What’s a villanelle?

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: villanelle

I’ve suddenly become an enormous fan of the journalist, blogger and science writer Clive Thompson. A reader sent me a copy of a video in which he appeared (I blogged about it a week ago) and this, in turn, sent me to my own bookshelves to uncover a copy of his marvellous book, Smarter Than You Think.

I also checked out Thompson’s blog, Collision Detection and discovered more spritely writing and interesting observations about technology. As well, I uncovered my latest word of the week, villanelle. Here’s how Thompson used it

The upshot is, the whole sly point of a book like 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die is that you’re really never going to be able to play them all. The fun is in reading about them — in touring through the encyclopedic entries. In this regard, I gotta say, the book does not disappoint. The writeups are all barely a villanelle’s-worth in length — a single short page, or even half a page — yet the writers (about two dozen game journalists) manage to fit in a number of really delightful observations. 

Perhaps because I did an honours degree in Political Science some 40 years ago (I had also, briefly, considered English), I had no idea that a villanelle is a type of poem. And imagine my delight when I discovered that one of my favourite poems of all time is a celebrated example of it.

Dylan Thomas (pictured above) is the author of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” a villanelle that exemplifies the form. The word comes from the Italian villano (“peasant”), and a villanelle was originally a dance-song performed by a Renaissance troubadour. In its modern form, a villanelle is a 19-line poem with alternating refrain lines.

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