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


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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).

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:


7. last stanza, 3 lines (first repetition can go around the middle of the line, last at the end):

Post by L.L. Barkat. Visit L.L. at Seedlings in Stone, for more on writing, poetry, art and life.

Further Resources, for Teachers or Writer’s Groups:

Poetic Form: Sestina
Writing a Sestina
Subscribe to Every Day Poems— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In July we’ll be exploring sestinas.

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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.

  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:

    I need to type up the other one.

  11. Violet says:

    Here’s my attempt at a sestina:


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