Ross Sutherland’s Poetry Challenge

Write a Univocal poem

Can you write a poem that sticks to just one vowel? Take up Ross Sutherland’s challenge, inspired by the Oulipo movement of the 1960s.


Write a ‘univocal’ poem, not longer than ten lines, in which the only vowel used is A. The vowels E, I, O and U must not appear anywhere in your poem! As I’m feeling generous, you can use ‘Y’ if you really want to.

The background

This style of writing is known as a ‘Univocalism’, and was invented in the 1960s by a group of French poets called The OULIPO, which is dedicated to inventing new ways of writing. The OULIPO believe that adding extra rules to writing encourages us to use our imaginations in new and unexpected ways.

I like it because it means I stop worrying about what I’m going to write and focus instead on how! I’m already writing before I’ve worked out what my poem is about.

Using rules makes writing poetry more like a game: you set the rules and then you play. I usually don’t know where a poem is going to end when I start it, and this makes the whole thing a lot more exciting for me.

Getting started

Make a little dictionary of univocal words that interest you. Some might suggest a setting for a story, which can help you as you begin to build the words into sentences. Storytelling works well for univocalisms, although it’s very hard to plan exactly what direction your story will take! I recommend telling the story in third-person, which allows you to use the character’s name a lot (see example below). Don’t worry about repeating words, as this helps build the rhythm of the poem.

There are a few cheats: remember you can use acronyms with no vowels (like ‘CD’). Also, because we’re allowing ‘Y’, you can use ‘by’ and ‘my’ too, which are always useful words to have up your sleeve.

Just keep your nerve, take your time, and let the poem write itself!

For inspiration, here’s one I wrote earlier:

For Frank Black

Barry snaps a Wham CD:
“Gah!” Barry snarls, “What pap!”

Barry has a band: Angry Farmhands.
Angry Farmhands play hard and fast,
smash bandstands: a haggard rag-tag cabal.

ABBA, Wham, gangsta-rap, Brahms,
all lack Barry’s trashy standards!

Barry’s CD stack has a fatal flaw:
The stack sways…and…crash!
The stack attacks Barry.
“Argh!” Barry snarls, “a trap!”

An ABBA CD smacks Barry’s jaw,
Brahms whacks Barry’s back
Barry has an asthma attack.
“Class war!” Barry rasps.
Angsty CDs draw Barry’s last gasp:
Barry’s Black flag
drawn at half mast.

Here are some examples written by YPN members:

At Dark by Alex Hawkins-Hooker; Parva Ava by Adriana Pallero; Abracadabra by Emma Warren; Untitled by Lindsey Scott; Tarmac by Ankita Saxena; Soil by Basiratulann Shahid; Sam’s Grand Slam and Doc Roy, MP by Alister MacQuarrie; Untitled by Ameerah Arjanee; Add by Sherrie Talgeri.

Riding the mechanical bull

I think writing univocally can feel a bit like riding a mechanical bull. You have to quickly learn how to let it lead. You strain to learn the pattern so you don’t inadvertently resist it.

Writing univocally (a bit like rhyme) is something that improves with practice. Perhaps you would like to take on another vowel? The level of difficulty is pretty much alphabetic (‘A’, ‘E’: beginners; ‘I’, ‘O’: intermediate; ‘U’: expert; and the less said about ‘Y’ the better).

I’ve only written a handful of univocal poems, but each one I found easier than the last (discounting ‘U’ – no one should read my ‘U’ poem). Now that I’ve got an ear for writing this way, I find it a valuable extra tool for generating ideas.

Remember, if you get halfway though a univocal poem, and suddenly have a desire to break the form, then do it! Constraint is just a spur to the imagination, and the rules are there to be broken. There’s no shame in being thrown from the mechanical bull. Sometimes it looks even cooler than staying on.

If you’ve tried this challenge and written a poem you’d like to submit somewhere, why not have a look at the Poetry Opportunities section and see if there’s anywhere that you like the look of.

Ross Sutherland was included in The Times’s list of Top Ten Literary Stars of 2008. His debut poetry collection, Things To Do Before You Leave Town, is published by Penned in the Margins. Ross is also a member of the poetry collective Aisle16 with whom he runs Homework, an evening of literary miscellany in East London.

Ross started writing poetry when he was five. In an interview with Tim Clare, he explained, “My gran and I used to write together. She would use rhymes to help me remember shopping lists, stuff like that. When I moved to England, we kept in touch through poetry. That was the sole medium of our relationship.”

Published February, 2011

10 thoughts on “Ross Sutherland’s Poetry Challenge

    1. Brilliant Sherrie, just read your poem with “a” as your only vowel! Are you going to have another go using a different vowel? When you do two different ones it’s really striking how different the vowels feel. We’ll be sending them to Ross when submissions close on the 25th.

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