Friday, May 3, 2013

Poetry Friday: Sestina

I have been playing with the sestina this week. For anyone unfamiliar with the form, it is a poem of six stanzas of six lines each and a three line stanza, called an envoi that addresses a person or comments on the previous stanzas. The same six unrhymed end-words are repeated in each stanza in a changing order that looks something like this:

Stanza 1:   Stanza 2:   Stanza 3:   Stanza 4:   Stanza 5:   Stanza 6:   Envoi:
 A                 F              C               E               D              B              AB
 B                 A              F               C               E              D              CD
 C                 E              D               B               A             F                EF
 D                 B             A                F               C             E
 E                 D             B                A               F             C
 F                 C             E                D               B             A

The form is said to have been invented by troubadour poets of Southern France who competed with one another to come up with the most elaborate, complex styles. The sestina was one for the masters. The above pattern is the classic one, but modern poets have modified it for their own purposes.

The repeating pattern of the sestina actually works quite well for poems containing speech because of the way certain words tend to be repeated in common conversation.

"I'm going to the park to run."
"To the park? To run?"
"Yes, Mother, to the park. To run."
"Which park are you running in?"
"Barton Park."
"I don't think you should be running in Barton Park. It's not safe."
"Mother, it's just the park. And I'm just going to run. I'll be fine."

I'm writing persona poems. First I tried making a list of words that fit my narrator and his situation. I chose six and wrote them in their proper configuration. I stared at the pages, blank except for the line of words marching down the side of the page like addends in an unsolvable word problem. I felt totally stymied.

So I tried writing the envoi, something I felt this narrator would want to say at the end of his poem. Then I used the words that fell in the proper places as my new six words and tried the formation once again. It was like looking at a crossword puzzle with all the answers and no clues. No luck.

But. By that time I had internalized the pattern enough that I could repeat it from one stanza to the next. And I knew a little more about what this character wanted to say. So I started with stanza one. Then forced myself to find words to put in his mouth that made sense, were true to his complaint, and fit the form. What do you know? A sestina.

I will spare you my amateur concoction, since I'm not sure it is fit for human consumption yet. Instead here are links to some wonderful sestinas.

Ezra Pound used the form to give voice to Bertran de Born whom Dante condemned to circle eight in the Inferno for stirring up strife.  You may listen to a rare recording of Pound reading the poem," Sestina: Altaforte" here and words here.

Listen to John Ashbery read his sestina featuring Popeye, Wimpy, and the rest of the gang. It's called "Farm Implements and Rutabegas in a Landscape."

The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina
by Miller Williams

Somewhere in everyone's head something points toward home,
 a dashboard's floating compass, turning all the time
 to keep from turning. It doesn't matter how we come
 to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
 the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
 to where it belongs, or what you've risen or fallen to.

 What the bubble always points to,
 whether we notice it or not, is home.
 It may be true that if you move fast
 everything fades away, that given time
 and noise enough, every memory goes
 into the blackness, and if new ones come-

 small, mole-like memories that come
 to live in the furry dark-they, too,
 curl up and die. But Carol goes
 to high school now. John works at home
 what days he can to spend some time
 with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

 Ellen won't eat her breakfast.
 Your sister was going to come
 but didn't have the time.
 Some mornings at one or two
 or three I want you home
 a lot, but then it goes.

 It all goes.
 Hold on fast
 to thoughts of home
 when they come.
 They're going to
 less with time.


Read the envoi here.

And just for fun, this one reminds me of  Chris Raschka's wonderful picture book, Yo! Yes?

Six Words 
by Lloyd Schwartz




Read the rest here.

Enjoy. Please zip over to Elizabeth Steinglass' blog for more Poetry Friday.


  1. You are industrious if you tried a sestina. I enjoyed reading the examples above.

  2. I love them all, Dori, maybe especially the Popeye one. I've written a few, and actually introduced them to my poetry middle school students who adored the structure. I hope you'll share yours someday!

  3. I love reading about your process!

  4. This is a very ambitious form.
    A tip of the hat to you.

  5. I have written two, and I wasn't pleased with either one. But they are amazingly satisfying to write. I found a website that had a template, and that helped me to keep the order straight. Nice post! I love the shrinking sestina.