The villanelle occupies an unusual place in the history of poetry in English. While a few Victorians made use of the form for humorous purposes, it wasn't until the twentieth century, a century in which many traditional forms were abandoned, that the villanelle emerged as a vehicle for "serious" poetry. Dylan Thomas, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Theodore Roethke, among others, have written villanelles that seem destined to remain an important part of our literary tradition. Now Bruce Bennett has added his name to the list, writing a chapbook entirely composed of villanelles.
At first consideration, reading a grouping of twenty-three villanelles does not seem a particularly inviting prospect; the form is so repetitive, so rhetorical and often static that one imagines soon becoming glutted with such a selection. Many poets have published one villanelle and called it a career, much like W. D. Snodgrass saying that all poets should be allowed one "Oh!" at some point in their writing lives. But Bennett modulates the range and tone of his poems in It's Hard to Get the Angle Right and also takes as many liberties as faithfulness to the form will allow. Most of the poems are in the standard pentameter, but several are in shorter lines, one even being written in dimeter.
The villanelle is, of course, a very demanding form, and Bennett is consistently up to the challenge. Some of the poems are "pure" while others allow changes in the repeating lines, sometimes substantially so, but never do these liberties lose the feeling of return so necessary to the form. And some of the poems in this book should last a long time.
"Spilled," in particular, is to my mind one of the best villanelles I have ever read. The connection between the small mishap and the larger disaster are well drawn in the repeating lines "It's not the liquid spreading on the floor" and "It's everything you've ever spilled, and more." The poem moves from the trivial "labor with the mop" and the "stupid broken spout" to the "nasty little salesman" on to
It's the disease for which there is no cure, The starving child, the taunting brutal cop. It's not the liquid spreading on the floor But through a planet, rotten to the core, Where things grow old, get soiled, snap off, or drop. It's everything you've ever spilled, and more...
The poem then moves in the final stanza back from the universal to the particular, back to the image of the self, a devastating return in such a dark poem.
Indeed, there are poems in this book that are much darker than one is accustomed to reading in Bennett's work. "Unkind Cut" deals with the unforgiving nature of memory: "That slight you thought would go away / when just a little time had passed / is back. It's clearly here to stay." The title poem deals with the recalcitrant nature of matter resisting the shaping human will. In "Queens Man Shot to Death" the lightness of tone accentuates the grimness of the topic: "Hey, who cares beans? / Some poor stiff turns up shot in the head / in Queens. No suspects, the spokeswoman said." "For the Unknowing Heroes" will probably not be a favorite on Memorial Day: "Let wreaths and medals at your hearts be laid. / Let solemn speeches honor what you lost. / You did not know enough to be afraid."
But It's Hard to Get the Angle Right could in no way be called a dark book; honest might be more appropriate. Some of the perceptions in these poems are rarely explored so well. When has voyeurism been so thoughtfully examined as in "Stranger"? The peeping Tom wonders not only if the lady "would appear"
But also why he shivered there when he could still approach her door, be welcomed, talk, then point out where A man might crouch outside and stare; a man confused, afraid, unsure....
The man considers further that he might tell her "why men crouch at windows" and why they don't "expect the woman to appear // The least concerned with their despair." Here Bennett is taking full advantage of the form--the word "appear" takes on a different meaning throughout the poem, both the physical arrival of the woman and her apparent reaction to questions the man might pose. The demands of the villanelle call special attention to the word and its two meanings reflect the tensions in the mind of the peeping Tom. Finally, the voyeur resolves his conflict by ignoring the part that would require understanding the woman as other: "He crouched, determined to ignore / all else except that window where / he hoped, he prayed, she might appear!" It is a considerable achievement to handle such developed material in a form like the villanelle, let alone gain greater strength from the very strictures the form imposes.
And there are, of course, the satirical or lighter pieces that Bennett has handled so adroitly throughout his career. "Homo Erectus" deals with the concept that we speak because we stand, and "An Astrologer Awaits Your Call" nicely satirizes the psychic hotlines now becoming widely advertised on television with lines such as "Is there a life beyond the Mall?" "The Pattern" deals with a relationship that didn't seem destined to happen ("We made arrangements, but we never met? / How often has that happened? I forget") whereas "Somehow" deals touchingly with the gap between generations: the persona remarks that his "father could have taught me what he knew" and indeed "would have liked to," but realizes that "I had to find out for myself what's true." Teachers and even friends couldn't help in any significant way. Finally, "Somehow I got to here. I muddled through, / true to what truths I learned, however petty. / At least they're mine...." In the final stanza he realizes that he is no more able to teach his own son than his father was able to teach him:
My son regards the world as if it's new. I'd like to teach him, but he isn't ready. Someday he'll wonder what his father knew. He'll have to find out for himself what's true.
There are also several other poems in It's Hard to Get the Angle Right that are particularly strong, including "Reunion," "Framed, Smiling," "Moving to Music," and "Valediction." The last in particular is a beautiful piece and exhibits well how Bennett's liberties with the villanelle evidence strength rather than a failure to handle the form. Consider the changes made in the second repeating line:
Go strong in headstrong youth; but go. Go strong in faith, in hope. But go. Go strong in steadfast trust. Yes, go... Go strong in all our love; but go.
The alterations reflect developments within the poem but they never destroy the feeling of the repeating line; they actually operate in something of a quiet crescendo, if I may be allowed a seeming oxymoron.
Of course, it being hard to get all the angles right in this flawed world, it is the reviewer's role to discover some blemishes on even the most beautiful of faces. I could find that the rhymes in the second lines of the title poem (flux, relax, backs, crux, luck's, cracks) and in "Close Reading" (clutch, detach, watch, patch, snatch, touch) may be a little too free when surrounded by such exactness, and that the use of the endword "spanks" in "Filling in the Blanks" seems a little weak and forced by the rhyme scheme, but these are mere quibbles. Overall, the collection is a masterful performance.
And "masterful" reminds me how the word master is misused in a condescending manner. So many times someone is called a master of x, meaning anything non-x is another matter; such pigeonholing is all too common on the contemporary poetry scene, especially when x is not fashionable. Bruce Bennett has been called a master of parody, a master of light verse, a master of fable. No doubt now he will be called a master of villanelle. Perhaps, when one considers the whole arc of his work, it is most appropriate simply to call him a master.