Oct 15, 2012

"The River" by Gregory Orr and the Villanelle as Form


The River by Gregory Orr : The Poetry Foundation


Farmington River, Connecticut
I was looking for a poem to go with my kayaking photos and came across Gregory Orr's "The River," an impressively natural-sounding poem in a very demanding French form. The villanelle comprises five tercets rhyming aba and a concluding quatrain rhyming abaa. Mind you, that's two rhyming sounds in 19 lines, while the supposedly muscular sonnet has by contrast five or six rhyming sounds in 14 lines--wimpy child's play by comparison.

But wait! There's more. The villanelle also demands an exact- or near-repetition of Line 1 in Lines 6, 12, and 18, plus a repetition of Line 3 in Lines 9, 15, and 19. Most villanelles also follow a roughly iambic pentameter, which adds to the very musical effect of the whole (rhyme added to cadence tends to produce a sense of song). Next time you have five idle minutes, give it a try. Be sure you've got refills on all your meds.

The River by Gregory Orr : The Poetry Foundation

Villanelles, sonnets, ballads, sestinas--there are various kinds of cages poets build for themselves as a way of creating added tension between form and intellect on the one hand and passion on the other. The passion is surging like river rapids, trying to break the banks and smother us with the absence, or even the opposite, of thought and restraint. The brain says all that free-flowing turbulence won't do; there must a balance and blend of reason and passion. T.S. Eliot called it "Felt Thought."


If most of us tried to write about swimming naked with a lover in a river, near rapids, wouldn't we likely end up with soap opera or porn or some other hyper nuisance? Where would brain, judgment, analysis, restraint, decorum and good sense be if we let it all hang out?  I don't much want to read anyone's uninhibited emotions. In fact, I have, many times, and they are consistently puerile and narcissistic, not deep.

Gregory Orr has struck a nice balance in "The River." The demands of the villanelle keep a rein on his feelings, without strangling or sterilizing them. Beyond that, there's the content of the poem, irrespective of form, in which the speaker tries to understand as well as relish the natural, sensual delight he's presented.

The River by Gregory Orr : The Poetry Foundation

6 comments:

RuneE said...

The finer details of the Villanelle is of course lost on me - I can only be impressed by the technique and the contents. And how well they fitted the photos.

altadenahiker said...

"Muscular sonnet" -- that's rather delicious.

Hannah Stephenson said...

You're right...this poem surprises me.

It seems that this one hangs on the power of that first line (especially "pleasure and a shiver."), and how easily "river" slips in.

I notice the balance between natural and unnatural here....form as unnatural, I guess.

Speaking of cages and formal poems...do you know Jason Gray's work? He and I went to grad school together, and I enjoyed reviewing his book a couple of years back. He does some wonderful things with form.

Here's one of his, "The Snow Leopard"--http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/30140

Banjo52 said...

Rune and AH, once again, thanks.

Hannah, I like your second and third paragraphs. I'll check on Jason Gray. Thanks for the tip.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

"But wait! There's more"

So where does the poet and uber salesman's Ron Popeil fit into this analysis?



Banjo52 said...

PA, you've lost me . . .

Lovers' Lane