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General Description and Requirements
The sestina is one of the more difficult forms to master. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is the length of the poem. One might write a few sonnets per day. The sonnet only has 140 syllables when using the English Heroic Line of iambic pentameter. A sestina using the same line is 390 syllables long, almost three times the size. More difficult than the length, though, is the requirement for the use of end words. In a sonnet, such as the English sonnet, one should have fourteen different words that rhyme in pairs, so seven pairs of rhymed words. In the sestina’s thirty-nine lines, there are exactly six words. That is not saying six sets of rhymed words. There are only six words that end the thirty-nine lines.
Whereas rhymed poetry tends to have a rhyming pattern, such as the English sonnet’s ababcdcdefefgg pattern; the sestina instead uses a folding pattern. All stanzas are six lines, and the order of the end words in the first stanza determines the order in subsequent stanzas as such:
Stanza 1: 123456
Stanza 2: 615243
Stanza 3: 364125
Stanza 4: 532614
Stanza 5: 451362
Stanza 6: 246531.
In other words, in the second stanza, the word that ended the first stanza (the end of the sixth line), will be at the end of the first line; the last word in the first line of the first stanza will be the last word in the second line of the second stanza; etc. with subsequent lines and stanzas. Then there is what is known as an envoy, a half stanza (three lines) at the end where the end word order is either 531 or 135 and the 246 end words will be somewhere in the middle of these three lines.
The third major requirement beyond the number of lines and the shuffling pattern of end words is that the sestina be isosyllabic. In other words, all the lines should be the same length or meter, such as iambic pentameter or alexandrines or another standard line.
Or, the short description: A poem with six six-line verses and a three-line envoy. There are only six ending words in a sestina which are shuffled in each verse in a specific pattern. The lines should all be of a single length.
Historically, the form is attributed to Arnaut Daniel, a Twelfth Century Occitan troubadour and glutton for punishment.
If you want to make your life easier in writing a sestina, the place to start is in choosing your six end words. If one were to just start writing and finish the first stanza, one would then have to use whatever words happened to fall at the end of the line of that first sestet. That’s great unless one of the lines ended with an inflexible word, such as “Antidisestablishmentarianism.” (Or was that the whole line?) Imagine having to get that in six more places in the poem.
So, what kind of words do you want to use on the end of your lines? Flexible words.
Words with multiple meanings,
Words that fill multiple parts of speech,
Multiple words that have the same spelling, such as “bear.” I bear the burden of my camp food, or the bear ate the burden of my camp food.
Words that will fit the rhythm and meter. If you will be using iambic pentameter, strong, one-syllable words, such as “bear,” can work. If you choose a four-syllable word while using iambic rhythm, it had better be iambic or close enough, such as “impossible,” rather than trochaic, like “imposition.” Also, if your line length is ten syllables, Antidisestablishmentarianism is not going to work for you.
You are looking for words that won’t seem repetitive, even though they are each used seven times within thirty-nine lines. You are looking for words that you will not have to struggle to use seven times.
Usually when I speak of the strengths of a poetic form, I tell what the form might best be used for, such as painting a picture with words, or telling a long story. The sestina is fairly flexible in that regard. On the other hand, I think the form is excellent for strengthening the poet. As I said earlier, due to length and the shuffling pattern, the sestina is difficult to master. A poet who puts in the time to master this form will be better for it. The sestina is a brain builder.
The sestina is not a fast poem to write. One will not just toss them off in a few minutes or an hour. It could take a full day or even weeks for a poet to turn out a sestina, and especially to polish and refine it.
It is also not a form that any poet will master quickly.
Some variations on the sestina rules make them easier to write.
Use homonyms for the end words, such as knight/night or sight/site/cite. This adds to the flexibility of less flexible words and adds more words to the list of good end words for a sestina.
Jettison the isosyllabic requirement. Some poets find it easier to concentrate on the folding pattern requirement and ignore the metrical requirement of the sestina.
Some poets have felt that the sestina’s requirements just weren’t difficult enough. From and for those poets, we have a few suggestions:
Rhyme the end words. Use three rhymed pairs of words, rather than six unrhymed words. One could also have two triple rhymes or go with monorhyme, meaning the six end words would rhyme. Good luck with that.
Use an unusual rhythm for English, such as dactylic (Xxx). Having two unstressed syllables at the ends of lines and in the end words ought to be plenty challenge for anyone. Even an anapestic rhythm (xxX) would change the feel of the poem to something lighter and sillier in English.
Notes and Tips
There is a term in poetry, enjambment. This means that a line is not end-stopped with a period, comma, or other punctuation, and the thought and sentence from one line runs into another. By using enjambment, the poet can increase the ability to use words flexibly without twisting syntax to get the end word in the right place. Using too much end-stopping is often done by amateur poets, with each line a separate thought, sentence or clause. In poetry the line is a major design element, but not the only one.
Be gentle with yourself about your first few efforts at the sestina. You did not learn to walk with your first step, you only learned to fall down a little further away. Likewise, trying a new poetic form can take time to master. Mastering the sonnet form might be like learning to walk. Mastering the sestina is more like learning to ride a bike…on a tightrope. It takes a lot of practice, and your first efforts may not be pretty.
