Virelai Nouveau

The virelai nouveau is a difficult form to define with clarity. The definition has a core of non-negotiable requirements that ensures that the poet will find it hard work to write one - but there are some potentially confusing variations permitted, so that the poet may never be entirely sure that (s)he has got it “right”. In actual fact, so few of them are written that it doesn’t really matter. If you write something that you can reasonably claim to be a virelai nouveau, it is a notable feat of versification. Pedants who feel you haven’t got the structure quite right should be advised, politely but firmly, to go away and write their own. Here’s the one I wrote (which will make marginally more sense if you read my virelai ancien first):

The Virelai Nouveau
Is poetry a doddle? No!
You’ll find out if you have a go.

If you’re well-versed, perhaps you’ll know
The Sioux devised the virelai
(The ancien, that is to say),
A form they thought was here to stay.
They’d chant them heartily all day
In unison, fortissimo,
With tomtoms as continuo
At every dance and rodeo
From Florida to Idaho.
Alas for their naiveté!
A rival tribe, the Navajo
Felt honour-bound to quickly show
That they could strike a counterblow.
So they began, without delay,
With rhyming schemes and feet to play.
At first they found progress was slow.
(Is poetry a doddle? No!)

The chief – Old Elk his sobriquet -
Though Head Bard, ex officio,
Wrote verse not worth a haricot.
He’d rather go hunt buffalo
Or a strum a tune on his banjo.
But one young brave, his protégé,
A smoothie, name of Chevrolet,
Had talent no-one could gainsay
(Though some thought him a popinjay,
And prone to braggadocio.)
When Old Elk ordered Chevrolet,
”Devise me a new verse form, pray”,
The young man whooped and yelled “Hooray!
“The firewater, squaws and dough
“From this day on to me will flow!”
“It’s tricky, son!” warned Elk Ainé,
“You’ll find out if you have a go.”

But Chevrolet, face all aglow,
The image of jeunesse dorée,
Began to scribble straight away.
“Let’s hear no more of rime coué!
“The ancien is démodé!”
He cried disdainfully, although
In truth he didn’t really know
How to conceive an embryo
That into a verse form might grow.
Next evening he was in dismay,
Distinctly less inclined to crow.
His first try wasn’t comme il faut -
He’d re-invented the rondeau!
It had seemed easy yesterday,
But maybe he had feet of clay,
And could not change the status quo?
(Is poetry a doddle? No!)

Months later, he was going grey.
Great red hope of the Navajo
Fazed by this tough pistachio!
His efforts all malapropos,
He’d more than half a mind to throw
The towel in (long live cliché!)
And amble down to the café,
Drink Chardonnay till Hogmanay.
Then lunacy assailed him: Hey,
It might be nicely rococo
To pick two rhymes, and then to stay
With them all poem, come what may.
Quite like the Sioux’s old virelai
But harder… Let’s call it “nouveau”.
Old Elk thought this “magnifico!”
(Some say it makes the brain decay.
You’ll find out if you have a go.)

The burning issue of the day
Was to determine which held sway –
The ancien or the nouveau?
The Sioux still, or the Navajo?
For decades, it was touch and go.
The end result – I’m sure you’ll know -
Was history found it all de tropBoth forms, Old Elk and Chevrolet.
But they’re here in my dossier –
Hard work, but basically OK.
You’ll find out if you have a go.
Is poetry a doddle? No!

The core requirements are:

The optional bits, both of which I have done here, are: 

·        The rhyming couplet which forms the refrain can be a stanza in its own right at the beginning of the poem. The alternative is for it to form the first two lines of the first stanza of the main body of the poem (the rhyming scheme having been chosen to accommodate this).

·        The poem can have a final stanza, or envoi, shorter than the ordinary stanzas, and (necessarily) with a different rhyming scheme. Where an envoi is used, the final repeat of the refrain appears at the end of it, and there are an even number of ordinary stanzas. If you don’t have an envoi, you must have an odd number of ordinary stanzas, and the repeat of the refrain must appear as the last two lines of the last of them (the rhyming scheme having been chosen to accommodate this).  

One common arrangement (insofar as any kind of virelai nouveau is common) is to have 8-line stanzas and a 5-line envoi, rhyming abaaa (the last two lines being of course the refrain).

That, at any rate, is my understanding of how it is all supposed to work. There are probably other possibilities too. Good luck, Jim!

Notable Virelais Nouveaux

I believe the only other one you will find on the Web is by Austin Dobson. It crops up all over the place. Suis-je, suis-je, suis-je belle? by Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406) is designated a virelai, but has a quite different structure from that given here. Besides, it's in foreign.

If you feel the urge to write a virelai nouveau, I recommend that you fight it, and write a villanelle instead. There are similarities in the structure, but the villanelle is much easier to write. It is also more likely to yield a decent poem.

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© Bob Newman 2004, 2005. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 26/05/2005