On Poetry – Part 4: The Sestina, and my love/hate relationship with this form

When it comes to reading poetry, sestinas are among some of the best poems I have ever read. But I must confess, when it comes to writing them, they really challenge me. I don’t think I have ever written a sestina I’ve been truly happy with, and I am hoping that will change some time during this month, with NaPoWriMo. But only time will tell.

In the meantime, however, I will attempt to explain how a sestina works, and show you one of my favourite sestinas, a rather clever and unusual one which actually shrinks (more on that later).

A sestina consists of 39 lines, including 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, followed by an envoi of 3 lines. All of these are unrhymed, but, and this is a big but, the same 6 words must be used to end each of the lines in the 6 stanzas, only in a changing pattern throughout the poem. This pattern is known as lexical repetition, and this is where it gets tricky. The first line of the second stanza must have the same end-word as the last line of the first stanza. The second line of the second stanza then has the same end-word as the first line of the first stanza. The third line of the second stanza ends on the same end-word as the second last line of the first stanza, the fourth line matches up with the second line of the first stanza, the fifth line with the third last line of the previous stanza, and the sixth line with the third line of the previous stanza. Make any sense? Have a look at this diagram to help clear it up a little:

This diagram above shows what lines from the previous stanza the current stanza should be taking its end-words from. The same goes for each stanza, taking from the previous stanza in the same manner, until you get to the envoi at the end which uses all six words again. If this still isn’t quite clicking into place, just stay with me – seeing it in action with the poem I’m going to use as an example might help clear this one up.

The effect of this is that the poem revolves around these six words or ideas, again moving in a circular motion as compared to the linear progression of other forms and free verse. Despite being invented in the twelfth century by a troubadour, the sestina remains popular today with poets because it accommodates conversational discourse within it so well. Everyday speech often repeats certain words, and so the sestina can seize upon this to create a poem that repeatedly questions and examines a thought or theme, in a way that the reader can relate to and understand with ease.

Now, onto the example. If you were struggling to understand how the sestina works before, read the poem below, then go back and re-read how it works, and see if you can match the way the end-words are moving around in the poem. This example is innovatively modern, cleverly shrinking the size of the lines as the poem goes on until, in the final stanza, there is only the 6 key words left.

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 comes.
They’re going to
less with time.


Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the quick years come
then you will, too.  Me, I’ll still be home.

So there we have it, my dodgy explanation of a form which I love and hate, and an example of a very clever way to use this form in poetry, both of which again come from the Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Strand and Boland that I so often refer to in these posts. When trying to write your own, there is a multitude of places to start. Some poets prefer to think of the six words, or themes, first, while others just prefer to dive in, write the first stanza, and then figure out what trouble they have found themselves in. Like with a lot of writing, it ultimately depends on what works for you.

I will most certainly be trying to write a sestina again during NaPoWriMo, so the question is, will any of my fellow participants (or even just other writers and poets) be willing to try their hand at this daunting but potentially rewarding form?

23 thoughts on “On Poetry – Part 4: The Sestina, and my love/hate relationship with this form

    • It is really hard. I’ve written 2 or 3, but struggled through it each time. But I love reading them, and I really want to get this right, even if just once! 😛 If you do attempt it again though, let me know! 🙂

  1. If you don’t mind my ‘blogging on your blog’ I would like to share a sestina with you. It is part of a work-in-progress which has been ongoing for several years… well in fact it ground to a halt some time ago, but it is sitting on my shelf waiting for something to inspire me to take it up again. The whole work is a fictitious day in the life of Scottish author Irvine Welsh (with his permission), in which he wanders through the streets of Edinburgh with the alcoholic policeman Detective Inspector Rimbaud. In this poem, ‘The Kursk Sestina’ they meet a Russian seaman in a pub in Leith, with apologies for the earthy language:

    Old Rimbaud said, “Let’s go and take a glass
    of whiskey in a jostling pub I know.”
    I, like a sodding numpty, dogged his steps,
    And tracked him to a clapped-out, frowsy dive,
    Where half the clientele were missing ears –
    the other half were shouting to be heard!

    We’d been there half an hour when I heard
    a Russian sailor tap the falling glass;
    he grabbed my sleeve, said “This is for your ears
    alone, no other bugger has to know.
    I heard my skipper calling dive-dive-dive,
    as I slid down the conning-tower steps…”

    Old Rimbaud, blootered, sunk down on the steps;
    the Russian bellowed at me, to be heard.
    “The air inside gets hotter when you dive,
    the sea is slagged and dark as bottle-glass.
    The ghost of every bugger that you know
    floats by, and there’s a pounding in your ears!”