When you name a poem, putting the name of the form in the title is vanity. Do not name sestinas things like: Sestina I; Sestina VIII; Ruggerio: a Sestina; A Sestina for a Winter’s Day. If a person knows what a sestina is, they’ll figure it out by reading the poem. If they don’t know, they probably won’t care and the form name in the title could put them off. Titles like Sestina LXIII also are a waste of titling. It’s like the poet doesn’t even care. “Ah, just another sestina I tossed off. No big deal.” If it’s no big deal, why do you think we would want to read it, you arrogant puke? (Yeah, Petrarch, I’m looking at you.) Basically, a poem title with the form name in it is a way to say, “Look at me, I’m such a sophisticated poet that I can write a sestina.” Of course, that’s true of any poetic form. The exception to this would be in student exercises. In other words, if you want to call your first five sestinas “Sestina I,” etc., go for it. You’ll probably want to burn them once you figure out just how bad they are anyway. And the first ones will be bad. Trust me. We go back to the point above about riding a bicycle on a tightrope.
I do not claim that these are good examples, just examples.
Dream Journey of the Night
Somewhere in this dream journey of the night,
I have lost the threadings of the long day,
and with them went the furrowed lines of care,
for on this night’s ride I know how I’ll fare.
Paths are lined in silver along the way
of dreams to come brightened by Angel light.
How come these bizarre dreams to be so light
although my eyes are closed in the dark night?
Whence come these colors in scattering way
that make my night so much more than my day?
A long day seems to be the only fare
to bring me to this bright land without care.
For those who in the days do wear their care,
set down these burdens and dream travel light.
In dreams you may eat the finest of fare,
and never wonder at approaching night.
In dreams there is naught so sweet as the day,
and with a command, nothing in the way.
So dream, dream, dream the sacred night away!
Dance through moonbeams without a single care!
Defend against the coming of the day
with eyes latched tight against approaching light.
Banish wakefulness back to realms of night
and through peaceful dreams have your preferred fare.
But to live in night, we must pay our fare.
Forsooth, to have it any other way
might be wished, but leads to a demon night
when we’re undeserved of having no care.
Thus must we pay our dues when comes the light
earning sleep and peaceful dreams in the day.
Ah, soon enough, we must all start our day
taking the waking man’s burden as fare,
crossing the sun’s sad journey in the light
with sunray tears illumining our way.
‘Tis the status of light that makes us care;
the light of day is not the beam of night.
We each shall ever fare upon our way,
inspecting the light with all of our care;
the plight of day is not the dream of night.
Welcome to Hell
Sweet was poetry of old centuries,
structured and rhymed to make a modern laugh.
It rang out, voice strong, a clarion bell,
back before all art descended to Hell.
That was before the age of photograph
when art dived into her great fallacy.
You ask me, “What was art’s great fallacy?”
Ah, it came in the Nineteenth Century,
When painters were upstaged by photographs.
“Who could compete?” the portraitist would laugh,
seeing what he thought were the gates of Hell,
and heard his death knell from every bell.
The painters could not the photographs bell.
Dreamed competition was their fallacy.
This was no tomcat as the mouse’s hell;
it was an art for a new century.
Moods were their forté; a cry or a laugh
they could capture better than photographs.
So, because of the mighty photograph,
great, new forms of art struck the artist’s bell.
Please excuse me while I take time to laugh.
To call this new trash art is fallacy;
we’ve suffered for more than a century,
and new poetry plumbed the depths of Hell.
Reading this avant-garde stuff is my Hell.
If artists competed with photographs
back in a gone and wasted century,
today’s poetry might sing like a bell
instead of dying deep in fallacy.
At this wasted beauty I do not laugh.
At this ravaged beauty I do not laugh,
So many great minds were wasted. Oh, Hell!
Did Old Nick inspire such fallacy?
Give me a poem like a photograph
with meaning deep, but as clear as a bell!
Devastated arts of a century!
Who at these centuries will find a laugh
when art rang a bell heard only in Hell?
O Photograph, you have brought fallacy!
Filling in Love’s Moat
I’m told that I’m a teacher, but I could never teach you love.
Love is a free-flowing thing, not a noose that holds us in guilt.
It has to be free to roam, not tightly controlled like your day.
But teaching takes a student, one willing and able to learn;
I never had one in you. No, for you knew what you needed.
Your definition of love was a constricting, castle moat.
I could never live inside a circle prescribed by a moat.
I am more a butterfly, an eagle that floats high on love.
To float, I must always learn. You never knew what I needed.
My love is expanding love. It is a love that knows no guilt.
But this is something that you couldn’t reach out enough to learn.
“Perhaps,” I thought, “tomorrow?” But hope died with each passing day.
There are no tomorrows left, as we approach our final day,
as I prepare to break out, dropping the drawbridge on your moat.
This circle will be broken, although I’ve taken long to learn
the need to act hastily before the death of inner love.
It’s not a matter of fault. It’s not to set blame or give guilt.
It’s a matter of breathing what the soul has always needed.
I haven’t always given the tokens of love you needed.
We had no understanding, seeming so close, as night and day,
sharing a border of life, but no closer to gold than gilt.
We were not surrounded by, but separated by a moat.
We each tried to reach across, but it was not enough for love.
But I am through with reaching. Giving up is what I must learn.
I find myself too angry, because you’re not disposed to learn.
Exploration is my life. It is the only thing needed.
That your needs are different is the barrier to our love.
“Come away with me!” I’ve cried, “Let’s seek the fringes of the day!”
Oh, you escape in your way, as you paddle around the moat,
but always with your cohort: necessity, hard work, and guilt.
I can’t do what I wish to. I don’t wish to leave you with guilt.
I have no magic wand though, to make a desire to learn,
nor can I dissolve your friends or coax you outside of your moat.
Evaluating our past, we cannot give what is needed,
so let’s sit and watch the sky, the long sunset that ends our day
as we sort our memories and contemplate our dying love.
Fire and water, my love, make steam and fog that hides the gilt.
This is our love’s dying day with lessons each of us will learn.
Here’s to what we’ve long needed, the strength to fill in love’s old moat.