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Some Thoughts on Sestinas
by Lawrence Schimel
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I trust that you, the gentle readers of this column, have been paying particular attention to the meter of language since the installment about meter. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of having a solid background in prosody. If, like myself, your ear does not easily hear meter, learning prosody often seems a task of Herculean proportions. Having to deal with both meter and rhyme at once, such as the sonnet, is often too much to bear.
This installment, therefore, will dwell on the sestina, one of the unrhymed traditional verse forms. (This does not mean you're off the hook from constructing the meter of the language within a sestina, or to be practicing the various basic meters outlined last column.)
The sestina is a 39-line form, constructed of six sestets (six-line stanzas) and a final three-line envoi bringing the poem to a close. The words that end each of the lines within the sestet are the same for each of the poem's stanzas, and they repeat in a very particular pattern, as follows:
123456 615243 364125 532614 451362 246531 + envoi (25/43/61)
While this may seem like numerical gibberish at first, there is a very logical pattern, the understanding of which will help you tremendously in constructing a sestina properly. The sestina works very much like a dance, with each stanza representing a reel. Each stanza is based upon the stanza directly preceding it. The order for a stanza peels off the lines of the prior stanza, moving ever inwards towards the core: last, first, penultimate, second, antepenultimate, third.
Because your end-words will repeat regularly throughout the poem, it's important to choose them carefully. Words that lend themselves to multiple usages, either encompassing two different parts of speech (noun/verb, noun/adjective) or many different meanings, are especially fruitful, since each time they recur can be in a fresh instance, thereby moving the poem forward integrally, instead of by the sheer brute force of the form. These repeating end-words, rather than forming a stumbling block, are the sestina's greatest advantage, because they lend themselves so readily to narrative. Once you've written your first stanza, you know how the lines of the rest of the poem must end; this gives you a well-plotted structure through which to navigate during the course of the poem.
And, because you know beforehand the order of the lines, you can write the lines out of sequence. I've never been able to write a sestina in order, but always wind up filling things in piecemeal, ever keeping an eye on the final product.
It's important to pay attention to the stanza breaks, as each stanza begins with the same end-word which concludes the previous stanza, resulting in one word being used to end two consecutive lines. Finding something to say which manages this without forcing the second usage will take practice. This is perhaps the hardest trick to writing a sestina, followed by learning how to bridge between those parts of the poem you are able to write immediately, according to the plot that's in your head, without resorting to writing "filler" lines to take up the space between those areas you know and the rest of the poem. These are the marks which will distinguish a good from a mediocre sestina.
As an example, here is Joe Haldeman's double sestina "Saul's Death," first published in OMNI magazine, and winner of the Rhysling Award for Best Science Fiction Long Poem in 1984. It is both an important poem within the genre, and also gives two examples of the form of the sestina, back to back, in addition to showing the form's potential for narrative. Note how his choices for endwords in both of the sestinas are used, and how one of the endwords, which must recur because of the narrative, is repeated in the second sestina. You want your endwords to be those words which will be often repeated in the poem, yet also words which can sustain such repetition; names are generally a poor choice, because they are so limited in their usage. By using Saul's name as one of the endwords in the first sestina, he is forced to repeat it in each stanza, and must sometimes distort syntax (or at least plan ahead) to make sure it falls always at the end of the line; in the second sestina he still refers to Saul in nearly every stanza, but he is free to do so only where needed. Note how the second sestina seems "smoother" because his syntax more frequently extends over multiple lines, as opposed to the terse, clipped sentences that are merely one line long in the first sestina.
The envoi, as you'll notice in each of these two examples, repeats all six of the end words in its three lines, two to a line. This is again one of the more-difficult aspects to the form; finding closure while using all the repetends (the repeating end words) in so short a space.
Elizabeth Bishop has a well-made sestina, titled "Sestina," whose first line begins "September rain falls on the house." It can be found in many anthologies, and in her collected poems.
by Joe Haldeman
(Reprinted with permission)
I used to be a monk, but gave it over
before books and prayer and studies cooled my blood,
and joined with Richard as a mercenary soldier.
