The Sestina is another favourite of mine. It seems to me that the formula, though a little complicated, guarantees a certain depth and etherealness that you may not have otherwise been able to achieve on your own.
The Sestina is about repetition. It is a conversation, a telling, a retelling, an obsession with an object, a person, a situation. It is definitely a poetic form that you should try at least once.
So what do you need to know about the Sestina?
1) Length: The Sestina is 39 lines long (don’t be daunted by this, remember repetition is a major element of the form.)
There are six stanzas with six lines each. The seventh stanza only has three lines (known as an envoi)
2) Rhyme: The good news – you don’t have to worry about rhyming
3) Repetition: The six words at the end of each line of the first stanza must feature at the end of the lines of all the other stanzas. This is known as lexical repetition.
4) Pattern: The bad news – the repetition of the end words follows a fairly complex pattern –
1st stanza – 123456
2nd stanza – 615423
3rd stanza – 364125
4th stanza – 532614
5th stanza – 451362
6th stanza – 246531
7th stanza – 3 lines – 2 end words per line
So, the sestina is not the easiest form to attempt but it can result in lovely reflections of what poetry can do and be.
The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina by Miller Williams is one of the best examples of how you can play around with the sestina and what the sestina can do. Look out for the pattern of the end words:
The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina
By Miller Williams
Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,
a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time
to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.
What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come-
small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark-they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.
Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn’t have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.
It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they come.
They’re going to
less with time.
Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the years come
then you will, too. Me, I’ll still be home.
If you decide to try the sestina for the first time, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
1) Choose a topic or theme that you are comfortable with
2) Your first stanza is your most important one, so spend some time on it.
3) If you can, select words that can double as another word, or mean something else i.e. ‘day’ can be used as ‘today’, ‘yesterday’, ‘Monday’ in other lines; ‘game’ can mean a game you play or game you hunt.
4) Don’t try to be ‘poetic’, the form will do the work for you; just focus on saying what you want to say.
5) Your first draft may look, feel or sound funny; with the sestina you have to embrace the art of editing.
By Oyinkan Braithwaite
You do not know my name
To you, I’m just another black girl
Speaking some African language
Invading your wonderful country
Camouflaging an accent
Behind perfect English phonetics
My ancestors mastered your phonetics
Yet you cannot say my name
You try to distinguish a foreign accent
I’m not a peach coloured girl
If you hadn’t invaded my country
I probably wouldn’t speak the language
I cannot even speak my language
I annihilate the phonetics
Sometimes I think this is my country
But you cannot say my name
To you I’m just a clever black girl
With a very pretty accent
Is on perfecting the English language
So I’m not just some black girl
But armed with appropriate phonetics
I condense and transform my name
Making it easier for your country
Would you come visit my country?
Listen to how they change their accent
And correctly say your name
Speak to you in your own language
With rightly said phonetics
Or slangs like ‘babe’ instead of girl
But I’m just another black girl
In a cream coloured girl’s country
Who is an expert on phonetics
And has disguised her foreign accent
Who has lost out on her language
Yet still holds on to her name
Just another girl with a funny accent
In another country speaking another language
Cringing at the phonetics when you say her name