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The Best Villanelles by Michael R. Burch

These are the best villanelles by Michael R. Burch, whether original poems or translations. Also included are similar poems with refrains, such as rondels.

Villanelle: The Divide
by Michael R. Burch

The sea was not salt the first tide ...
was man born to sorrow that first day,
with the moon—a pale beacon across the Divide,
the brighter for longing, an object denied—
the tug at his heart's pink, bourgeoning clay?

The sea was not salt the first tide ...
but grew bitter, bitter—man's torrents supplied.
The bride of their longing—forever astray,
her shield a cold beacon across the Divide,
flashing pale signals: Decide. Decide.
Choose me, or His Brightness, I will not stay.

The sea was not salt the first tide ...
imploring her, ebbing: Abide, abide.

The silver fish flash there, the manatees gray.

The moon, a pale beacon across the Divide,
has taught us to seek Love's concealed side:
the dark face of longing, the poets say.

The sea was not salt the first tide ...
the moon a pale beacon across the Divide.

"The Divide" is essentially a formal villanelle despite the non-formal line breaks.

Villanelle: Ordinary Love
by Michael R. Burch

Indescribable—our love—and still we say
with eyes averted, turning out the light,
"I love you," in the ordinary way

and tug the coverlet where once we lay,
all suntanned limbs entangled
, shivering, white ...
indescribably in love. Or so we say.

Your hair's blonde thicket now is tangle-gray;
you turn your back; you murmur to the night,
"I love you," in the ordinary way.

Beneath the sheets our hands and feet would stray
to warm ourselves.
 We do not touch despite
a love so indescribable. We say

we're older now, that "love" has had its day.
But that which Love once countenanced, delight,
still makes you indescribable. I say,
"I love you," in the ordinary way.

"Ordinary Love" was the winner of the 2001 Algernon Charles Swinburne poetry contest. It was originally published by Romantics Quarterly and nominated by the journal for the Pushcart Prize. It is missing a tercet but seemed complete enough without it.—MRB

Villanelle: Because Her Heart Is Tender
by Michael R. Burch

for Beth


She scrawled soft words in soap: "Never Forget,"
Dove-white on her car's window, and the wren,
because her heart is tender, might regret
it called the sun to wake her. As I slept,
she heard lost names recounted, one by one.

She wrote in sidewalk chalk: "Never Forget,"
and kept her heart's own counsel. No rain swept
away those words, no tear leaves them undone.

Because her heart is tender with regret,
bruised by razed towers' glass and steel and stone
that shatter on and on and on and on,
she stitches in wet linen: "NEVER FORGET,"
and listens to her heart's emphatic song.

The wren might tilt its head and sing along
because its heart once understood regret
when fledglings fell beyond, beyond, beyond ...
its reach, and still the boot-heeled world strode on.

She writes in adamant: "NEVER FORGET"
because her heart is tender with regret.

Rondel: Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty")
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Unless your words heal me hastily,
my heart's wound will remain green;
for your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain.

By all truth, I tell you faithfully
that you are of life and death my queen;
for at my death this truth shall be seen:
your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Rondel: Your Smiling Mouth
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains,
Your hands so smooth, each finger straight and plain,
Your little feet—please, what more can I say?

It is my fetish when you’re far away
To muse on these and thus to soothe my pain—
Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains.

So would I beg you, if I only may,
To see such sights as I before have seen,
Because my fetish pleases me. Obscene?
I’ll be obsessed until my dying day
By your sweet smiling mouth and eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains!

Oft in My Thought
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

So often in my busy mind I sought,
    Around the advent of the fledgling year,
For something pretty that I really ought
    To give my lady dear;
    But that sweet thought's been wrested from me, clear,
        Since death, alas, has sealed her under clay
    And robbed the world of all that's precious here―
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

For me to keep my manner and my thought
    Acceptable, as suits my age's hour?
While proving that I never once forgot
    Her worth? It tests my power!
    I serve her now with masses and with prayer;
        For it would be a shame for me to stray
    Far from my faith, when my time's drawing near—
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Now earthly profits fail, since all is lost
    And the cost of everything became so dear;
Therefore, O Lord, who rules the higher host,
    Take my good deeds, as many as there are,
    And crown her, Lord, above in your bright sphere,
        As heaven's truest maid! And may I say:
    Most good, most fair, most likely to bring cheer—
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

When I praise her, or hear her praises raised,
I recall how recently she brought me pleasure;
    Then my heart floods like an overflowing bay
And makes me wish to dress for my own bier—
    God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Rondel: Rejection
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain;
For Pride now holds your mercy by a chain.

I'm guiltless, yet my sentence has been cast.
I tell you truly, needless now to feign,—
Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain.

Alas, that Nature in your face compassed
Such beauty, that no man may hope attain
To mercy, though he perish from the pain;
Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain;
For Pride now holds your mercy by a chain.

Rondel: Escape
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean;
Since I am free, I count it not a bean.

He may question me and counter this and that;
I care not: I will answer just as I mean.
Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean.

Love strikes me from his roster, short and flat,
And he is struck from my books, just as clean,
Forevermore; there is no other mean.
Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean;
Since I am free, I count it not a bean.

Villanelle: Hangovers
by Michael R. Burch

We forget that, before we were born,
our parents had “lives” of their own,
ran drunk in the streets, or half-stoned.

Yes, our parents had lives of their own
until we were born; then, undone,
they were buying their parents gravestones

and finding gray hairs of their own
(because we were born lacking some
of their curious habits, but soon

would certainly get them). Half-stoned,
we watched them dig graves of their own.
Their lives would be over too soon

for their curious habits to bloom
in us (though our children were born
nine months from that night on the town

when, punch-drunk in the streets or half-stoned,
we first proved we had lives of our own).

Clandestine But Gentle
by Michael R. Burch

Variations on the villanelle. A play in four acts. The heroine wears a trench coat and her every action drips nonchalance. The “hero” is pallid, nerdish and nervous. But more than anything, he is palpably desperate with longing. Props are optional, but a streetlamp, a glowing cigarette and lots of eerie shadows should suffice.

I.

Clandestine but gentle, wrapped in night,
she eavesdropped on morose codes of my heart.
She was the secret agent of delight.

The blue spurt of her match, our signal light,
announced her presence in the shadowed court:
clandestine but gentle, cloaked in night.

Her cigarette was waved, a casual sleight,
to bid me “Come!” or tell me to depart.
She was the secret agent of delight,

like Ingrid Bergman in a trench coat, white
as death, and yet more fair and pale (but short
with me, whenever I grew wan with fright!).

II.

Clandestine but gentle, veiled in night,
she was the secret agent of delight;
she coaxed the tumblers in some cryptic rite
to make me spill my spirit.
Lovely tart!
Clandestine but gentle, veiled in night
—she waited till my tongue, untied, sang bright
but damning strange confessions in the dark . . .

III.

She was the secret agent of delight;
so I became her paramour. Tonight
I await her in my exile, worlds apart . . .

IV.

For clandestine but gentle, wrapped in night,
she is the secret agent of delight.

Hang Together, or Separately
by Michael R. Burch

“The first shall be last, and the last first.”

Be careful whom you don’t befriend
When hyenas mark their prey:
The odds will get even in the end.

Some “deplorables” may yet ascend
And since all dogs must have their day,
Be careful whom you don’t befriend.

When pallid elitists condescend
What does the Good Book say?
The odds will get even in the end.

Since the LORD advised us to attend
To each other along the way,
Be careful whom you don’t befriend.

But He was deserted. Friends, comprehend!
Though revilers mock and flay,
The odds will get even in the end.

Now infidels have loot to spend:
As bloody as Judas’s that day.
Be careful whom you don’t befriend:
The odds will get even in the end.

NOTE: This poem portrays a certain worldview. The poet does not share it and suspects from reading the gospels that the “real” Jesus would have sided with the infidel refugees, not Trump and his ilk.

The Sad Refrain
by Michael R. Burch

O, let us not repeat the sad refrain
that Christ is cruel because some innocent dies.
No, pain is good, for character comes from pain!

