Interview with Sean Hill

Sean Hill

Shannon K. Winston: You’ve chosen to discuss Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Can you introduce the poem and explain why you’ve chosen it?

Sean Hill: “One Art” appeared in The New Yorker’s April 26, 1976 issue. It’s a villanelle, Bishop’s only villanelle. It draws on Bishop’s late-in-life relationship with Alice Methfessel from whom she was estranged for a period. And during that estrangement, perhaps, Bishop felt she’d lost the last love of her life. Imagine being in that place:

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I was introduced to this poem in high school. At that time I hadn’t lost much, certainly not a watch inherited from a parent, a house, city, realm, river, or continent. And definitely not a close family member or friend or lover. These losses had no personal resonance. This was high school; perhaps some of this poem’s power was lost on me. But I’m sure I began to see the power in this poem then—the accrual of meaning and music in the repeated lines, the refrains, as the poem progresses along its path. The lines aren’t static in “One Art.” They gain by the shifting context in the poem and the variation in those refrain lines that Bishop allows herself; with each departure, the refrains are made fresh. And after the overstatement that builds in the first five stanzas, we have that turn into the last stanza: “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied.” Here the poem’s address shifts and the emotional weight gets exponentially heavy. Then we end up with that couplet whose lines echo dramatically at the end. Also, I read the repetition of “like” in that last line as a stutter, but instead of the placeholder “like” as one is groping for the right word, it’s the stutter of someone finding the nerve to say a thing or, more lastingly, to write it. The form enables the speaker to enact the anxiety over the loss, the emotion inherent in the subject and content. It’s an example of form serving content and what feels like content engendering form. 

SKW: You’re interested in the villanelle form and the ways in which its repetitive form advances the content of the poem. Can you say a bit more about this in relation to “One Art?”

SH: Well, it’s not exactly that the repetitive form inherently advances the content of the poem or gives it trajectory—the path the poem follows or rather lays out for the reader—that’s done with language, imagery, and metaphor. The lesson for me was in the way Bishop works the tension of the repetition with the trajectory of “One Art.” The villanelle is a nineteen-line poetic form with a strict rhyme and refrain scheme consisting of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and concluding with a quatrain (four-line stanza). Its form can be represented as

_______________ A1
_______________ b
_______________ A2

_______________ a
_______________ b
_______________ A1

_______________ a
_______________ b
_______________ A2

_______________ a
_______________ b
_______________ A1

_______________ a
_______________ b
_______________ A2

_______________ a
_______________ b
_______________ A1
_______________ A2

Elizabeth Bishop, 1954

with “a” and “b” representing the rhymes and “A1” and “A2” representing the repeating refrain lines. This abstract string of letters and numbers shows the prescribed pattern, the form—the how much / how many of whatever, when and where—like those dance patterns with foot silhouettes, numbers, and arrows, but it’s not the dance in motion. Again, the form doesn’t direct a trajectory or advance content, but its use in “One Art” made me reflect on how repetition functions in speech. Somewhere along the way, I came across this quote attributed to Gertrude Stein: “There’s no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.” Bishop’s “One Art” made me think about how the act of repetition operates in speech—how it expresses and communicates the human condition. We repeat things that are important, things we want to remember, things we want to convince others and ourselves of, and we sometimes repeat things out of nervousness. Repetition can reflect our emotional state. And the speaker of a poem must be, not necessarily relatable, but a plausible voice / being. The claims in the first stanza of “One Art,” that first sentence, are striking in their confidence and assurance. It could almost leave off there. What else is there to say? But then comes the instructional part of the poem. That first claim returns after a couple of lines as a stand-alone sentence; but, why repeat it, other than the fact that the form calls for repetition? The villanelle form doesn’t exactly direct a trajectory, but how I look at the pattern shapes how I think about potential moves for the poems. I’ve sort of personified this pattern—this formula—and think of the refrain lines as dancers at the party that is the poem. They’re friendly in the first stanza and become estranged in the middle four stanzas and are finally able to dance together as a couplet in the end. That’s how I put them in relationship with each other; that’s the way I think about their possibilities of building a structure and advancing content.

SKW: In our conversations, you’ve also mentioned the importance of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” to thinking about the villanelle form. I know that these two poems (Bishop’s and Thomas’s) are iconic, but can you speak about their relation to one another and what they have taught you about the villanelle form, especially in relation to structure and content?

SH: “One Art” showed me how to push against the form by slightly varying its refrain, and “Do not go gentle into that good night” showed me how to stick to the form strictly and create a compelling path or experience for the reader.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas’s adherence to the villanelle form isn’t what makes “Do not go gentle into that good night” a great poem. It’s the way Thomas recontextualizes those refrain lines “do not go gentle into that good night” and “rage, rage against the dying of light,” in service of both the poem’s structure and trajectory, that renders the poem unforgettable. In the first stanza Thomas sets those lines around what seems to be the subjects “old age” and “the close of day” that is dying. Then he uses these refrains in the succeeding stanzas to explore archetypes: “wise men,” “good men,” “wild men,” and “grave men” and how they all face death. And finally, the poem makes that unexpected turn to the personal, that shift in address we understand as readers: “And you, my father, there on the sad height / Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.” Those lines that read as general imperatives in the first stanza are repeated as that closing couplet and have gained so much emotional weight.

Dylan Thomas

The structure and content of “One Art” and “Do not go gentle into that good night” are quite similar. Both turn between the second-to-last and the last stanzas; as a reader, I know for sure that I’m no longer the speaker’s addressee. The two poems turn from what could be a general “you,” fellow human on this planet, to the specific “you,” loved one I have to deal with losing or having lost. The refrain in a villanelle is a return in language, an echo of words and their power, a moment of insistence, imploring. The poems made me realize how returns can also be turns, especially in the villanelle form. In understanding what each poem was doing with the form, I came to see the refrains as lists of words in a particular order that could be held to, as Thomas does, or altered dramatically, as in Bishop’s poem. The two villanelles also taught me a bit about enjambment, syntax, grammar and punctuation, but it was that enjambment and caesura in the third stanza of “One Art” that opened doors for me: “…and where it was you meant / to travel. None of these will bring disaster.” I could do that—create enjambed refrains and introduce punctuation and caesuras! That was big. That and understanding that the villanelle needed to do more than rhyme and repeat according to that arbitrary and lovely formula. The content and the emotional weight need to work for and with the form. “One Art” and “Do not go gentle into that good night” taught me that a successful villanelle isn’t one that follows the rules, but one that uses the rules to lead the way to a successful poem. The rules, these received forms—sonnets, pantoums, sestinas, villanelles, haiku, the blues—are to stimulate creative approaches to poems; they are not the point; they are not the poem. The poem has to live beyond the form. The form is a recipe of sorts, but content and structure/trajectory are where artful execution comes into play. The good cook uses some ingredients and follows a recipe to make a good dish, while the great cook could take those same ingredients and use the recipe as a jumping off point to make a truly memorable dish.

SKW: The villanelle is a form that you write in often as in the case of “Insurance Man 1946” and “Nightmare 1946.” Can you talk about how these poems use structure and form in similar and different ways?

SH: The structures of “Insurance Man 1946” and “Nightmare 1946” are similar. As I remember it, these poems were written at the same time and they came very quickly one evening. The line “If we hang you from a tree, you’ll need a will” was spoken to me by a menacing voice in a dream, a nightmare really. And I knew I had to use it somewhere, somehow. When I sat down to write a poem with that line from the nightmare, the villanelle seemed the obvious shape.

Nightmare 1946

If they hang you from a tree, you’ll need a will.
Ain’t none of us ever promised tomorrow.
Silas, you might not be here come April.

An echo loosed from the mouth of Zekial,
the insurance man—blacker than tomorrow.
If they hang you from a tree, you’ll need a will.

Crackers in their best Sunday apparel—
hate frenzied, sweaty faces flushed, skin sallow.
Silas, you might not be here next April.

Community men each with a broken-bottle grin
cutting their faces like a welt.
If we hang you, you’ll need a coffin.

Surrounded under an oak, Silas prays.
Their cold sharp fingers slice off his ears and nose—
keepsakes. Silas, you won’t be here next April.

Hanging until the convulsions stop, Silas drops
free into his bed awakened by the cock’s crow.
After we hang you, they’ll put you in a hole.
Silas, you won’t be here next April.

I ended up drafting two villanelles with shared refrains. The form’s repetition seemed fitting for the harassment and threat that drives nightmares; in “Nightmare 1946,” perhaps the most menacing version of those refrain lines echoes in Silas’s ears after waking. And, as I was writing this poem in the context of the larger historical project of Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, I needed to show Silas’s nightmare’s grounding in the reality of the extrajudicial murders of African Americans—lynchings. These companion villanelles, with their overlapping refrains, served as the most fitting vehicles for this task. While the villanelle easily communicates the horror of nightmares, the form’s repetition also suggested the quotidian insistence or, perhaps, harassment of the hard sell in “Insurance Man 1946.” So, though “Nightmare 1946” was written first, in the book the poem follows “Insurance Man,” with its almost casual mention of those lynchings.

Insurance Man 1946

Silas, you might not be here come April.
Ain’t none of us ever promised tomorrow.
If you died right sudden, you’d need a will.

That way you control who gets your nickel
when you gone. Get your ducks in a row,
Silas. You might not be here come April.

Yeah, your policy’s up-to-date and we’ll
pay, say, if you lose an arm at the elbow
at the mill, but if you die, you’ll need a will.

Double pay for accidental deaths? We still
have you down, your wife won’t need to borrow.
Silas, you might not be here come April.

Being alive is enough to get you killed.
Did you hear about them folks up in Monroe?
If they hang you from a tree, you’ll need a will.

Your folks won’t have to worry about a meal
with this insurance when that day of sorrow
comes. Silas, you might not be here come April.
If you died right sudden, you’d need a will.

The form in “Nightmare 1946” slips in the middle. My rationale for that move reflects another tie between form and content: the poem recounts a nightmare, so its form sometimes goes a little off the rails, as dreams often do. The narrative of a nightmare, the thrust of that, breaks the rhyme, and the repetition is overridden. Looking back, I believe that “One Art” allowed me to think about the villanelle form this way; it cracked open the idea of the villanelle and of the form’s possibilities in so many ways for me. I have this other poem in my second collection Dangerous Goods titled “Distance Between Desires” that might not look like it, but is a villanelle. Bishop allowed me to get there.

Distance between Desires

From the moon to the end of this poem
hums the distance between desires.
In troughs of night Jasmine slept,
numb from the consumption of rays

from the moon. Through to its end, this poem
fends off desire. A toast to the heavy
drum that pulls us daily and urges that we

hum the distance. Between desires
men scoff at the moon, hung lightly to shine
plum-dark nights, as they measure breaths

from the moon to the end. Of our poems,
ends tossed out to hold them off, we hope
some may say they rumble on and pleasingly

hum the distance between. Desires
bend us and bend. Doff your hat, where I come
from, a show of respect. Desires plumb where we come

from. The moon to the end of this poem
lends soft light. As one desire leaves another
hums the distance between desires.

The form is a villanelle reversed, starting with the rhyming couplet in the quatrain. It has initial rhyme instead of end rhyme. And the structure/trajectory borrows from and owes a debt to the ghazal. I feel like each sentence in this heavily enjambed and backward villanelle could stand alone like the couplets in the ghazal. In the ghazal, as I understand it, traditionally the couplets are linked by theme and rhyme & refrain instead of narrative, and so ghazals resolve differently than say sonnets.

SKW: History is crucial to “Insurance Man 1946” and “Nightmare 1946.” Can you talk about what makes the villanelle particularly well suited to narrating historical moments or events?

SH: The villanelle is very versatile, and its use of repetition makes available possibilities for one of the ways I think about and portray history. When I look at past events, often I see how they are related to, connected to, or analogous to current events. I also see the inverse: I see how current events seem repetitious of past ones. My ruminating on history in poetry engages the small human moment that I’m grasping for and hoping to make graspable for the reader. Seamus Heaney’s Bog poems, like “Punishment,” taught me to think about history on a personal and human scale and how those human moments in the past might relate to current moments, in the broad scope of history.

The villanelle’s repetition offers opportunities to ruminate and worry and return to a particular historical period. This is often what is needed to explore and engage that moment. And in the instance of “Insurance Man 1946” and “Nightmare 1946,” the refrains surprised and disturbed me. Like I said, the line “If we hang you from a tree, you’ll need a will” came to me out of a nightmare. I’d been reading about the Moore’s Ford Lynching in the novelist Raymond Andrews’s memoir The Last Radio Baby. On the afternoon of July 25, 1946, two young married African American couples, George W. Dorsey and Mae Dorsey and Ralph Malcom and Dorothy Malcom, were lynched together in Monroe, Georgia, by a mob of white men who were also from Monroe, some of whom the couples knew and recognized. They were beaten and their bodies were made almost unrecognizable by bullets and shotgun blasts. Mae Dorsey was seven months pregnant. I’d internalized that history, and it came out in a nightmare. And I felt compelled to deal with the nightmare in the form of the villanelle. The villanelle suggested I make the insistence of death commonplace, a matter of course, and so the insurance man persona came to me while drafting. The insurance man helped me think about the reality of that time, and how it connects to our current reality. The line “Being alive is enough to get you killed” from “Insurance Man 1946” resonates with me differently or more so today than when I wrote the poem in 2000.

SKW: If you were to give readers a prompt related to our/this discussion, what would it be?

SH: Write a villanelle. Here are some tips for containing your obsessions.

  1. Settle on a topic or image or idea or situation that could bear returning to. I’d attempted to write a villanelle or two a few years before writing “Insurance Man 1946” and “Nightmare 1946,” and they weren’t very good. One of those was about an airplane crash, but I hadn’t yet flown and discovered that I love flying. I was trying to imagine the anxiety some folks have with flying; this worrying seemed appropriate for a worrying repetitive form. Unfortunately, I’d also chosen “fuselage” as one of my rhyming refrain words—a limiting and, for me, bad decision.

  2. I rarely think it’s a good idea to begin a poem knowing where it will end, but in the case of the villanelle as soon as you’ve written the beginning, you have a sense of the end. So start with writing either a rhyming couplet or a tercet that rhymes aba. If the couplet comes to you first, then you know where you’ll end. Now you’ll need to figure out what line falls between those lines, and you’ll have your full beginning.

  3. Once you’ve got your tercet, start creating a rhyming bank before you go any further. Just go through the alphabet looking for rhyming words to jot down. Don’t worry if they seem unlikely to go into your poem. Once you’ve gone through the alphabet, allow yourself to also write down slant or off rhymes.

  4. On your screen or notebook page, place the repeating lines where they will go, leaving space for the lines you have yet to write. At this point you’ve already written nine of the nineteen lines of this poem—you’re almost halfway done.

  5. Now the fun part begins. Once you have your refrains in place, think of them as repeated lines—syntactical units. Then, think of each of them as a list of words with a variety of possibilities, especially given the use of a variety of punctuation marks as well as enjambment, across lines and even stanzas. This opens up all kinds of possibilities and could suggest preceding and succeeding lines. A well-placed end mark and caesura can open doors in the villanelle you’re building.

  6. I tend toward the Bishop end of the formal spectrum, so I allow variation in my own villanelles. Remember: the point is to write a great poem, so work with your draft to make it the best possible villanelle you can. And remember that “One Art” took on the shape of the villanelle in the second draft and there were fifteen more drafts after that.

  7. Listen carefully to your poem to see whether it really wants to be a villanelle. I’ve had a few that insisted they weren’t, and that’s fine. Be ready to allow your villanelle to be whatever it needs to be.

  8. Try it again.

Note about Enjambment and Rhyme:

End-stopping lines draw attention to end rhymes, while the rhymes that fall at the end of enjambed line are somewhat subtler. Clement Wood, editor of The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, wrote, “Rhyming must always give the effect of unobtrusive naturalness, or it fails of its proper effect.” This is true unless your intention is to have obtrusive rhymes; that might be fitting in a humorous poem. Think about how your rhymes are functioning. Think about the effect your refrains and rhymes have. To me, the merit of the echo or the perfect rhyme depends on how each effects naturalness. You don’t want to strain for the rhyme or let the rhyme drive the line.


Further Reading:

Villanelles, selected and edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. Everyman’s Library, 2012.

Some of my favorites are found in this particular anthology:

Elizabeth Bishop “One Art”
Derick Burleson “Waking Again”
Rita Dove “Black Billy Waters, at His Pitch”
Marilyn Hacker “Villanelle for D.G.B.”
Marilyn Nelson “Daughters 1900”
Theodore Roethke “Waking”
Dylan Thomas “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”



“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, from The Complete Poems 1926-1979 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux ©1979).

“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, from The Poems of Dylan Thomas (New Directions ©1952). 

“Nightmare 1946” and “Insurance Man 1946” by Sean Hill, from his collection Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (University of Georgia Press ©2008). “Distance between Desires” by Sean Hill, from his collection Dangerous Goods (Milkweed Editions ©2014). Reprinted by permission of the author.

Sean Hill

Sean Hill’s recent work takes the road trip as a site for exploring race, culture, and otherness. He is the author of Dangerous Goods, awarded the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry, and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, named one of the Ten Books All Georgians Should Read in 2015. His poems and essays have appeared in Callaloo, Orion, Poetry,, Tin House, and numerous other journals and anthologies. He has received fellowships and awards from organizations and institutions including Cave Canem, Bread Loaf, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Stanford University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Visit him at