Exploring Classical Poetry Series
by Dusty Grein, ACP
The sestina originated among the troubadours of medieval France’s Provence region, and the modern thirty-nine line form is attributed to one of these traveling poet entertainers of the twelfth century, Arnaut Daniel. Daniel’s sestina form was admired by Dante Alighieri, who introduced it to Italian poetry as well.
This is one of the more challenging forms of the era, and perhaps that is one reason it is also a very fulfilling form to craft a poem in – especially when it comes together well. Like many French forms, like the villanelle and the triolet, the sestina is very strictly patterned. Unlike these other forms however, the sestina in its original form was not written using rhymes.
Instead it uses a set of six ending-words in six different patterns of six-line stanzas (sestets), followed by a three-line envoi which uses all six of these refrained words. This gives the poem its thirty-nine lines. The sestina is a metered form, and as long as the pattern is maintained any meter may be employed; in the English language, iambic pentameter is the most common meter chosen.
If we look at the ending words for each line, and label them with the letters A to F, the first six line stanza has the pattern:
A B C D E F
To generate the pattern for the second stanza, we take these letters and starting with the final one (F), we alternate picking up letters from the front and then the back until we have used all six. This gives us the following pattern for the second stanza:
F A E B D C
We repeat this same technique to create four more patterns, each one reordering the letters from the one above. Our resulting six stanza patterns look like this:
Stanza 1 – A B C D E F
Stanza 2 – F A E B D C
Stanza 3 – C F D A B E
Stanza 4 – E C B F A D
Stanza 5 – D E A C F B
Stanza 6 – B D F E C A
The final three line envoi is done many ways. The only hard and fast rule here, is that each line must end in one of the six words, and contain another inside, so that all six are used in these three lines. Purists will say that the pattern should be:
(B) E, (D) C, (A) F
This is how almost all sestinas were done during the height of their popularity, but since the 19th century poets have made some changes, and now the most common patterns for the envoi lines are
(A) B, (C) D, (E) F and (F) A, (E) B, (D) C.
The Circular Sestina
One of the changes that came about in the 19th century was the introduction of the Circular, or Rhyming Sestina. In order to make a rhyming pattern, two sets of three rhyming words are used: Lines A,C, & E rhyme, as do lines B, D, & F.
To accommodate the rhyming of these lines in alternating ababab and bababa schemes, a new sestina pattern was created:
Stanza 1 – A B C D E F
Stanza 2 – F A D E B C
Stanza 3 – C F E B A D
Stanza 4 – D C B A F E
Stanza 5 – E D A F C B
Stanza 6 – B E F C D A
Envoi – (A) F, (B) E, (C) D
The sestina has, since the resurgence of its popularity in the 1930s, become a vehicle more often used to produce light-hearted and humorous results. Puns have always been at home in the form, and sometimes, the tales they tell are simple, yet strong:
by Elizabeth Bishop
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,
It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac
on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.
It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.
But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.
© 1979 – Elizabeth Bishop
This poem follows the classic sestina pattern, although the poet chose to be a bit loose with the meter, and so the tale of the child and grandmother becomes a bit less sober than it might have become had she stayed in metric form.
Crafting One of Your Own
The sestina is often used to tell a story, and that story can be in any genre. I have written westerns, romances and even a comedy using the form, and while it is a challenge, like anything else it becomes easier as you practice. To craft a sestina, and indeed any structured form, I have a process, and that is what I would like to share with you.
The first step is to decide on your subject matter. My advice here is to begin with something or someone you know well.
For this example I think I will create a story about my cousin. He is a homicide detective in a major metropolitan city, and he has been “on the job” for many years. I am not sure about the actual day-to-day life of a homicide detective, but like many others I read books and watch television shows and movies. This exposure to the make-believe world of crime fighting is all I really need to craft a fictionalized story, in verse.
Now comes the most important part in the creation of a sestina – the choice of your six repeating end words.
I get certain images in my mind when I picture a homicide detective. These initial mental images are, in my experience, the best things to use when crafting a narrative poem – regardless of the form. Therefore, I have chosen the following six words:
a = Job, b = Badge, c = Protect, d = Crime, e = Report, f = Night
Finally, before I can begin building the melodic lines in my poem, I must decide on a meter, so I can at least have a framework to craft upon. I have decided to use an eleven syllable meter, known as amphibrachic tetrameter catalectic. I sometimes refer to this as the RED ROVER meter, since many of us learned to chant the lines to the group game in this beat. If this meter is unfamiliar, here is a syllabic representation of the rhythm:
<dee, DUM, dee> <dee, DUM, dee> <dee, DUM, dee> <dee, DUM>
So, with subject, words and meter in hand, I can layout the framework of the poem. Here is the first stanza, once the ending words are inserted. (The ~ are soft syllables, and X are hard ones):
(a) ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ job
(b) ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ badge
(c) ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ x ~ protect
(d) ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ crime
(e) ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ x ~ report
(f) ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ x ~ ~ night
Now comes the fun part for the creative poet inside you. Using the rhythm of the meter, we tell our story, using the end words in the right places.
This is where your skill and dedication to painting word pictures comes into play, and may take some time. If you write one stanza at a time, and then repeat the steps, you can create quite a compelling tale.
Using these steps, here is the completed poem I wrote, dedicated to my cousin, and all the men and women who put in long hours and energy bringing those responsible to justice:
by Dusty Grein
It feels like forever I’ve been on the job.
Pinned down by the weight of my gun and my badge;
my duty is etched there, to serve and protect.
The uniforms tape off the scene of the crime
at this point, there still isn’t much to report,
It promises to be one hell of a night.
My partner and I will work into the night;
It’s on days like this I truly hate my job.
The worst part of all is the daily report,
Complete with the number and name from my badge
I lay out the facts of a hideous crime.
The victim is gone; one we failed to protect.
Now my reputation I have to protect.
From hero to scapegoat – it just takes one night;
a free-roaming villain, or one unsolved crime.
To close every case is the goal of the job,
the reason each day that I put on the badge.
I wish I could put that inside the report.
The televised anchors all love to report
to viewers – the public I’ve sworn to protect –
The slightest mistake by one who wears the badge.
The airwaves are filled with bad news every night,
I wish that good news was a part of their job
Like how, with hard work, we usually solve the crime.
I shudder recalling details from this crime;
gunfire – In my mind, I hear its report.
Deductive pretending is part of my job.
Sometimes sanity becomes hard to protect
when facing this ugliness night after night.
Emotions grow cold when you’re wearing the badge.
My life? A lot simpler before the gold badge.
Back then it was mostly stopping petty crime,
And helping my neighbors sleep better at night.
I still had to fill out each detailed report,
the public I still did my best to protect;
promotions happen when you’re good at your job.
“Now, wearing my badge is more than just a job,”
I repeat this each night as I write my report.
“By solving these crimes, my whole world I protect.”
© 2016 – Dusty Grein
As you can see, the creation of a sestina is not as difficult as it may seem going in. It does require the building of thirty-nine metered lines, but that is the job of a poet – to build word images and create emotional and mental reactions through the creation of word art.
Challenge yourself, and you might be surprised at just how wonderful a metered story can be.
Next time we will be looking at another marvelous narrative form, but one that is, in many ways, much simpler: the TERZA RIMA. Until then, Write On!
Dusty Grein is the Director of Production and Design and a Managing Editor for RhetAskew Publishing. He is also a novelist, ACP accredited poet, and regular writer for the Society of Classical Poets website. Some of his favorite messages can also be found on his personal blog, From Grandpa’s Heart…