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Scanning for stress: the villanelle

I’ve always enjoyed writing poetry. A good poem captures the essence of a moment or idea and satisfies the reader and writer in a way that is quenching.

However, studying poetry during the course of my Open University degree in English Language and Literature (I graduate this year – hurrah!), has made me realise what a poor ear I have for metre.

It’s only when you come to write in classic forms such as the villanelle, or attempt a sonnet in true iambic pentameter, that you realise that you have a natural sense of the rhythms and cadences of language: or if it’s something you’re just going to have to keep working at.

The Husband was an English and Drama student at Bristol back in the day when Brunel’s SS Great Britain was towed across the Atlantic and along the River Avon (it’s now a brilliant museum). The Husband went on to write plays complete with amusing ditties for The Covent Garden Theatre Company. He is a fine linguist and can trip off jolly and clever original rhymes that scan at the drop of the proverbial hat. He has the ear for language that I always longed for. I’m sure being musical helps and, although I love music, I am not music-literate. For years I thought scanning was all about having the same number of syllables in each line rather than the spoken emphasis placed on those syllables.

When you study another language, you develop a bit more awareness of the way syllables are stressed or not, simply because stresses tend to fall differently in other languages. Despite studying French beyond A level, I still get totally confounded by stressed and unstressed syllables in the English language. No amount of da-DUMs and symbols seem to help. Of course there are examples that make it seem so obvious: photographer and photograph (just in case you’re thinking ‘why?’, the first syllable in ‘photographer’ is unstressed whilst in ‘photograph’ it’s stressed – say them out loud). Or try saying ‘present’ (as in the noun ‘gift’) and then ‘present’ (as in the verb ‘giving someone something’). The Wikipedia page ‘Stress (linguistics)’ gives a good basic rundown on the whole thing – or if that seems like heavy going you’ll find a rather jolly guide to stress and metre here (it’s American – so meter rather than metre).

Writing in a so-called constrained form such as the sonnet or villanelle focuses the mind on these aspects and is a good training ground. Here’s how Bill Greenwell explains the villanelle in ‘The Creative Writing Handbook’:

“A villanelle depends on the repeated use of two lines, initially the first and third, throughout its nineteen lines. These two lines each make four appearances and are the closing two lines, so the sense of a refrain is very powerful indeed. Here are the rules for a villanelle:

  • There is no set pattern for the rhythm, although each line uses the same rhythm (commonly three, four or five beats to the line).
  • It uses only two rhymes (a and b) and is nineteen lines long.
  • In its most exacting form, the first line recurs with the same words in the sixth, twelfth and eighteenth line; the third line reappears as the ninth, fifteenth and final line.
  • The first and third lines use the a rhyme, and the overall scheme is arranged in five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza), as follows: aba aba aba aba aba abaa .

As you can see, there is some working backwards involved in attempting a villanelle. The moment you have chosen the first line, you have chosen the penultimate line, and the moment you have chosen the third line, you have the final line. You are always going to be working towards that final refrain” (2009, p. 229).

And there we have it. Here’s my attempt at a villanelle.It is not ‘in its most exacting form’ or, indeed, perfect in rhythm or metre. However, it was a satisfying exercise and I was relatively pleased with the outcome:


I look beyond the pebbled shore,
where stilted waders peck and pray,
to waves that draw me to their core.

Muscular waves. Sinewed and sure,
binding the turbulent affray.
I look. Beyond the pebbled shore

splashes and bursts of foamy spores
salted colours of ozone, spray
and waves that draw me. At their core,

churning beneath the lithe furore,
fine surface slips on steady clay.
I look beyond the pebbled shore

how dreams are dazzled by the roar,
ripped from their anchor. Slipped away
to waves that draw me to their core.

Waders and waves fret and explore
fresh glistening veins exposed to prey.
I look beyond the pebbled shore
to waves that draw me to their core.

Greenwell, B. (2009) ‘Poetry: the freedom of form’ in Neale, D. (ed) A Creative Writing Handbook, MiltonKeynes/London, A&C Black in association with The Open University.

