If you thought I’d go for a sonnet as our poetic ‘S’ inspired word this week, guess again. I’m going for something a whole lot more complex and tricky, but still a poem: a sestina.
I feel I haven’t been challenging you much lately, have I? So here we are, write a 39-line sestina. And because I’m including a swan in the picture, you can try to include that in your verse too.
So what is a sestina? It’s a poem of six, six-line stanzas with a three-line half stanza finale, known as an envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza appear at the ends of the subsequent lines, but in a different order, and all six words end up in the final envoi.
Check out this example by Elizabeth Bishop (who may have wanted her readers to recognise the effort she’d gone to make this poem work, so she gave it an unambiguous title).
Sestina, by Elizabeth Bishop September rain falls on the house. In the failing light, the old grandmother sits in the kitchen with the child beside the Little Marvel Stove, reading the jokes from the almanac, laughing and talking to hide her tears. She thinks that her equinoctial tears and the rain that beats on the roof of the house were both foretold by the almanac, but only known to a grandmother. The iron kettle sings on the stove. She cuts some bread and says to the child, It's time for tea now; but the child is watching the teakettle's small hard tears dance like mad on the hot black stove, the way the rain must dance on the house. Tidying up, the old grandmother hangs up the clever almanac on its string. Birdlike, the almanac hovers half open above the child, hovers above the old grandmother and her teacup full of dark brown tears. She shivers and says she thinks the house feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove. It was to be, says the Marvel Stove. I know what I know, says the almanac. With crayons the child draws a rigid house and a winding pathway. Then the child puts in a man with buttons like tears and shows it proudly to the grandmother. But secretly, while the grandmother busies herself about the stove, the little moons fall down like tears from between the pages of the almanac into the flower bed the child has carefully placed in the front of the house. Time to plant tears, says the almanac. The grandmother sings to the marvellous stove and the child draws another inscrutable house.
The key to writing a sestina is to choose a theme and then select six key words to use again and again. Rhyming isn’t an issue – but rhythm is, so make sure to read your poem aloud to check for how it sounds. This poetic form first appeared in 13th Century France…
There is a pattern to follow, which sounds a bit complicated until you get the hang of it. Select a letter to represent each of your six end words as they appear in the first stanza: ABCDEF.
The first line of your second stanza will end with F. OK so far? This is where it can get a bit tricky, but follow the guide here:
Stanza 1: A B C D E F
Stanza 2: F A E B D C
Stanza 3: C F D A B E
Stanza 4: E C B F A D
Stanza 5: D E A C F B
Stanza 6: B D F E C A
Envoi: B E D C F A
When you get past stanza 6, the final three lines of the poem, the envoi, must include all six recurring words so the final word of the poem ends up as the first end line word of the first stanza: A.
Simple, eh? Well, no. But if you get to do this right, very satisfying!
And the swan? Well, this week I’m on a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan, Ireland, where swans can be seen any day of the week gliding across the lake.
I’ve waxed lyrical about this place before, but check it out if you are looking for somewhere restorative and luxurious to spend time being creative.
Next week, I’ll be back with another creative writing prompt/exercise to encourage more new writing. The small print, all about what this means, is here. See you next Wednesday, 5pm Dublin time, for more!