    His sliding, slootered accent hurt my ears.
    I thumbed my belt and slipped some salsa steps;
    I said, “Now tell me something I don’t know,
    no half-arsed, half-cocked tale already heard,
    no shite enigma darkly in a glass,
    no bonny buck-and-wing, no duck-and-dive!”

    He scowled at me and, miming a crash-dive,
    resumed the tale that battered at my ears,
    while I, to ease my pain, sucked at my glass.
    “Kolesnikov took all the proper steps,
    and we went aft – perhaps you might have heard –
    but when you’re frigging shark-bait, boy, you know!”

    I shut him up, and said, “Here’s what I know –
    no fucker made it home from that last dive –
    They all asphyxiated, so I heard!”
    He laughed, he jeered, I stopped my ringing ears,
    and sat down with old Rimbaud on the steps,
    to spit at all the demons in my glass.

    When ghosts well from a glass you always know,
    You’re sitting on the steps of some sad dive,
    and though you stop your ears you’ll still have heard!

    Marie Marshall

    • It is a really confusing form, this one! It’s a lot easier to explain it face to face than online – I remember my lecturer at university explaining this one to me, scribbling all sorts on the board to explain how it worked, and even then I only really got it after trying it for myself. But this form is definitely for people who are really up for a challenge, because it is very difficult.
      The poem is great, isn’t it! 🙂

  2. I like poetry. I like to read it and I like to try and write it, but I don’t totally understand all the different forms. For me, poetry is something that’s right there in the moment. It’s something fresh and like a capture of a moment or an emotion/feeling. When I read about all the complex forms like this one, writing poetry (for me) stops being something fun and kind of becomes a chore. I’m sure there are reasons for the various forms that I don’t know and maybe if I knew them they’d make more sense to me.

    • Oh, I do know what you mean, and despite the fact I have posted about a few different forms, I would say half, if not more, of my poems are written free form, completely spontaneous and in the moment as you say. I think some forms, like the villanelle and pantoum, and even smaller ones like the haiku, are good for their own reasons but also for helping to learn how to manipulate words in different ways, so when you come back to the free form spontaneous stuff you have, I guess you could say, new skills to do it with. Mind, this form, the sestina, is just a devil, a challenge only for the brave, I suspect, hahaha.
      But I agree, if it becomes a chore, it’s not worth it. I figure whatever works for each individual person – some people like the forms, others don’t, and while you can benefit from them they certainly aren’t necessary. 🙂

  3. Sestinas to me are like the crotchety grandmas of poetry. They just sit in the corner glaring at you saying, “You think you know poetry? Eh? You think you’re a poet? You don’t know shit about poetry.”

  4. It’s too early here to make much sense of the patterns of a sestina! I think I’ll have to read this over again a little later in the day! lol

    I had no idea there were such complicated forms of poetry. I guess teachers don’t want to have to teach it to kids who don’t want to learn poetry in the first place! I did like Miller Williams’ poem, though – and Marie Marshall’s, too! If you come up with one, I would love to read it, but please don’t ask me to try to write one! As far as poetry goes, I’m free-styling it all the way! 🙂

    • Yeah, I dare say this is perhaps the most complicated form of poetry out there – it’s certainly one of the most challenging. I think when it was invented, it was meant to be daring and challenging, something people couldn’t imitate as easily. I could be wrong about that though.
      But I think forms like this and villanelles and such aren’t taught because the teachers themselves don’t know the forms…for some reason they just aren’t taught anymore. And while I think this form is really probably only for the advanced and the brave, some of the other forms would be helpful to students, I think. But oh well…
      If I can write a sestina I am halfway happy with, I will post it up on my blog for sure. I want to try again, I haven’t tried one for a long time, maybe a couple of years even.

    • Ah thank you! So you can make sense of my explanations? Hahaha, don’t know if I even can 😛
      And to be honest, being able to know the forms, and be able to write good poetry, are two very different things… 😛 I still have a lot to learn myself. But then all poets do I guess.

  5. Pingback: Day Five: Nightmare As Sestina | the preeminent litterateur

  6. Pingback: On Poetry – Part 5: Comic Verse – The Limerick, The Cento, and The Clerihew | wantoncreation

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