(No Richard that you've heard of; just
a man who'd bought a title for his name.)
And it was in his service I met Saul.
The first day of my service I liked Saul;
his easy humor quickly won me over.
He confided Saul was not his name;
he'd taken up another name for blood.
(As had I -- my fighting name was just
A word we use at home for private soldier.)
I felt at home as mercenary soldier.
I liked the company of men like Saul.
(Though most of Richard's men were just
fighting for the bounty when it's over.)
I loved the clash of weapons, splashing blood --
I lived the meager promise of my name.
Saul promised that he'd tell me his real name
when he was through with playing as a soldier.
(I said the same; we took an oath in blood.)
But I would never know him but as Saul;
he'd die before the long campaign was over,
dying for a cause that was not just.
Only fools require a cause that's just;
fools, and children out to make a name.
Now I've had sixty years to think it over
(sixty years of being no one's soldier),
sixty years since broadsword opened Saul
and splashed my body with his precious blood.
But damn! we lived for bodies and for blood.
The reek of dead men rotting, it was just
a sweet perfume for those like me and Saul.
(My peaceful language doesn't have a name
for lewd delight in going off to soldier.)
It hurts my heart sometimes to know it's over.
My heart was hard as stone when it was over;
when finally I'd had my fill of blood
(and knew I was too old to be a soldier).
Nothing left for me to do but just
go back home and make myself a name
in ways of peace, forgetting war and Saul.
In ways of blood he made himself a name
(though he was just a mercenary soldier) --
I loved Saul before it all was over.
A mercenary soldier has no future;
some say his way of life is hardly human.
But we did have our own small bloody world
(part aches and sores and wrappings soaking blood,
partly fear and glory grown familiar)
confined within a shiny fence of swords.
And how I learned to love to fence with swords!
Another world, my homely past and future --
once steel and eye and wrist became familiar
with each other, then that steel was almost human
(with an altogether human taste for blood).
I felt that sword and I could take the world.
I felt that Saul and I could take the world:
take the whole world hostage with our swords.
The bond we felt was stronger than mere blood
(though I can see with hindsight in the future
the bond we felt was something only human:
a need for love when death becomes familiar).
We were wizards, and death was our familiar;
our swords held all the magic in the world.
(Richard thought it almost wasn't human,
the speed with which we parried others' swords;
forever end another's petty future.)
Never scratched, though always steeped in blood.
Ambushed in a tavern, splashing ankle-deep in blood,
fighting back-to-back in ways familiar;
Saul slipped: lost his footing and our future.
Broad blade hammered down and sent him from this world.
In angry grief I killed that one, then all the other swords;
then locked the doors and murdered every human.
No choice, but to murder every human,
No one in that tavern was a stranger to blood.
(To those who live with pikes and slashing swords,
the inner parts of men become familiar.)
Saul's vitals looked like nothing in this world;
I had to kill them all to save my future.
Saul's vitals were not human, but familiar:
he never told me he was from another world:
I never told him I was from his future.
Read the Complete "Poetic License" Series:
- Some Thoughts on Meter
- Some Thoughts on Fun and Verse
- Some Thoughts on Nontraditional Forms
- Some Thoughts on the Sestina
- Some Thoughts on Free Verse, Part I: The Line
- Some Thoughts on Free Verse, Part II: The Shape of the Poem
Copyright © 2001 Lawrence Schimel
This article originally appeared in Speculations.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Lawrence Schimel makes his living as a full-time author and
anthologist. He has published over 47 books in a wide variety
of genres and media; his work has appeared in The Writer,
ForeWord, The Saturday Evening Post, the Boston Phoenix, Isaac
Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and others, including numerous
international publications. His writing has been translated
into Basque, Catalan, Czech, Dutch, Esperanto, Finnish, French,
German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Slovak,
Spanish, and Swedish. For more information, visit
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