Malcolm M. Sedam
Stephen Crane, 1899
Definition of the Poetry Form, "Versanelle"
Often employing the usual poetic devices, the versanelle is a crafty little form whose elements include brevity, narration, critique of human nature, and a punch line.
Term Coined by Linda Sue Grimes
Despite the fact that this poetic form has been employed from the beginning of poetry creation, a specific term for it has existed only since 2008, when Linda Sue Grimes coined the term and began using it in her poetry commentaries. She has coined several other terms, such as "versagraph."
The versanelle is usually quite short with 13 lines or fewer. However, depending on the verse's other elements, it might extend upwards of 20 lines. A traditional sonnet, which depends on 14 lines and an English or Italian rime scheme, may take on some of the attributes of the versanelle, but poets usually shy away from a sonnet/versanelle synthesis.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
The epigram, which is a quick retort, is the closet form to the versanelle; however, the epigram is even shorter than the versanelle even though it does offer the clever remark that informs the versanelle.
A fine example of the power of the versanelle is Robert Frost's "Dust of Snow":
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
The speaker in Frost's versanelle is narrating a little story about being outside on a snowy day. He was in a melancholy mood that day, but after some snow fell down on his head, knocked down by a bird, his attitude changed. As a matter of fact, the bird's effort actually saved a part of the day for him.
The versanelle almost always narrates a very little story. Another prominent example of the narrative element in that form is the poem "Silent Treatment" from The Man in Motion by the master of that form, Malcolm M. Sedam:
I would not speak
as a matter of fact
I was determined
not to give in this time
because I was By God Right!
and I was,
I did not speak
though I did smile
as I carried her up the stairs.
In nine lines, the speaker has told the reader a little story about winning an argument to his own satisfaction and seemingly to that of his opponent's.
Comment of Human Nature or Behavior
The form's key purpose is to make a comment about human nature, and it often makes a scathing observation about human behavior. Poets, not unlike philosophers, often fancy engaging in the assessment of the human condition, which includes the delicious toil of criticizing the conduct of fellow human beings. Thankfully, most poets appreciate that they are not above the frailties they blast.
Stephen Crane's "The Wayfarer" offers a leading example of the versanelle's ability to make a major critical analysis of human behavior. Again, in a scant eleven lines, the speaker universalizes the moral laxness of humanity as he flings a decided frown upon that vice.
The form employs the poetic devices of metaphor, simile, image, personification, and others in the same way that all poetic forms do. In Crane's "The Violets," personification is the dominant poetic device: the violets not only speak but engage in bloody battle until the last one is dead.
The ending of the versanelle usually offers up a clincher like a punch line in a joke. It draws all the elements together. The narration is often mysterious yet tantalizing as it draws the reader into its possibilities.
The colorful language sparks the reader on and suddenly the punch line snaps the reader's attention to the point. William Butler Yeats' "Death" exemplifies the faultless punch line to a versanelle: "Man has created death."
The Importance of This Poetic Form
The versanelle, despite its brevity, or perhaps because of that element, continues to be a staple in the poet's bag of tools for offering crisp commentary while maintaining the poetic expression to which all poets are addicted.
Because most of the widely read poets have tried their hand a versanelle or two, the form has century after century become one of the poet's most useful forms. Its quick, clever delivery remains a significant reason for its popularity. This timeless form is likely to thrill poets and readers as long as the poetic art exists.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes