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Univocalic Villanelles and other nightmares

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

This week, we released Episode 4 of my radio programme on CRY104fm: The Musician's Hour with Jo Bell. This episode was a poetry and songwriting special, which featured me and two other poets from West Waterford: Alan Murphy and David Ryan discussing the poetry and songs we had written so far, during a project we had embarked upon, in which we challenged ourselves to write various examples of constraint based poetry, and then branched out into songwriting.

As a poet, I have generally been someone that writes what I feel like writing. I spent many years writing poetry that fitted around rhyming couplets, usually set in four line stanzas, before switching to a more free verse approach in more recent years.

Univocalic Villanelle

During the second lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alan, David, and I first started writing poetry to specific constraints. I'd like to say that the COVID restrictions inspired this, but the reality is that it came about from a conversation between Alan and me. For a number of reasons, I had written a univocalic poem and, after chatting about it with Alan, I sent it to him. He noted that it wouldn't have taken much to turn it into a villanelle. We mentioned the idea of writing a univocalic villanelle to David, he was intrigued and the rest, as they say, is history.

One month later, we met, each having produced a univocalic villanelle, and shared our efforts. We were quite pleased with the results. I had selected 'e' as my vowel, and had taken the approach of writing down every word I could think of which only had 'e' in it. That gave me a topic and began putting together what sentences I could from the words I had, which then gradually gave me the two repeated rhyming lines which could be placed throughout the poem. By that point I had a topic to write about: in my case a grisly tale of a vampiric woman who drains the blood of her victim, regrets her actions, and tries to make amends through self-sacrifice. It was interesting that Alan produced a poem with a more nature focused theme, while David took us on a nostalgic journey through jazz bars. At the end of our discussion, we acknowledged that we had enjoyed the experience so much, we wanted to write more constraint based poetry.

Luc Bat

David's choice for the next poem was to produce a Luc Bat. He had read about the form in Stephen Fry's book The Ode Less Travelled and had previously written one himself. The challenge with the Luc Bat is that your writing is constrained by a very specific syllable count and within that syllable count, a strict rhyme scheme. I decided to approach the challenge by listing words that rhymed with at least two other words, and seeing what the available words inspired in me. Very quickly, I realised that the most effective way to stick rigidly to the rules of the form, while avoiding the kinds of structures that might make the poem sound a little archaic, was to employ enjambment. Allowing sentences to run on into the next line of the poem gave it a freer flowing sound, while the collection of words I had amassed inspired me to describe an encounter I had with my then estranged grandfather at a petrol station. The final challenge was to link the final two rhymes back to the very first line of the poem. I was immensely pleased with the outcome and, much to my delight, the resulting poem: 'Encounter' was subsequently published in The Waxed Lemon.

Encounter - by Annie Bell

Filling the tank I say

"I'll just run in and pay." I cross

the forecourt and I toss

my black handbag across my chest.

I look up and suppressed

feelings, long unexpressed, implode

at the sight of him. Road

noise vanishes. The load of past

hurt weighs heavy. At last,

I meet the old eyes cast my way.

He seems smaller: more grey,

less jolly. Though it's May, the sun

shines cold. I know we're done.

No going back: she's won. I fear,

yet love him. Though he's near, he's far

from my heart. Hearing words,

I flounder and like birds, I hide that I'm two thirds broken,

can't show what's unspoken:

the pain that's awoken inside.

So I smile and I hide

behind small talk, belied by my

face. The regret I spy

in my grandfather's eye is five

times more tough to survive.

Saying I'll call, I drive away.

Since then, we've carried on with the project, producing haibun, anacreontic odes, poetry using pararhyme, poems based on Spenserian stanzas, and sestinas, with more to come.

To find out more about the project, and to hear some examples of our poems and songs, listen to Episode 4 of The Musician's Hour on the CRY104fm podcast.

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