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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Using Poetic Forms, Part 2: The Sonnet

Probably the most popular poetic form in English is the sonnet. It’s a form that goes back many centuries. Invented in Sicily in the 13th century by Giacomo da Lentini, the sonnet caught fire and became enormously popular in Italy and then throughout Western Europe in the subsequent centuries. In most European languages, the sonnet has fourteen lines of twelve syllables each. Only in English does it have ten syllables in iambic pentameter. In English the most famous sonneteer is, of course, Shakespeare, but he was far from the first or the last to popularize the form in that language.

When to use the sonnet form

A sonnet usually has a volta (from the Italian word for “turn”), traditionally after the eighth line. This indicates a switch from what is laid out in the first eight lines, to a different mode or state of mind. So the sonnet is like an argument that has a decisive shift two-thirds of the way through.

A sonnet begins with exposition, and then reaches a conclusion. Or a sonnet starts with a problem, and works toward resolution. It has to be a situation that can be spelled out and resolved in 120 syllables, which isn’t a lot of verbiage, so an extremely complicated premise isn’t going to work. The topic of a sonnet also has to lend itself to the argument, counter-argument format, though that is less important in more recent sonnets, such as the poems of Marilyn Hacker, which tend to be more narrative.

Here’s a sonnet that seems to me almost a perfect embodiment of the form, John Keats’s great poem, “Bright Star”:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

The first eight lines, called the octave, present a model of constancy, using diction that is full of distance, coolness, and religiosity: “lone,” “aloft,” “watching,” “Eremite (hermit),” “priestlike,” “pure,” “ablution,” “mask,” “snow,” “mountains,” “moors.” Everything suggests the opposite of heat or passion. The rhymes are tight and unwavering: art-apart, night-Eremite, task-mask. At least until the last word of the octave, or first eight lines. These first eight lines spell out the argument or the problem—the speaker yearns for the fidelity of the star. The star is a perfect image of loyalty, particularly the pole star or North Star that stays in one place in the sky, but it’s also remote and untouched, which makes it an incomplete role model for lovers.

In the sestet, the last six lines, Keats gives us the counter-argument, making it clear from the first word—“No”—that he’s going to show us the exact opposite of that cold version of constancy. The contrary is the extremely close, warm, and intimate image of the speaker lying with his head on his lover’s chest. He feels the motion of her breath as her chest rises and falls. This is as far as you can get from the distant, cold-hearted star. And yet the speaker hopes to combine this time-bound passion with the constancy of the star: “yet still stedfast.”  Interestingly, this bodily version of love could lead to something even more immortal than the star: “And so live ever,” but it can also lead to mortality: “or else swoon to death.”

One thing Keats shows us in “Bright Star” is that the sonnet can take in everything from passion to metaphysics in just fourteen lines. It's a great form to play out an argument you're having with yourself or another person, but not a violent argument, more like differing viewpoints. The form can also portray a moment of intense closeness. Oddly, Keats addresses the poem to the star, using the intimate “thou” form. The poet speaks of his beloved in the more distant third person. But hey, this was 1819. I think this was about as sexy as you could get in England at that time—and then some.


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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Using Poetic Forms, Part 1

To begin with, how do you decide to write a formal poem, as opposed to free verse? (By a formal poem, I mean a fixed form such as a sonnet, sestina, ghazal, tanka, etc.) Maybe you just read a poem in a particular form, and you feel you’d like to try it out. Or there’s a form you’ve always wanted to try, and suddenly you feel like you’ve got the chops to actually write it. Sometimes there’s a form kicking around in your mind, the way a song gets stuck in your head. It’s just there, waiting to be put in the game, like a player nervously pacing around the dugout. (OK, I know I’m mixing metaphors here.)

If it’s the case that a form is already eager to be part of your poetry, then maybe your next idea for a poem wants to go in that form, even if the form hasn’t yet been introduced to the story or idea or feeling that is hoping to be your next poem. Once the two knock into one another, the form and the idea for the poem, that collision can activate both, like particles in a linear accelerator.

The alternative to writing in a fixed form is to write in free verse, although some say free verse is also a form. The advantage to free verse is that the language is liberated so it can find its own rhythms, line-lengths, and endings, so that it’s not saddled with any structure. Structure can sometimes reign in emotion or ideas, because the constraints of the form limit spontaneity and flow.

But sometimes form is exactly what you need to give shape to the feeling or idea in your mind. The form becomes a perfect container to hold what’s teasing your mind. It’s as if the Jello mixture of your poetic idea needs a mold to give it shape, color, and flavor, or it will just melt away. (Now we’re really deep into mixed metaphor, once we’re into chilled desserts!)

In my experience, it’s really an either/or situation. Either a poetic form is tugging at my coat, asking to be noticed, or it’s not. If it’s not, I go with free verse. If it is, then I have to wait for the right idea for that form. But more often than not, the idea and the form arrive almost at the same time, like two different connecting flights that both funnel passengers to the same plane.

In the blogs that follow, I will not give exhaustive catalogue of all the possible poetic forms. I'll just touch on a few that resonate deeply with me.

Other recent posts on writing topics:
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;  Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Condolences on the Massacres in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and Aurora, Colorado



How to respond to a white suprematist killing six innocent people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin? How to react to the massacre of twelve moviegoers a mere two weeks ago at a theater in Aurora, Colorado?

It seems the thing is to offer sincere condolences.

“Our hearts are with the victims, their families, and the entire Oak Creek Sikh community,” says Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“Michelle and I were deeply saddened to learn of the shooting that tragically took so many lives in Wisconsin,” laments President Obama.

Condolences. Yes, that’s all we can possibly offer the victims of these horrific crimes, committed by terrorists who seemed to have no difficulty procuring weapons that can tear apart a place of worship or an entire theater full of people.

We can’t possibly offer the families of the victims gun control legislation that would ban such rifles and ammunition. No, that would be a terrible infringement of rights, much more terrible than a massacre that takes innocent lives and shakes our entire country to the bedrock.

I think we can extend this rule to other arenas of political life. If a family is without food, for instance, the solution is to offer condolences: “I’m so sorry you’re hungry.” To provide nutrition is out of the question. Only expressions of regret are appropriate.

And if a person is suffering from a disease, the proper response is to rush in with lots of condolences: “I’m awfully upset to hear that you’re sick.” To give medicine—don’t even think of it.

So it goes with mass killings, which seem to occur more and more frequently. But don't worry. There's a solution. We can offer condolences.

Recent posts about writing topics:
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka