I usually resist posting anything political on my blog, but obviously people are still reeling from yesterday’s tragedy. I’m pretty unashamedly pro-gun-control for reasons just like this, and I worry about the future of this country as access to mental healthcare plummets, gun ownership skyrockets, and demagoguery gets ever more fiery. Will this shock the country into doing something about the epidemic of gun violence we’re dealing with? (To call it anything else is just ignorant.) I don’t know; I hope so. Find me one nutbag who tries to justifiably defend more guns in the wake of this. (Actually, no, don’t find me one, because I know they’re out there, and I will go apeshit.)
The Fellow went up to Connecticut to visit his sister and nieces yesterday (as planned, nothing emergency); she was pretty beside herself, he said, but much better when they came home from school. (Not sure if their school was part of the lockdowns: they’re pretty far away from Newtown, but far away is not very far in CT.) There are cruel ironies everywhere, folded into the story: at our office holiday party on Thursday night, one of our guests said that nothing remarkable ever happens in Connecticut, and I can’t stop thinking about that. The one takeaway from this and every other tragedy of this kind that I want to share is, express yourself. Don’t be afraid to have the conversations that need having, and to feel what needs to be felt. Listening, discussing and understanding are what people need to do right now (with substantive action as a product of that), and they are the things that can help prevent other similar tragedies in the future.
It is a disservice to the dead to forget them, but it is also a disservice to not keep on living. It’s Saturday morning, and I have a Reverie to write. We are a terrible and complex species, capable of many things in our minds at once.
This week: “six by six“
My intention with the series of world poetry forms every four weeks was to broaden people’s horizons a little bit regarding those obscure but enchanting forms that they might not otherwise be familiar with, in time and place. We’ve tapped Southeast Asia, Viking Scandinavia, Wales, Persia, Korea, Ecuador, Java and Bali, ancient Greece and Rome, Japan, Ireland, pre-Islamic Arabia, and Somalia; there are plenty more I would’ve liked to get to, but that will have to do for this year, at least. Today we’re going to talk about sestinas, a Franco-Italian medieval form which most people are familiar with, but daunted by. Fear not! The sestina is not so fearsome a beast as all that.
There’s plenty of theory about the construction of the form that veers into the mathematical, looking for numerical patterns and natural harmonies. I’m not going to get into all that, since my goal is to de-mystify the form a little bit, not make it more complicated. Very simply, as you’re probably aware, the sestina features six stanzas of six lines each, and rather than have a set rhyme scheme, repeats the end words (also called teleutons) in different orders through each stanza. So, for example, if you had the first stanza’s lines ending in these words:
blue, collide, slack, forbear, twice, jar
…then the second stanza would have:
jar, blue, twice, collide, forbear, slack
If you number the endwords, i.e. 1. blue, 2. collide, 3. slack, 4. forbear, 5. twice, 6. jar, that will help plot out the form of the poem. Each stanza will have the endwords in these orders:
1st stanza: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (obviously!)
2nd stanza: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3
3rd stanza: 3, 6, 4, 1, 5, 2
4th stanza: 2, 3, 5, 6, 1, 4
5th stanza: 4, 2, 1, 3, 6, 5
6th stanza: 5, 4, 6, 2, 3, 1
Beautiful, isn’t it? The Wikipedia article has some nifty little graphics to show how this pattern can be graphically represented, but I find them unnecessary. I do want to throw a couple of tips in right off the bat:
- Do choose your words first! We’ll talk about that below.
- You’ll note that each endword will appear, at some point, in every line position in a stanza: first line, last line, everything in between. Be sure to choose words that you’re comfortable having front and center, words that can end a stanza, and words that you’re okay with getting enjambed and/or lost in the shuffle in the middle.
- Note that the last line of each stanza ends with the word that will end the first line of the next. All of the words should be ones that won’t sound too heavy if they are repeated in the next line.
- By the same note, choose polysemous or homophonic words to make your life easier. Polysemy just means multiple meanings: notice that I picked blue above, which can be a color noun, color adjective, or emotion adjective, with ease. Similarly, jar could be a household object, a bird, or a startling verb. Homophony is also a clever way to bend the rules: I have forbear up there, but maybe I just want to repeat bear and bare as endwords, varying them six times.
In addition to the six stanzas (the “sestets” or “sixains”), there are three lines at the end, called the envoi. I actually recommend that you start with this, because people often choose six words that work really well in the context of the stanzas, and forget its tail, where things are more difficult. Different authorities insist on different patterns for the envoi, but the key is that each of the three lines should contain two of the endwords, somewhere inside. So, I might use my endwords above to do:
We collided twice before we made peace:
you, with a jar of things you couldn’t bear,
me, with heart gone slack to meet that twinned blue.
I was thinking “eyes” for the last part. It’s something I could return to in the stanzas if need be. My point is this: the sestina tends to get into a groove pretty early on, and readers often get bored by stanza five or six. The envoi is how you draw them back and wrap up what you’ve been doing in a neat little package, so it must pop a bit. Essentially, write a three-line poem you’re really proud of first, then go back for the other thirty-six lines.
Once you’ve chosen the endwords and gotten a sense of your envoi, what next? There is no required meter for the sestina, but English ones have often been written in iambic pentameter (of course), while the original troubadour-era ones had seven-syllable first lines followed by ten-syllable lines in each stanza, and the eventual Italian ones were in eleven-syllable lines. I find iambic pentameter to be nice, but of course you must serve the purpose of your poem: check out Daniel Ari’s fantastic guide to writing a sestina, which is instructive and flexes the form wonderfully. (Actually, check out a lot of the sestinas from McSweeney’s.) In actuality, the sestina can be one of the freest forms out there: yes, the endwords are fixed points, but the entire poem can just blossom off of them.
I’m getting into this habit of suggesting examples lately, so check out these two classics: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina“, and Seamus Heaney’s “Two Lorries“. I like these two because they show a nice contrast between the everyday and memorial narratives that are the hallmark of the sestina. Often, the form is used for love and heartache poems, but the fact remains that it’s difficult to carry any shallow thoughts across 39 lines. My favorite sestinas are the ones like onions: deceptively simple on the outside, which can be peeled down layer after layer. (If you’re lucky, they’ll make you cry along the way.) The sestina is a very popular form, but I think a lot of people don’t practice building up their endurance before writing one; they simply want the challenge of the form. So, I exhort you: build up that endurance! Write one that will hold the reader’s attention in the same way that the 13th-century troubadours, back in the royal courts, would have had to hold their patrons’ attention with nothing but a harp or lute and six words repeating over and over.
If you want to further complicate the challenge:
- Try obfuscating the form a little bit. You’ll note that (6×6)+3 = 39. But so does 13×3: you could try re-dividing the lines into three stanzas of thirteen, while still respecting the endword pattern. See what it does to your enjambment. Or maybe you want to write it as a prose poem and hide it altogether.
- There are variations on the form based on the number of lines: the pentina (five stanzas of five lines each: endwords go 12345, 51423, 35214, 43152, 24531, with a two- or three-line envoi), the quatrina (1234, 4123, 3412, 2341, two-line envoi), the tritina (123, 312, 231, one-line envoi), and others that expand up to many more lines (such as the 9-tina). Try one of these out if you want.
- I made up this form a while back I called the helix sestina, and wrote a poem called “Madison Square Tableau” which was published by Autumn Sky. Essentially, it’s a sestina, but then if you go backwards from the end of the sixth stanza, the beginning words of each line repeat in the same orders as the endwords do. (And then the envoi contains all twelve.) It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever written, so if you’re feeling masochistic… go for it!
I look forward to seeing what you come up with!