A Simple Guide to the Sestina

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    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!

TG Centre May 22

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!