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Writing a Sestina

by Caroline M. Davies

Writing a Sestina

is 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’
ringing in your ears, as along the wall
you make your way, inching up.
Searching for the next foothold you fear that
this is impossible. Your sweat
runs into your eyes making it hard to climb.

And yet you must go on with the climb
or be forever classed as a wimp
And terror is a small price to pay and sweat
for conquering the imposing wall.
Once you’re half way you know that
there is only one way to go and that’s up

And you want to be the first up
You’re not the only one making this climb.
After a while you decide that
this is a piece of cake. A wimp
could easily surmount this wall.
You can do it. No sweat

Then you slip. Flailing, you sweat
until you manage to scramble up
to the next foothold on the wall.
Wishing you hadn’t started this climb
but had watched the others like a wimp
Did they really call you that?

They did all say that
But it just took blood, tears and sweat
and refusing the chance to wimp
out. And the only way to go was up
and you enjoyed the climb
you think, at the top of the wall.

You find that perfect moment, standing up
Your sweat cools, the climb over
You’re not a wimp. You’ve beaten the wall.

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:

1. wall
2. that
3. climb
4. sweat
5. up
6. wimp

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:

Mother’s Song

by Caroline Davies

Fool 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
I’m shifting between black and white
Am I really such a useless mother?
I have to go before I lose the light
In the darkened kitchen waits the knife
Write it down says the therapist, is she right?

The senile judge (I think he wasn’t right)
According to the press all I did was smile
They kept on talking about the knife
And the blood splatter on the baby’s white
Crochet dress. If only I’d turned on the light
Was I an unnatural mother?

Is this about the working mother
who no longer knows who is wrong or right?
The shadows rise to swallow up the light
In my dreams, the baby still has a smile,
It’s like a little candle, burning white
I wish I hadn’t gone for the knife

The way to silence her was with the knife.
The nurse who never called me mother.
Should have strangled her with the white
Cord of the bassinet, right?
I wanted to get rid of that false smile,
To stop her poison blotting out the light.

If only I had turned on the light
To see what I was doing with the knife
Instead of slashing wildly against the smile
Wanting to be his only mother
Wanting the innocence of being right
Wanting to be whiter than white

With a smile she holds the baby against the white light
As the enraged mother flashes with the knife
Was the nurse right to save her own life?

Copyright © 2006 by Caroline Davies

Two other sestinas appear in this issue:
Alan Jackson, Black Dog Blues
Suzanne Weichhart, White Garden

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