Friday, August 24, 2012

Using Poetic Forms, Part 3: The Sestina

The sestina is a much longer and more intricate form than the sonnet, since it spans 39 lines. It involves an enormous amount of repetition. That’s the key. The words that end the lines in the first stanza recur in a weave, according to a prescribed pattern.

The sestina keeps switching back on itself like a road winding up a steep mountain, because the form uses the same end words seven times in the poem. For this reason, the sestina lends itself to a question or conundrum that has many facets or variations. The sestina can also be playful, because inserting those words can make the poem a game the poet is playing with the reader’s anticipation of the repetition. This can be particularly fun and challenging when a poet uses homonyms of the end words as variations.

The sestina is a form that has an intricate, mathematical structure. The words that end the lines in the first stanza recur at the end of the lines in the second stanza, in this order: 6-1, 5-2, 4-3. Notice how each pair adds up to seven, the number of stanzas in the whole poem. The last end word in stanza one becomes the first end word in stanza two. Then the second stanza becomes the template for the third, repeating in the same weave, so that the last end word in stanza two becomes the first in stanza three, etc.

Because of this intricate weave, the sestina is also a useful form to work through an obsession or to unravel repetitive actions. One terrific example of this is Jan Clausen’s “Sestina: Winchell’s Donut House,” about working in an all-night, fast-food business. Here are the final three stanzas:

Linda came in at six, awash with light,
businesslike, making sure there’d be enough change
to get her through the rigors of the morning.
She had a hundred uniforms; I remember pink.
Sometimes she’d cheat, leave me to work alone,
sneak out to flirt in parked cars, fleeing lifetimes of grease.

I can see her cranking the hopper, measuring grease,
indefatigable, wired on coffee, just stopping to light
her cigarettes. She didn’t want to be alone.
It was only my fantasy that she could change,
stop wearing that silly, becoming pink,
burn free of the accidents, husband and children, some morning.

I remember walking home those mornings, smelling of grease,
amazed in summer’s most delicate pink early light,
to shower, change, and sleep out the hot day alone.

(Copyright © by Jan Clausen)

One thing I love about this sestina of Jan Clausen (she’s written more than one) is her choice of end words. The word “change” changes slightly each time we hear it, mirroring the meaning of the word. The repetition of the words “morning” and “light” underline the yearning of a graveyard-shift worker for a end to the long nights of labor. The word “alone” conveys the solitude of this job and the speaker’s life. “Grease” is perfect for a fast-food joint, but it also has interesting class connotations, as in “lifetimes of grease.” Finally the word “pink” suggests both the sickly sweet glazes of the donuts (“chocolate and pink-frosted” in stanza one) and the traditionally feminine coworker Linda, object of the speaker’s romantic longings during those slow nights.

If you write a sestina, make sure you choose end words that play directly into the complicated obsessions that led you to write the poem. Otherwise, the sestina form can take control of you like a vengeful robot, and compel you to repeat yourself in ways that are just—well, repetitive. Repetition is both the music and pitfall of the sestina.

Also consider choosing one end word that I would call the “sunflower” word. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote a double sestina (twelve stanzas of twelve lines each, and a coda or tornada of six lines) called “The Complaint of Lisa.” In this poem, Swinburne used the word “sunflower” as an end word, which meant he had to fit this terribly specific word into his poem thirteen times. Just for good measure, he threw it in two other times, for a total of fifteen. Challenge yourself to use as least one “sunflower” end word, where it’s a tour de force to include the word at least seven times in your sestina. Remember, homonyms are fair game.

One thing to avoid with a sestina, unless it’s a humorous poem, is lots of end words that are so obscure that using them seven times becomes a joke. That will affect the whole poem by making the form too noticeable, and therefore silly.

I had the pleasure of studying the origins of the sestina with the scholar Marianne Shapiro (1940–2003), who wrote one of the definitive works on the subject, Hieroglyph of Time: The Petrarchan Sestina. (Francesco Petrarch is the poet most closely identified with the sestina, since he wrote so many of them, and popularized the form, which comes from medieval Provençal.) When I took Professor Shapiro’s course on the Provençal troubadours, I was a hubris-filled Yale undergraduate who thought I could keep up with Shapiro’s sprinter’s-pace graduate course. That illusion was dispelled at the end of the first class, when Professor Shapiro gave us the homework assignment: “For next week, learn the Provençal language.” Right then, I decided to audit and not take the class for credit.

In Shapiro’s book on the sestina (which includes an interesting anthology of the form), she goes deeply into the numerology of the sestina: “To understand the structure of the sestina, with its tornada in place of the seventh strophe, it is necessary to examine the form in the broader context of number symbolism, specifically that surrounding the numbers 6 and 7…” Shapiro goes on to talk about the six days of creation in Genesis, followed by the seventh day of rest, just as the seventh stanza of the sestina is shorter and different.

The fact that the sestina can be mentioned in the same breath as the biblical act of creation gives you a sense of how enormously rich and challenging this form can be. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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