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Write Your First Sestina: It’s a Matter of Pride

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Heinz Ketchup Sign How to Write a Sestina

The first time I wrote a sestina, it was a matter of pride. I was a poet, but I didn’t particularly like writing in form.

One day my twelve-year-old daughter sneaked my Norton Anthology, The Making of a Poem. Within a few days, she had experimented with writing sonnets, villanelles, pantoums, and… sestinas. Of course I was proud. But not just about her poem. I admit, I felt challenged. Was I going to let my twelve-year-old write sestinas without trying them myself?

I figured if I was going to try the form out, I might as well start in Pittsburgh. The city certainly offered a lot of sights on a Saturday morning. It seemed perfect for the rolling form of this 39-line poem (6 stanzas of 6 lines each, followed by a wrap-up 3-line stanza; the end words of the first stanza repeat throughout the entire poem, according to a set pattern). To make the pattern clearer, we’ll put the repeating words in bold…

Pittsburgh

Snow has fallen on Penn Avenue, (A)
as golden morning, fallen, melting (B)
and I walk past Heinz dead sign (C)
pouring wishes red by ruffled bird (D)
head cut near booted print of water (E)
gathered on these winter shoes. (F)

Morning meets our faces, lights our shoes (F)
traipsing past chrysanthemums on Avenue; (A)
I wonder if this smiling man wants water (E)
even as he fingers tunes, accordion melting (B)
Pittsburgh into Italy like blue crow bird (D)
balancing on wires, pointing like a sign (C)

to better days or worse days, unsign (C)
my heart in city’s morning, under shoes (F)
like memories of Italy if I were crow bird (D)
coming faster than a ship to Avenue, (A)
bringing back a tune for you, melting (B)
from the sun, off my wings like water (E)

and you like red accordion, under water (E)
moved with motion slow, muffled sign (C)
of lilting love trembled fingers melting, (B)
lay your undulating heart like shoes (F)
skirting ice, skirting mud on Avenue (A)
tipping toes to sky tapping like a bird (D)

against a building, aged, flocked with bird (D)
and bird and bird, flicking winged water (E)
at a golden sun, over market on the Avenue, (A)
daring with their beaks a silver studded sign (C)
directing cars to park like spotted shoes (F)
that walked the day, trod your memory melting (B)

like reflections on the glass, Pittsburgh melting (B)
old against the morning like a crow black bird (D)
in final flight, mocking if he could your tap of shoes (F)
that crack and split the concrete, splash the water (E)
of my heart, poured out like Heinz red neon sign (C)
drifting ‘midst lost tune of accordion on Avenue (A)

fading, fading like the melting light of morning over water (B, E)
dreaming, dreaming for the surety of bird or sign (D, C)
clapping, clapping like a shoe on empty Avenues. (F, A)

The sestina, like a song, helps us say what we want to say without really saying it; because it’s almost impossible to tell a story in a sestina, we tell our deep impressions and emotions instead. These emotions build and build through the repetitions of the end words, and we’re left holding something that feels like it might not be words at all, but perhaps just the whispering wind or a double rainbow.

Starting in July, at Every Day Poems, we’ll be exploring sestinas. And we’re really excited about some of the upcoming featured poets, including David Lehman of The Best American Poetry and James Cummins, Curator of the Elliston Poetry Collection. We also hope that you’ll try a sestina on for size. Even if you do it just as a matter of pride.

Here’s the basic pattern. The first 6 stanzas are each 6 lines. End words repeat according to the letter order below:

Stanza 1. six lines with end words in this order ABCDEF
Stanza 2. six lines with end words in this order FAEBDC
Stanza 3. six lines with end words in this order CFDABE
Stanza 4. six lines with end words in this order ECBFAD
Stanza 5. six lines with end words in this order DEACFB
Stanza 6. six lines with end words in this order BDFECA

Stanza 7. 3 lines (first repetition can go at about the middle of the line, last at the end):
B-E
D-C
F-A

Postscript

At age fifteen, the same daughter was still writing sestinas. The sestina below plays with punctuation to try to achieve a musical effect. It also uses variations on the end words, like “wood” and “would”—a fun sestina trick you can try when you need an extra challenge. Note that it also takes liberty with the order of end words in the final stanza. Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules.

