What in the world is a sestina?
Well, the simple answer is that it's an extremely complicated piece of poetry to write, and I don't know why I torture myself with writing them. The longer and probably more informative answer is that it's a seven-stanza poem, consisting of six stanzas with six lines each, and a final triplet of three lines (called an envoi
). That doesn't seem so hard.
Well, actually... every line must end with one of the six words that ended the first six lines of the sestina. In a strict order of rotation.That's
The sestina was probably invented as a poetic form sometime in twelfth-century France by, who else, a troubador, likely a gentleman by the name of Arnaut Daniel. It was terribly popular at the time, but fell out of favor after the Renaissance until the nineteenth century, where it saw a resurgance; it was particularly popular in the 1950s. Now, it's mostly used by poets who want to challenge themselves, or feel their subject may be served by a form of extreme order.
A sestina's end-word pattern is as follows, where each number represents one word:
1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
envoi: 2/5 4/3 6/1
In the envoi, the sestina moves to two words a line in order to complete in time. This is really easiest to see when reading an actual sestina, so let's have a look at an example:( Sestina: Altaforte, by Ezra Pound )
Pound's six words are, in order, peace, music, clash, opposing, crimson, and rejoicing. He does deviate from the scheme in the envoi, but he's Ezra Pound and he does what he wants, and at any rate the rest of the sestina is intact. His subject-- war, and specifically the chaos of battle-- contrasts nicely with the sestina's ordered pace.
I write sestinas myself, when the mood strikes me. I can offer a few tips: the first and foremost being to choose your words wisely. Words with more than one meaning (light, book, color) give you more flexibility. Verbs can alter in case: jumping, jump, jumped, jumps. I suggest avoiding proper nouns, particularly for your first sestina, since they complicate matters considerably.
The life of the sestina author is made easier in a few ways. A sestina needn't rhyme, or be in any particular meter, so you don't have that to worry about. Line length is variable, adding some flexibility, although I personally enjoy iambic pentameter. Finally, the sestina really is fun to write. Given time and practice, it only gets easier.
I leave you with a sestina of my own, written about a year and a half ago.( Summertime )
Further explanations and examples may be found here
, but please be aware that one of the sestinas at that link contains disturbing subject matter.
Comfort, Heather, Jenny Dobbins, Tracy Slinger. Sestina. http://www.public.asu.edu/~aarios/formsofverse/reports2000/page9.html
Davies, Caroline. Writing a Sestina. http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue197/sestina.html
Pound, Ezra. Sestina: Altaforte. http://poetry.about.com/od/poemsbytitles/l/blpoundsestinaaltaforte.htm