Friday, August 13, 2010

Poetry Friday: Sestinas

School starts on Tuesday. I have been swamped by getting ready for that, putting new books in my classroom library, fixing my room, nagging people to put my bulletin boards back up on my wall. And yet, I have also been writing a sestina. Because I'm strange like that. I've written on this blog before about how it feels powerful to write something at a time when everything else is out of your control. The words on the paper (or screen) can be moved around as you choose; you can do with them what you want. Not so the people around you, or the circumstances around you.

So, the sestina. It was, predictably, terrible. It no longer exists. I've only ever written one that I liked, and even that mostly served to show me how well people who know what they are doing can write a poem. But since I have been thinking about sestinas, I thought I would do a post about them.

A sestina has 39 lines. Instead of rhymes, the lines end with six words which are repeated in a certain pattern. I have a book which describes this pattern in a quasi-mathematical way, but I have a hard time following that. I can relate to Nancie Atwell's explanation better; she just gives each end-word a number and then provides this chart:

Stanza 1: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Stanza 2: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3
Stanza 3: 3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5
Stanza 4: 5, 3, 2, 6, 1, 4
Stanza 5: 4, 5, 1, 3, 6, 2
Stanza 6: 2, 4, 6, 5, 3, 1
Envoi (3 lines):

Confused yet? Do what I do; use this template, where you can just type in the six words you have in mind and press "create template." Then you will get a list of the words in the order they are supposed to appear. You can cut and paste that into a word-processing document.

Here's "Sestina", by Swinburne. It begins:

I saw my soul at rest upon a day
As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,
Among soft leaves that give the starlight way
To touch its wings but not its eyes with light;
So that it knew as one in visions may,
And knew not as men waking, of delight.

This was the measure of my soul's delight;
It had no power of joy to fly by day,
Nor part in the large lordship of the light;
But in a secret moon-beholden way
Had all its will of dreams and pleasant night,
And all the love and life that sleepers may.

See how the second stanza repeats the end words from the first? The six words Swinburne is using are day, night, way, light, may, and delight. He is doing a rhyming sestina, but a sestina doesn't have to rhyme. If you follow the link above you can read the rest of this poem.

Here's the envoi. It has to repeat the six words.

Song, have thy day and take thy fill of light
Before the night be fallen across thy way;
Sing while he may, man hath no long delight.

The hard part about writing a poem like this is that all that repetition can feel very forced. You need to choose end-words that are versatile, but also meaningful, because you are going to have to use them again and again.

But some people do it so beautifully. Tiel Aisha Ansari is one. Here's her sestina from 2007 about the California wildfires. Notice how she chose very versatile words, such as "leaf," which she then used as "leave," and even, in one stanza, "believed." She also chose a topic in which the repetition was effective; you get a real sense of the relentless quality of the flames.

For the same reason, this sestina, "Tsunami," works very well, too. I love the way the poet uses the confusion of mixed-up words to show how the wave tosses everything together into chaos.

Or maybe it's just that my mind is rather fixed on natural disasters these days.

Sestinas are a lot of fun to read, and while they are terribly difficult to write, you do feel a sense of achievement when you get done. Try one!

Here's some more information on the form.

And here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.


Amy L V said...

What a helpful and lovely post about sestinas. I wrote my first one in college, and like you love that feeling of wrestling with and so-carefully-choosing the end words for each line. I certainly agree about the beauty of Tiel Aisha Ansari's poetry. I will be playing with your link and also linking to you on my page for this post specifically as well as generally. Thank you!

Author Amok said...

I love using sestinas with teens. We pick a topic, generate our six words as a group, then assign people to stanzas. When we put the stanzas together, there are some wonderful suprises/ideas talking to each other.

Karen said...

I am fascinated by your explanation of sestinas, something brand new to me. I will try one myself to see how it goes, and if I think it might work with my class.

Tabatha said...

I like hard forms like sestinas because they are like a puzzle. Such a challenge!

Mary Lee said...

I TOTALLY get the idea of doing something within your control during these days of chaotic preparation for the school year! I felt that way last April when I was writing a poem a day. No matter what else happened, I got to retreat and write every day.

Ben Curran said...

Ruth, thanks for posting about one of my favorite forms. I've loved sestinas for awhile. McSweeney's used to accept sestina submissions, but they don't anymore. Although they maintain an archive that is fun to browse through. My personal all time favorite is "Sestina" by Elizabeth Bishop. Do you know it? Love it!

I've tried many many times to write one of my own but, like you said, they sometimes sound so forced. Alas, I will not give up, though. Great post!

Julie said...

Ruth, thanks - I too love sestinas and encourage my students to give them a try. The best advice is right there in what you've said: 1) choose versatile end-words and 2) choose a topic that merits the driving repetition. Those two elements are more than half the battle. Sometimes, when I'm stuck on a particularly complicated sestina, I give myself comic relief time by re-reading Jonah Winter's sestina titled SESTINA: BOB. The joke in it is obvious. If you haven't seen it, here's a link:

Ben Curran said...

Oh, I've read Bob before. Hilarious! I thought of another excellent example: "The Book of Yolek" by Anthony Hecht:

It's brilliant and emotionally gut-wrenching, too. In fact, it can be hard to read without choking up.