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From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

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:

Beyond

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.

References
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.

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3 thoughts on “Scanning for stress: the villanelle

  1. Good work Jackie and thanks for this. I am about to embark on some poetry for the first time for my MA and have to write a sonnet and villanelle, so this is really helpful. I’ve earmarked March as my ‘learn all about poetry’ month 🙂

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