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.

Time
goes
too
fast.
Come
home.

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?