Poetry Form - The Sestina


The Sestina Verse Form
by Ariadne Unst

* History. * Form. * Your Composition. * References. * Example.

Do you have a story to tell? Then the length and repetition of found in the Sestina may be the form you need.

The name Sestina is derived from the Italian sesto (sixth).

History.

Historically, the Sestina is a French form. It appeared in France in the twelfth century, initially in the work of Arnaut Daniel. He was one of the troubadours or court poets and singers in the service of French nobles.

Troubadours were lyric poets. They began in Provence in the eleventh century. For the next two centuries, they flourished in South France, East Spain, and North Italy, creating many songs of romantic flirtation and desire. Their name is from the French trobar, to "invent or make verse".

The Sestina was one of several forms in the complex, elaborate, and difficult closed style called trobar clus (as opposed to the easier more open trobar leu).

Form

In a traditional Sestina:

Your Composition

The repetition of words in a Sestina makes this form a good match for a story that uses common speech, for in conversation the repetition of key words is common. The Sestina is a more "natural" form than the Villanelle (which is comparatively artificial in repeating whole lines).

The writer of a Sestina (as with the Villanelle) can use the repetition to delve more deeply into the material. Each stanza can revisit that material and show more facets of what the poet feels.

As with other forms, try the traditional form first. Once you have mastered that, you are ready for your own variations.

Here are some steps to take in creating a Sestina:

  1. Decide upon six words that are your candidates for the words that will repeat. I recommend concrete nouns (e.g., wool, chimney, lozenge, floor) and active verbs (e.g., climbs, opens).

    Alternatively, begin by writing a 6-line poem that you want to expand into a Sestina. Reorganize that sestet if appropriate to get more interesting end-words.

  2. On a large blank sheet of paper (or, if you prefer, on a new computer text file) write the end words for the first stanza, leaving space to complete the line:

    
                                                          1 
                                                          2 
                                                          3 
                                                          4 
                                                          5 
                                                          6 
    

    Do the same for the second sestet and so on:

    
                                                          6 
                                                          1 
                                                          5 
                                                          2 
                                                          4 
                                                          3 
    

    Then for the tercet, write the appropriate two words per line, e.g.:

    
                               6                          2 
    

    Be sure to follow the above guidelines for form. You will then have written 1 or 2 words in each of the 39 lines of the whole poem!

  3. Now write the stanzas, using the stepping stones provided by the chosen words.

  4. Sometimes a writer finds that a later stanza is a much stronger one than her first one, and she wants to move that later stanza to the start of the poem. That's fine! Simply move as a block your strong stanza and all the sestets that follow it (down to and not including the tercet). Preserve their sequence, and put them at the start, before what was previously the first sestet.

    Check the pattern of end-words. You should find that the Sestina's pattern is still in order (even though a different word is now word "1", etc.) for all the sestets. Then make appropriate adjustments to the placement of your 6 chosen words in the final tercet.

  5. As with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not "drive" your poem. If the rhyme scheme and form begin to feel forced, then the poem's content must be asserted.

  6. Traditionally, one keeps the same line length, as that gives the rhythmic repetition that the ear associates with music. It also gives a pleasant appearance on the page. Sometimes a writer wants to vary the line length in order to challenge the listener's or reader's expectations: that is fine if you do it deliberately. Just don't be lazy and cut lines short or run them on because you can't be bothered to fix your poem's problems.

  7. Traditionally, one keeps the same end words. You can modify them, or replace them with off-rhymed words, etc. The less you follow the traditional form, the less you can claim to have written a Sestina. Again, only break the form's rules because you choose to, not because you lack the skills and devotion to make your poem work in the traditional form.

Example

A dozen example of the Sestina tradition are in The Making of a Poem. They include:

Here is a sestina by Pam White:


  The Concord Art Association Regrets
  Pam White 

    Your entry was not accepted. We regret
    it wasn't (enough for us), a work of love.
    We liked many of the colors on the whole
    but the mass was just something unrelated
    to the rest of our show. We hope your work
    will have a bright future in another place.

    We remember last year you tried to place
    another photograph and it was also with regret
    we turned you down. Though for that particular work
    we found nothing about it (no one could) to love.
    It was obscure and a little upsetting in relation
    to the rest of our show which we look on as a whole.    

    Now you may think us ungenerous. On the whole
    you are probably right, but this is our place
    and we can do what we want whether you relate
    to it or not. However we don't want you to regret
    your association with us. We want you to love
    us, send us money, but please, no more work.
  
    You see right now we need money to work
    on the building we're in. There's a hole
    in the roof and one wall needs all the love
    and attention it can get. Really the place
    needs so much, which all costs. I regret
    to remind you we need more space for related

    works. We're trying to expand and relate
    to lots of different kinds of work
    so different people won't regret
    their visit with us but will see the whole
    beauty and tranquillity of the place
    and come with us, a journey of love

    where people of all races, colors, and creeds love
    to look and bask and of course bring relations,
    friends, and lovers. All are welcome to our place
    here where all the world's magnificent work
    can be shown in its entirety, the whole
    place filled - with your exception, we regret.

    We know you'll love the whole
    work we're doing for this place.
    We can't relate enough our regret.
  
            (Copyright © 1983-2014 by Pam White.)

A Last Word.

Just because you start with the intention of writing a Sestina, you do not have to keep your poem in that form if it does not work for you. Your attempt to write a formal poem may help you find words that you would not have found otherwise. And you may decide that you choose to end up with a poem in a different form, perhaps even a prose poem.

Books.

Buy Strand The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

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