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Archive for the category “Poetry”

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.


Death is dry


I wrote this poem following the recent death of my mum. It somehow seems appropriate to share it today when people are remembering those who have died in conflict. My mum remembered World War 2 well: her school was bombed and she was evacuated. We spend our lives trying to make sense of death and yet it always seems to take us by surprise wherever, whenever and however it comes.

Death is dry.
Dry bones sliding
like unruly stacks of kindling.
And light.
Death is light as light itself.
Death is a look of surprise and
a long pause where no breath
is breathed
and a sudden gasped

Death is unfinished business
a glass half empty.
A sip through a straw
that makes you
cough the cough you don’t have the strength
to cough.

Death is a puff of air
released when your body
is moved.
Death is men in dark coats
at 3am
zipping you into a bag on a low stretcher.
Death is your purpled hand
beneath the zip.

Death is a puff of dust
from an urn perched in
a hole in the ground.
A puff of you
free from bones and breath and air
and zips.

Beginnings & Ends


‘I feel terribly privileged when I’m handling human brains.’

Hold the brain, turn it this way and that.
Examine the features and membranes.
Look at the patterns and foldings.
Feel the surface for softenings
which may indicate a stroke.

Wipe away the drops of formalin.
Cut through the brain stem,
home of everyday actions.
Separate the cerebellum.
Take what looks like a bread knife and
slice the coronal sections.
Lay them out like biscuits on a tray.

Inspect each slice.
Check for changes in hue.
Stain the tissue.
Embed it in paraffin.

The marbled world of the brain
stroked and sliced and analysed.
So much unsealed.
So much concealed.
Perfect print of life.

Inspired by a You Tube video (2010) by Martha Henson for Wellcome Trust featuring neuropathologist Steve Gentleman dissecting brains. Available


Blood splashes the girl’s front.
Life ebbed away.
Meat to look forward to.

Work first.
Clean the bowls.
Haul the carcass.
Scrub the floor.
Warm water spatters rosy liquid
bringing life to numb fingers.

Glide the knife under the skin.
Slip it off the carcass
like a jacket from the shoulders of a child.

The carcass hangs.

Finally the butchery.
Each portion packed in ice.
Each portion tenderly wrapped.
Some salted and cured.

The village gathers
in the savoury drenched hall.
The hullabaloo clambers into dusk.
Carving knives flash and slice.
Platters pass from hand to hand.
Cider flows. Juices run.

A child calls out.
The ceilidh gathers.

The women return,
rosy faced from scrubbing dishes.
They throw out their aprons to the music
as if they’ll never need them again.

Beginnings and ends

Shadows slip from the walls
collapsed cartoons falling
into sleep-starved minds
calling, calling
to a pinprick of time
when you held me,
blood spilling down my leg
turning to jelly as I sobbed.
You soothe, moved by the tears
that so often rankled.
Layers of mystery.
Muffled banks between us.

Later you laugh at some joke I make.
Stroke my spots and bumps.
Shake the core of the kicked apple.
I, intact, pushing out branches,
as you, imperceptibly, shrink
pip-like to the beginnings and ends
of your time, our time.

On the hospital bed, crumpled, foetus-like
the enema’s work a brown stain on plastic pad.
And the shadows come,
we are here, they say, we are here.
And I say, I am here.
I wrap you and hold you
high like a star
and you, triumphant,
smash the panes of years.

And we see each other
Cleanly. Clearly. Brightly.

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