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Sestina tends to have a scary ring to it, and I imagine many fall back with a look of fright at the mere sound of the word. We all have, it's all right. A little pactice and the sestina can be a very rewarding exercise for any poet looking for a challenge.

The sestina is yet another fun, French form, and it is divided into 6 sestets (six line stanzas) and 1 triplet called an envoi which is just a concluding stanza that is half the size of the rest. Unless you wish to make the sestina harder than it already may be, it is usually unrhymed and works by repeating the end words of each line. The envoi contains, in any order, all of the six end-words. The catch is that one has to be buried in each line and another must be at the end of the line. The pattern for repeating the words is like this: (stanza A) 123456, (stanza B) 615243. This 615243 pattern is how each of the "next" stanzas are made. The first way to learn this pattern is to look at a sestina. "Sestina d'Inverno" by Anthony Hecht:

Here in this bleak city of Rochester,
Where there are twenty-seven words for "snow,"
Not all of them polite, the wayward mind
Basks in some Yucatan of its own making,
Some coppery, sleek lagoon, or cinnamon island
Alive with lemon tints and burnished natives,

And O that we were there. But here the natives
Of this grey, sunless city of Rochester
Have sown whole mines of salt about their land
(Bare ruined Carthage that it is) while snow
Comes down as if The Flood were in the making.
Yet on that ocean Marvell called the mind

An ark sets forth which is itself the mind,
Bound for some pungent green, some shore whose natives
Blend coriander, cayenne, mint in making
Roasts that would gladden the Earl of Rochester
With sinfulness, and melt a polar snow.
It might be well to remember that an island

Was blessed heaven once, more than an island,
The grand, utopian dream of a noble mind.
In that kind climate the mere thought of snow
Was but a wedding cake; the youthful natives,
Unable to conceive of Rochester,
Made love, and were acrobatic in the making.

Dream as we may, there is far more to making
Do than some wistful reverie of an island,
Especially now when hope lies with the Rochester
Gas and Electric Co., which doesn't mind
Such profitable weather, while the natives
Sink, like Pompeians, under a world of snow.

The one thing indisputable here is snow,
The single verity of heaven's making,
Deeply indifferent to the dreams of the natives,
And the torn hoarding-posters of some island.
Under our igloo skies the frozen mind
Holds to one truth: it is grey, and called Rochester.

No island fantasy survives Rochester,
Where to the natives destiny is snow
That is neither to our mind nor of our making.

After reading this, you can feel the obsession that underlies the sestina. The repetition of those ends words can crawl under your skin, not with the hit-over-the-head bluntness of a villanelle, but with a sneaking, growing strength that is more subtle.

How to and Examples
One way of writing a sestina is to choose your 6 end words before you even begin the poem. Say, for instance, "book," "town," "pumpkins," "watch," "potatoes," and "sling." These are your 6 words in order of stanza one. Write a sestina. I find it's very difficult to get a good poem with this method, but it does force the poet to be creative, depending on the difficulties and relations of the pre-chosen words.

A second way is to just write a sestet and go from there, using each of the end words from that stanza. This is my preferred method because I like not knowing, initially, where I'll break the line, so my first stanza is written according to line break and enjambment, not word choice with a sestina in mind.

From there, the sestina is free to experimentation. The end words can be modified, say "leaf" to "leave" or "love" or "life" to give the initial word more dimension. It may be harder to keep the exact same word through all 7 stanzas, but sometimes the poem asks for a different word, actually improving the poem rather than taking away. As well, I find a good excerise is to set a line-length limit based on the lines from the first stanza. The sestina line is generally longer, and as you can see in the Hecht poem, the lengths are also erratic: some stick way out on the page, others are stuck deeper inside the poem. If a poem is going to be rather blockish in form (as the sestina is), I prefer to have the lines be at a similar length for appearance's sake; I think that just looks better on the page. As well, this method also forces the poet to use crisp, concise details in the poem because there is only so much room in every line to get to the word at the end. Every word must be chosen accurately, and in this way the poet's powers of diction improve.

Online Examples and Resources:

-- Damon McLaughlin

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Last Updated 8/23/99