Un done

The end of the day does not break, like glass— (A)
maybe; you can catch it, with broken string (B)
on an old piano, black notes white notes (C)
falling out the window and the shatter— (D)
bends. Breaks. The other cacophony sits (E)
silently watching, fingers bend like wood (F)

looks on the bench; here the wind through the wood (F)
like broken wind chimes—in a pile of glass— (A)
swallows, noiselessly, the sunrise; and sits. (E)
The whistle doesn’t know the sound of string (B)
softly shushing sound asleep, but shatters (D)
silence with faint white almost-music-notes (C)

climbing up the wall and through the roof, notes— (C)
sing in a voice like ivory and wood (F)
higher and higher above the shatters (D)
of your glass, tall slim clear glass (A)
and at the very top; tips, trips, falls… strings (B)
descending, rushing, howling, and—sits. (E)

Upon the ground, other melodies sit (E)
writes out letters in a shaky hand, notes (C)
in brown ink; one by one pulls up the strings (B)
wrestles with song, a savage battle, wood (F)
stained with inky blood—or bloody ink—glass (A)
overturned; lying in pieces, shatters. (D)

And… silence. …Darkness. Don’t look—it shatters (D)
if you look at it too hard
but… here, sits (E)
under the sky; plucking stars, shining glass, (A)
sewing them into a cloak—bejeweled notes (C)
like the firmament itself; they all would (F)
hang like gossamer, silver spider strings. (B)

Test it out for yourself. Wrapped tight with strings, (B)
you strain to pull free; frenzied, soft, shatters (D)
to lie flung across the old stone, old wood (F)
whispers in your ear; tells you, sit, sit, sit— (E)
listen to the voice in the wind, the notes (C)
in the old piano, encased in glass. (A)

Carve out a tree from wood, it falls in strings— (F, B non-standard)
push the glass out a window, it shatters— (A, D non-standard)
and when you’re tired, sit— hear the last notes. (E, C non-standard)

— Sara Barkat, at age 15

View the poem without letters at line-ends: Un done

___

Photo and post by L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing

_____________________

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Your Comments

19 Comments so far

  1. Anna says:

    I gave it a try– wrote my first sestina, and I look forward to checking back in July to learn more about it. :)

  2. Heather says:

    I used to love playing with form. I had this great book (which B&N still carries, int he journal department) that I would sit in a coffee shop with and just play.

    http://www.amazon.com/Poets-Notebook-Inspiration-Techniques-Advice/dp/0762408243

  3. L. L. Barkat says:

    Great resource, Heather. Thanks for that! Maybe you have a sestina sitting around somewhere then? :)

  4. Heather says:

    I’m playing. Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Violet says:

    I wrote my first sestina as a response to the Poem-A-Day challenge by Robert Brewer in, I think, April of 2009, or 10. It was hard! I think I’ve written one or two since.

    I like your explanation of its difficulty and mindset: “because it’s almost impossible to tell a story in a sestina, we tell our deep impressions and emotions instead.” Maybe I was trying to do the wrong thing. Anyway, I’ll happily play (when I’m not holidaying, of course).

  6. L. L. Barkat says:

    Heather, yay. :)

    Violet, I think that’s the thing with forms. They offer different possibilities. Once we understand what each uniquely offers, we can choose them at will. Yes, it would absolutely be hard to tell a story in a sestina, particularly the kind of linear story we are often used to :)

  7. Kelly Sauer says:

    Yeah, no, my fear levels are way too high to attempt this one. I never do very well with rules… ;-)

  8. L. L. Barkat says:

    Kelly, I believe you. Would it help if I told you I am a terrible rule-follower? (oh, but I love to creatively make my own. :) The worst case of my anti-rule disposition is with the sonnet, but I am trying anyway. It’s evident in my products. :)

    Anyway, I wonder if you just tried it privately if you might find it a good challenge?

  9. My first challenge was really understanding the form (do I yet??).

    Accumulating suggested resources as I try new forms (thanks to all you seasoned poets for sharing names).

    I love following rules when the names are so lyrical….a sestina with tornada….

  10. Heather says:

    I have written 3 this week. It turns out, this form is the perfect frame for some of the feelings I have been hiding lately. Here are two posted Sestinas:

    http://madamerubieswrites.blogspot.com/2011/07/sestina-shame.html

    http://madamerubieswrites.blogspot.com/2011/06/sestina-attempt.html

    I need to type up the other one.

  11. Violet says:

    Here’s my attempt at a sestina: http://wp.me/pC77F-cc


Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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