clark

Sherryl Clark

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

You will see that one rhyme is –ight (light, night, height, sight etc) and the other is –ay (day, they, gay, pray etc). The two repeating lines are Do not go gentle into that good night and Rage, rage against the dying of the light. This poem is so powerful because it’s an entreaty and the repetition serves it well.

I think the two keys to writing a villanelle are, a) to have two strong repeating lines – they should stand up to the repetition and enhance it, not pull it down. And, b) keep your rhyming words simple so that you have lots to choose from. There’s nothing worse than a forced rhyme where the word really doesn’t fit the poem or line but has been used because the poet ran out of options.

For more information, try http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5796

Unknown-2Another favourite form of mine is the pantoum. It originated in Malaysia in a much shorter version but now poets often write them with four or more stanzas. The key to a pantoum is that the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. Usually, the last line of a pantoum is the same as the first, bringing the poem back full circle.

Again, an example – go and look at September Elegies by Randall Mann.


Cyan Magenta Yellow BlackThe pleasure in a pantoum is the echoes you can create, but also the word play. If you look at lots of different examples, you’ll see that poets might change a word or two, or put a line in as dialogue – there are lots of ways to have fun.

Poets.org has descriptions of all the different forms, with examples. Strengthen your poetry writing muscles by trying a new one every week!

Thanks for sharing this great information, Sherryl

Stay tuned for more poetry writing tips from the experts. I’ll be posting them here at this blog over the coming months.  If you have any tips on writing villanelles and pantoums, or would like to comment on this post, we’d love to hear your thoughts.


4 thoughts on “POETRY WRITING TIPS – POST 1 – WITH SHERRYL CLARK – Villanelles and Pantoums

  1. Thanks for the post Dee and Sherryl. These are both challenging forms, but also fun and, as you say Sherryl, writing to a form is a wonderful writing exercise. I look forward to the rest of this series, Dee.

  2. Reblogged this on Radhika Meganathan and commented:
    I knew Sherryl as a fellow batchmate during the 2004 Annual Children’s Writers Conference at Chautauqua (upstate NY). She is a prolific Aussie children’s writer and here, she tells you how to write villanelles and pantoums (poetry styles) for kids and adults. To know more, please check out Sherryl’s poetry website for children and teachers at http://www.poetry4kids.net

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