Writing Exercise – the refrain

by | November 6, 2015 | Writing Exercise | 4 comments

By Ashley Lister

is the ballad of poor, simple Dave

pervert whose quirks sent him straight to the grave

built a sex robot to use as a slave

he came to a sad, sticky end.

According to the Poetry Archive, “A refrain is a repeated part of a
poem, particularly when it comes either at the end of a stanza or between two

Dave fixed white goods, by way of a trade

night, on his X-Box, there were games that he played

none of this helped the poor sod to get laid.

he came to a sad, sticky end.

Refrains are popular in forms such as the villanelle and the triolet
and we can even see it being used in John McCrae’s beautiful war memorial rondeau:
‘In Flanders Fields’. Personally I think the refrain is one of the most
underrated devices in all of poetry. The repetition of a full line (or even
half a line) allows the poet to draw attention to a specific sentiment. As
writers, we can’t get away with that level of foregrounding. But, as poets, no
one bats an eyelid when we repeat and repeat and repeat.

just isn’t fair,” he’d sigh and he’d weep.

living alone like some sick sort of creep.”

he’d pull off a swift one and go back to sleep.

he came to a sad, sticky end.

As you can see, I’ve used a refrain on the final line of each verse in
my ‘Ballad of Poor Simple Dave’. This is a story told in poetic form that
follows the sad adventures of a young man who builds a sex robot. When I’ve
read this one at public performances I’ve heard audiences spontaneously join in
with that refrain and take ownership of the work. It’s humbling to be a part of
such an experience.

he made a sex robot. It wasn’t that hard.

got spares from old cookers lying round his backyard.

she was assembled he lubed her with lard.

he came to a sad, sticky end.

I won’t publish the rest of the poem here – it might not be to every
reader’s liking. But I will ask, if you feel inclined: why not post a couple of
stanzas of your own poetry that are bound by a single refrain? As always, the
comments box is below and it’s always a pleasure to read your work.

Ashley Lister

Ashley Lister is a UK author responsible for more than two-dozen erotic novels written under a variety of pseudonyms. His most recent work, a non-fiction book recounting the exploits of UK swingers, is his second title published under his own name: Swingers: Female Confidential by Ashley Lister (Virgin Books; ISBN: 0753513439) Ashley’s non-fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, including Forum, Chapter & Verse and The International Journal of Erotica. Nexus, Chimera and Silver Moon have published his full-length fiction, with shorter stories appearing in anthologies edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Mitzi Szereto. He is very proud to be a regular contributor to ERWA.


  1. Jean Roberta

    Ashley, I dread the fate of sad, simple Dave, but love the technique (yours, not necessarily his). The anapestic beat seems perfectly suited to this ballad. I used to write poems with refrains, but then realized that I couldn't earn a living that way. Much later, I realized that I can't earn a living writing erotic fiction either, so I probably have nothing to lose by rediscovering the comfort of writing poetry with traditional structures.

    • Ashley Lister

      One of the joys of this one has been the pleasure to read it to an audience who start to join in with the refrain. It's almost as though we're telling the story together.

      This is a video of me reading it at last year's Smut Manchseter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIQLAM94_AQ

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    I posted this a couple of years ago, for your Villanelle challenge, but it is definitely a good example of a refrain (actually, two alternating refrains unified at the end).

    Galatea (Villanelle)

    I am a pure creation of your will
    Engraved in lineaments of love and pain
    I wait for you, obedient and still.

    I never dreamed surrender's joy until
    Your chisel stripped me bare and made it plain
    I am a pure creation of your will.

    Your breath is life; your anger brings a chill
    That freezes me to marble once again.
    I wait for you, obedient and still.

    Your wild designs on pliant flesh fulfill
    Unspoken needs. Your fantasies sustain.
    I am a pure creation of your will.

    With alchemy of lust, your arts distill
    The essence of devotion, as you train
    My soul to wait, obedient and still.

    You kindle me and endless pleasures spill
    Through all the limbs your clever bonds restrain.
    I am a pure creation of your will.
    I wait for you, obedient and still.

    • Ashley Lister

      Loved this one when you first shared it. The twin refrains in this one give it so much power and rhythm and they're haunting in the sentiment they express.

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