Red Alert! This conversation is about to reference some real old school, French poetic styles. If Alexie wasn't such a poetry ninja, this part would put us to sleep. Luckily, Alexie's handling of the form for "Dangerous Astronomy" is part of what makes this poem so killer, so pay attention Shmoopers. Things are about to get awesome.
First things first, what we have here is a villanelle. A what? You heard us. A villanelle. It's a traditional form that originated in France. Villanelles are always 19 lines, made up of five three-line stanzas and one quatrain (that's four-line stanza). So far, so good?
Here's the fun part. The first and third lines of the first stanza alternate as the third line of each successive stanza. Finally, those two repeated lines form a couplet that finishes the poem.
Sound like too many numbers? Remember the paint-by-numbers puzzles from when you were a kid? Villanelles are sort of like that. Certain lines are repeated and certain rhymes occur in a certain order, and then, voila! You've got a masterpiece! Not quite that easy, but you get the idea. Here's a breakdown of the rhyme scheme:
AbA AbA AbA AbA AbA AbAA.
If the first line is represented with A and the third line is A', then the rhyme scheme becomes:
AbA' abA abA' abA abA' abAA'
In other words, each line of a villanelle should end with a certain rhyme. The first and third lines of each stanza rhyme with each other, and the second line of each stanza rhymes as well.
The little a's and little b's are the lines that don't get repeated. The big A's do. In the above explanation, A represents the first line. A' represents the third line. Both lines are represented with an A because they rhyme with each other, but we need to distinguish between line one and line three, so the A for line three gets an apostrophe. Make sense?
The reason they're distinguished as A and A' is that a villanelle uses refrains. So, the first line (A) is also used as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas. Likewise, the third line (A') is used as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas.
And for the grand finale, the first (A) and third (A') lines are also used as the last two lines of the poem. Ahh, all finished! Well, finished with the counting part, anyway…
Since this form is so old and uptight, Alexie throws in a few updates. He's one to keep things fresh. He starts off following the traditional rhyme scheme, and then he slips into slant rhyme. For example, stars/stars rhyme, right? Obviously. But what about the other rhymes?
Slant rhymes use similar vowel sounds to unite them. Here are some examples from the poem: dark/stars, part/star, dark/apart. Notice how the consonants change but the ar stays the same? Those are slant rhymes.
With just a little innovative tweaking, those hard to follow rules become one of the best parts of the poem, and Alexie shows us that even out-of-date French forms of poetry can be accessible and useful today—as long as you're willing to jazz it up.
Part of what make Alexie such a joy to read is the conversational tone of his work. By tweaking the form here and there, Alexie gets the poem's form, as well as its tone, to relax and sound more personal, more relatable, more relevant.
Of course all of this raises the question, why does he use a villanelle form in the first place? If he wants things to sound so laid back and personal, why use a confusing, foreign form of poetry that went out of style hundreds of years ago? Is he just showing off? A little free verse never hurt anyone.
We think there's an answer to that question. One thing villanelles lend themselves to is repetition. The same sounds are repeated because of the rhyme scheme and the some of the lines refrain (remember A and A'?). However, as the poem progresses, the repeated lines usually change a bit in meaning. They develop and evolve.
Well, the speaker in this poem goes through a similar process. He begins by wanting to praise the stars, but as the poem progresses, he compares the stars to his wife and son. So, what repeats in this poem, and in the speaker, is wanting "to praise." However, what the speaker wants to praise changes as the poem progresses. At first, it's the stars. Then it's his son. Then it's his wife.
In other words, the form and the content of this poem compliment each other perfectly. Just like lines repeat in a villanelle, but change slightly throughout, the speaker repeats his desire to praise something, but what he wants to praise changes throughout. Pretty tricky, huh? Now you can impress your friends with all of your masterful wisdom of poetic forms they've never even heard of. Hi-ya!