There’d be no growth without the hammering rain
that tests each petal’s worth. Omnipotent skies
peal, “Let us not repeat the sad refrain,

but separate burnt chaff from bountiful grain.
According to God’s plan, the weakling dies
and pain is good, for character comes from pain!

A God who’s perfect cannot bear the blame
of flawed creations, just because one dies!
So let us not repeat the sad refrain

or think to shame or stain His awesome name!
Let lightning strike the devious source of lies
that pain is bad, for character comes from pain!
Oh, let us not repeat the sad refrain!

NOTE: An eternal hell cannot be justified. Nothing can be learned from eternal suffering except that the creation of life was the ultimate act of evil. The creator of an eternal hell would be infinitely cruel and should never have created any creature that might possibly end up there. That so many Christians do not understand this suggests they lack the knowledge of good and evil and were rooked by their "god" in the Garden of Eden or have been bamboozled by heartless and mindless theologians.

A Brief Timeline of the Villanelle and Poems, Songs and Speeches with Refrains

All dates are AD; some are educated guesses.—MRB

  658 — Caedmon's Hymn, the oldest dateable English poem, marks the beginning of what came to be known as English poetry (although it was Anglo-Saxon and thus heavily Germanic)
  990 — Wulf and Eadwacer may be the first English poem with a refrain; it may have been written by a female Anglo-Saxon scop, circa 960-990
1260 — Sumer is icumen in is an early rhyming poem with a refrain, circa 1260; it may be the oldest extant English song as well, with a musical score in Latin!
1380 — Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty") is an early poem with a double refrain, a rondel by the first major English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, circa 1380
1394 — The birth of Charles D'Orleans, a master of the ballade, chanson, rondeau and rondel; he would write poetry in both French and English
1430 — I Have a Yong Suster is an anonymous Medieval English riddle-poem with repeating lines that has also been described as a popular song and a folk song
1503 — The birth of Thomas Wyatt; he and Henry Howard introduce the sonnet, iambic pentameter and blank verse to England, beginning the English Renaissance
1504 — Corpus Christi Carol has a haunting double refrain: "Lully, lullay, lully, lullay! The falcon has borne my mak [mate] away."
1532 — The birth of Edmund Spenser, a major English poet who employed refrains in some of his best-known poems
1534 — The birth of Jean Passerat, who would write the first fixed-form villanelle (see the entry for 1574)
1564 — The birth of William Shakespeare, who would employ villanelle-like double refrains in songs like "When that I was and a little tiny boy" from Twelfth Night
1574 — The fixed-form villanelle, with nineteen lines and a dual refrain, derives from Jean Passerat's poem "Villanelle (J'ay perdu ma Tourterelle)" [*]
1844 — Wilhelm Ténint "mistakenly claimed that the unique, nonce structure of Jean Passerat's 1574 "Villanelle" was an old French form akin to terza rima" [**]
1845 — Théodore de Banville, an associate of Ténint, with his "Villanelle de Buloz" began resurrecting the villanelle from the single poem by Passerat, 270 years later!
1846 — Théodore de Banville's "Villanelle à Mademoiselle"
1851 — Sojourner Truth, the famous abolitionist and women's rights advocate, employs a refrain in her famous speech "Ain't I a Woman?"
1858 — Théodore de Banville's "Villanelle des pauvres housseurs"
1867 — Philoxène Boyer's "La Marquise Aurore."
1872 — Théodore de Banville praises the villanelle to the skies in his Petit Traité de la Poésie Française [***]
1874 — Edmund Gosse and Austin Dobson begin their long friendship with a mutual enthusiasm for de Banville's Petit Traité de la Poésie Française
1877 — Edmund Gosse, under the influence of de Banville, praises the villanelle and seeks to bring it into fashion in his essay "A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse"
1878 — Austin Dobson's essay "A Note on Some Foreign Forms of Verse"
1887 — Gleeson White's Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c. Selected has 32 English villanelles composed by 19 poets
1894 — Edwin Arlington Robinson's villanelle "The House on the Hill" is published by The Globe; Ernest Dowson writes the first iambic pentameter villanelle
1913 — The poem "September 1913" by William Butler Yeats has a refrain; Ezra Pound writes "Villanelle: The Psychological Hour" around this time
1914 — James Joyce has his alter-ego Stephen Dedalus write a villanelle in his 1914 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
1915 — Ezra Pound mentions the villanelles of Ernest Dowson in a preface to the work of Lionel Johnson
1922 — Oscar Wilde's "Pan–A Villanelle"
1928 — William Empson publishes his first villanelle in the Cambridge Review as an undergraduate
1930 — William Empson publishes an important book of literary criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity, which inspires what became known as "New Criticism"
1950 — Elizabeth Bishop's "Verdigris"
1951 — Dylan Thomas writes his famous villanelle for his dying father, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"
1953 — Theodore Roethke's villanelle "The Waking" is published; Sylvia Plath publishes her villanelle "Mad Girl's Love Song" in Mademoiselle
1956 — Allen Ginsberg employs refrains in his most famous poem, "Howl"
1959 — Denise Levertov's "Obsessions" is published
1961 — The Beatles' first single, "My Bonnie," has a refrain, as do early hits like "Love Me Do" and "She Loves You"
1963 — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. employs refrains in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech
1970 — The Norton Anthology of Poetry contains only one villanelle
1973 — Richard Hugo's "The Freaks at Spurgin Road Field"
1975 — The Norton Anthology of Poetry doubles the number of villanelles, to two
1976 — Elizabeth Bishop's rightly-acclaimed and much-anthologized villanelle "One Art" is published
1981 — Tom Disch's "The Rapist's Villanelle"
1988 — The Norton Anthology of Poetry now contains nine villanelles (a nine-fold increase in just eighteen years)
1996 — Seamus Heaney's "Villanelle for an Anniversary"

Related Pages: Medieval Poetry Translations

[*] "Scholars now agree that only one true villanelle [per the exacting modern definition] was written during the Renaissance: a poem by the same title, penned by Frenchman Jean Passerat." Before Passerat created his nonce form, there was no poetic "villanelle" form to speak of, and villanelles were performed at choral dances (think of dancers calling out lines to music at a hoe-down).

[**] Wilhelm Ténint appears to be the source of the idea that the more exacting form was older and more common than it really was.

[***] "As for the villanelle, M. De Banville declares that it is the fairest jewel in the casket of the muse Erato!" However, it seems the form was not really ancient, but relatively new and one-of-a-kind.

But all's well that ends well, and we have some marvelous poems as a result of all the confusion!

Related pages: The Best Sonnets, The Best Villanelles, The Best Ballads, The Best Sestinas, The Best Rondels and Roundels, The Best Kyrielles, The Best Couplets, The Best Quatrains, The Best Haiku, The Best Limericks, The Best Nonsense Verse, The Best Poems for Kids, The Best Light Verse, The Best Poem of All Time, The Best Poems Ever Written, The Best Poets, The Best of the Masters, The Most Popular Poems of All Time, The Best American Poetry, The Best Poetry Translations, The Best Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs, The Best Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings, The Best Old English Poetry, The Best Lyric Poetry, The Best Free Verse, The Best Story Poems, The Best Narrative Poems, The Best Epic Poems, The Best Epigrams, The Most Beautiful Poems in the English Language, The Most Beautiful Lines in the English Language, The Most Beautiful Sonnets in the English Language, The Best Elegies, Dirges & Laments, The Best Poems about Death and Loss, The Best Holocaust Poetry, The Best Hiroshima Poetry, The Best Anti-War Poetry, The Best Religious Poetry, The Best Spiritual Poetry, The Best Heretical Poetry, The Best Thanksgiving Poems, The Best Autumnal Poems, The Best Fall/Autumn Poetry, The Best Dark Poetry, The Best Halloween Poetry, The Best Supernatural Poetry, The Best Dark Christmas Poems, The Best Vampire Poetry, The Best Love Poems, The Best Urdu Love Poetry, The Best Erotic Poems, The Best Romantic Poetry, The Best Love Songs, The Ten Greatest Poems Ever Written, The Greatest Movies of All Time, England's Greatest Artists, Visions of Beauty, What is Poetry?, The Best Abstract Poetry, The Best Antinatalist Poems and Prose, Early Poems: The Best Juvenilia

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