Villanelles and Environmental Activism: Using Poetry to Raise Awareness and Advocate for Change.


Villanelles, a form of poetry characterized by its repetition and rhyme, may not seem like an obvious tool for environmental activism. However, throughout history, poets have used this structured and powerful form to raise awareness and advocate for change. From the early environmental movements to the current climate crisis, villanelles have served as a powerful medium to spark conversation and inspire action.

The villanelle is a French poetic form that consists of nineteen lines divided into five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a final quatrain (four-line stanza). It follows a strict rhyme and repetition structure, with the first and third lines of the opening tercet repeating alternately in the following stanzas and as the last two lines of the final quatrain.

The repetitive nature of the villanelle lends itself well to environmental activism. By echoing certain lines throughout the poem, the poet can create a sense of urgency and emphasis, making a strong case for their cause. This structure also allows for a powerful and memorable climax in the final quatrain, making a lasting impact on the reader.

One of the earliest examples of a villanelle used for environmental activism is Rachel Carson’s “A Sense of Wonder.” In this poem, Carson, a prominent figure in the environmental movement, highlights the importance of preserving and appreciating nature for future generations. The constant repetition of the phrase “and I will find a new way to love the Earth” serves as a rallying cry for readers to take action in protecting the planet.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the villanelle was also a popular form for poets to express their concerns about the growing environmental issues. Poets like Al Purdy, Mary Oliver, and W.H. Auden all utilized this form to explore themes of sustainability, pollution, and the destruction of nature. These poems not only helped raise awareness but also demanded a change in behavior and government policies.

As the environmental movement evolved, so did the use of villanelles in activism. In the 1990s, poet Wendell Berry wrote “A Poem on Hope,” a powerful villanelle that reflects on the destruction of the earth and the need for hope and action to create a better future. The repetition of “It matters” throughout the poem highlights the urgency and importance of taking responsibility for our planet.

In recent years, as the threat of climate change has become more pressing, villanelles have continued to be used as a tool for environmental activism. In her poem “The Villanelle of If/Then,” poet Ellen Bass explores the destructive consequences of human actions and challenges readers to take responsibility for their impact on the earth. Through the repetition of “if this, then that,” Bass paints a bleak but urgent picture of the consequences of not taking action.

In addition to raising awareness, villanelles have also been used to advocate for specific environmental causes. A prime example of this is the poem “The Great Barrier Reef” by Australian poet Sophie Masson. In this villanelle, Masson speaks on behalf of the Great Barrier Reef, calling for its protection and preservation against human threats like climate change and pollution.

In conclusion, villanelles have played a significant role in environmental activism, from the early days of the movement to the current climate crisis. The form’s structure, repetition, and powerful climax make it an effective tool for raising awareness, advocating for change, and inspiring action. As we continue to fight for a sustainable and greener future, villanelles will undoubtedly continue to serve as a powerful medium for expressing our concerns and demands for a better world.