A Univocal Lipogram is a piece of writing – usually a poem – which uses only one vowel. You can use all the consonants you want or need, and you can use that vowel as many times as you like. I’ll reproduce the full lyrics for a A Sad Bat so you can see what I mean:
Black spartan lands
Salt flats and pans
Vast, Atacaman, all asphalt and glass
What a man saw was that sand as a maw
Past as a path, as a trap, as a flaw
A scarab ball, an alarm, a star fall
Mark that dark patch that casts a ghast pall
Craft a small map – salad days call!
Grasp at that canvas, claw as an awl
Dark falls past bad days
Man sat at a camp
Palm wraps an arm and a scarf wraps a hand
Was that a jackdaw, a hawk, a sad bat?
Warmth crawls as dawn draws an arc, a sharp band
I realised early on in this process that “Atacaman” was univocal (uni-vowel-ular) and decided to write a song about someone travelling through the Atacama Desert, a high desert in northern Chile that I visited in late 2017 to do a bit of stargazing. It’s stark and beautiful and thanks to all the salt and altitude, very dry – so good for looking at the sky. I saw the Magellanic Clouds for the first time.
There’s some debate over the letter “y”, which I forgot about when I wrote this. I heard about univocal lipograms from – as I do many ideas – poet Ross Sutherland, who appeared on my wife’s podcast The Allusionist to explain this form, and other forms used by the Oulipo*, a group of poets and mathematicians and writers who specialise in constrained writing. Ross crafted a univocal lipogram and performed for them, only to find out that they were disappointed by his inclusion of the letter y.
I don’t know where I land on this – presumably the “y” in “Egypt”, “Lady”, or “Ypres” does function like a vowel – in that it adds a syllable. The y I’ve used in “days” modifies the sound of the vowel – but so does the “r” in dark and the “l” in “palm” – so I think my “y” is legit. Idk whether the Oulipo sees it that way.
There’s a very good Univocal Lipogram in “o” that Ross put out on his show. His thesis is that this kind of constraint forces you to use more basic language, swear more, and – in this case – I think he created something very focussed, rich with detail. My Univocal Lipogram is sort of vague and allusive and slightly mystical, so I’m not sure it had the desired effect on me.
Oh – the music does something quite weird too, but maybe I’ll save that for the podcast. Next week, we’ll be experiencing a fire at sea, so why not prepare for that by preordering Year of The Bird Volume 4 ?
*you might remember that I name checked them in “Hawaiian Oulipo Hell” on Year of The Bird Volume 1?