Firsts: that’s what memories are made of

The older you get, the more important it is to mark big occasions. Then, as your memories fall away, the markers you have laid down become life rafts on which to float moments back into your mind.

We often remember firsts, don’t we? The first time I swam unaided was with my brothers in the freezing waters of Little Loch Broom in 1968 – the peaks of Beinn Ghobhlach and Cnoc a Bhaidrallaich made us snigger because they looked like pointy breasts. First boyfriend and first motorbike ride go hand in hand (1977). First real job – junior secretary at BBC TV – I thought I’d conquer the world from that post: ah well… Holding my babies for the first time. I nearly threw up on baby number two. Anaesthetics (first, aged nine, tonsils and adenoids) have always had that effect on me. First time abroad? France: camping with family – I was six, got mumps and had pessaries. The shame of it. I’ve hated camping ever since.

Twin peaks at Little Loch Broom (Image (c) Jim Farqhuarson 08)

Yes, not all firsts conjure up a rosy warm feeling. Most of us are prone to those wake-you-up-in-the-night moments that scrape loudly and insistently across your mind and refuse to be stuck on the let-me-forget shelf.

I wonder how Miley Cyrus (actress/singer formerly of Disney stable) will look back on her first public nude appearance in the ‘Wrecking Ball’ video.  And if Irish singer/songwriter, Sinead O’Connor, will consider a private little note to Miley might have shown the spirit of ‘motherliness’ and ‘love’ more effectively. Her  ‘open letter’, suggesting that middle-aged music industry geezers zealously fill their sticky coffers by exploiting the gorgeous bodies of young women, provoked a response from  Miley which was, well, like that of a teenager telling her parents where they can stick their advice.

I didn’t listen to my mum’s advice on choosing a degree. No doubt that’s why I dropped out, aged 18, and am having a second go now with the Open University. I’ve met all sorts of people who are trying to tick off the marker of higher education in later life because they either didn’t have the opportunity when they were younger or, like me, didn’t see it through first time round. Even now I toy with the idea of stopping. Maybe a degree is my holy grail – constantly present as an idea but out of reach?

Last month I took childish delight in meeting one of my Radio 4 heroes.  I entered a competition to find a new voice for the Pause for Thought slot on Vanessa Feltz’s  Radio 2 show – the final was to be at Cheltenham Literature Festival. The first 550 entries were whittled down to 30. Imagine my delight to be one of the 30! Thirty were pared down to six. I didn’t make it and was pathetically disappointed. I spent a small fortune getting to Cheltenham to take up my free ticket for the final. To make the most of the adventure I booked myself into a couple of talks. One involved novelist Alexander McCall Smith, historian Alistair Moffatt, and Radio 4’s James Naughtie discussing McCall Smith’s brainchild – The Great Tapestry of Scotland. An extraordinary woven record of Scotland’s heritage and history – 165 panels designed by artist Andrew Crummy, and realised by 1000 stitchers across Scotland and the Isles.

Gorgeous Jim Naughtie from BBC Radio 4’s Today. I like to wake up with him in the morning!

Afterwards, I interviewed Jim Naughtie for my little show on Alnwick’s Lionheart Radio. I was toe-curlingly starstruck. Still, it will be a lasting memory – as will the system crash that cut off my first broadcast of Jim’s interview mid flow.

The good news is that the ‘Search for a New Voice’ had a truly worthy winner – Paul Oxley. Also positive – 5.45am live broadcasts won’t need to feature in my list of memories. Plus, I’ve escaped the lure and shame of broadcast industry exploitation and mores – after all, just look at poor Vanessa on Strictly Come Dancing!

‘Strictly’ was possibly not Vanessa’s finest hour.

If you have firsts that have made a lasting impression, why not tell me about them by leaving a message below? I may well put together a radio show on just that subject.

(A version of this article was first published in the Berwick Advertiser, November 2013)

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