Writing a Sestina
by Caroline M. Davies
Writing a Sestinais like the first time you tackle a climbing wall.
My god, you think, how on earth can I get up that
towering edifice that seems impossible to climb.
Stuck at the bottom you shake and sweat
and hope that someone will haul you up.
Instead they call you a wimp
So you start to climb, the cry ‘wimp’
And yet you must go on with the climb
And you want to be the first up
Then you slip. Flailing, you sweat
They did all say that
You find that perfect moment, standing up
As the above poem attempts to illustrate, even the thought of writing a sestina can bring some otherwise accomplished poets out in a sweat. Yet it is not as difficult as it seems at first glance. I am going to argue that it something to have fun with rather than be nervous of.
It is a form of poem that has been around for a long time and is believed to date back to the twelfth century.
So what are the rules for writing one?
A sestina consists of thirty-nine lines — six stanzas of six lines each with a three-line concluding stanza.
The feature that distinguishes the sestina is that the words which end the lines in the first stanza are repeated as the end words for the second stanza and so on in a fixed pattern until you have written six stanzas. The same six words appear in the concluding three line stanza — two in each line. Are you with me so far?
If you go back to the climbing wall sestina — link — you will see the six words used are:
These six end words are crucial to the flow and meaning of the sestina. They set the tone and provide the scaffolding for the poem. So choose your words carefully. Whatever you do — don’t handicap yourself by choosing a word like wimp. You may find it helpful to choose words which have a variety of meanings. You can also modify them by using words that sound similar. Seamus Heaney does this in Two Lorries (link?) where he replaces load with lode.
The six words follow a particular order
First Stanza 1-2-3-4-5-6
Second Stanza 6-1-5-2-4-3
Third Stanza 3-6-4-1-2-5
Fourth Stanza 5-3-2-6-1-4
Fifth Stanza 4-5-1-3-6-2
Sixth Stanza 2-4-6-5-3-1
First line of Envoi 2-5
Second line of Envoi 4-3
Third line of Envoi 6-1
Now before you panic and start thinking that this looks complicated and like maths — let’s look at it in a different way.
First Stanza a-b-c-d-e-f
Second Stanza f-a-e-b-d-c
Third Stanza c-f-d-a-b-e
Fourth Stanza e-c-b-f-a-d
Fifth Stanza d-e-a-c-f-b
Sixth Stanza b-d-f-e-c-a
First line of Envoi b-e
Second line of Envoi d-c
Third line of Envoi f-a
So you see it is not so difficult. It is all about repeating end words. This repetition of words lends itself to telling stories. The sestina can be seen like a dance. The last word of the preceding stanza is the first word of the next stanza, followed by the first, then peeling off the layers, fifth, second, to get to the core, fourth and finally third.
You may, by this stage, be regarding the format as a bit of a strait-jacket, and thinking that repeating words means that the outcome is foretold. This is far from being the case.
I first came across the sestina while doing a poetry course. For one of the assignments we were asked to write a poem in response to Louise Gluck’s poem “Nurse’s Song” and could choose whichever type of poetry we wished. My first attempt was a pallid affair about how the nurse did not understand the pressures of the mother’s life. Then I decided to use the sestina form to provide a structure and focus for the writing. One of the six words that demanded to be used was knife and suddenly the poem turned into something much darker and more horrifying. After the first stanza writing the rest was unnerving and exhilarating as the mother’s voice went over and over what had happened.
In a recent on-line workshop I asked one of the participants Did you plan it like that or did you just follow where the poem led?
It was a bit weird really - I'd had the first line knocking around in my head since the beginning of the week, when I picked the prompts, and I knew how I wanted the poem to end...but the bit in the middle just sort of wrote itself... think I went into some sort of sestina induced trance.
It is important, however that you remain in charge of the poem, rather than allowing the form to dominate. But above all have fun with it.
Now it’s your turn. Follow this link for other examples of Sestinas:
by Caroline DaviesFool in your uniform starched white
Fussing over the baby in the light
Of his mother’s failings, Thinking you’re so right
Your disapproval cuts me like a knife
You consider me a bad mother
All I can do is shut up and smile
I love to watch the baby playing smile
The senile judge (I think he wasn’t right)
Is this about the working mother
The way to silence her was with the knife.
If only I had turned on the light
With a smile she holds the baby against the white light
Copyright © 2006 by Caroline Davies
Two other sestinas appear in this issue:
Alan Jackson, Black Dog Blues
Suzanne Weichhart, White Garden