Monday, March 24, 2014

The Joy of Prosody: Writing the Sestina

By Liz Mastin

In the many books on how to write formal poetry, the “sestina” is often considered a complicated form; but in actuality it is not impossible to write, and I have written two of them. If I can write a sestina, you can write a sestina!  In sestinas, end words are repeated in a convoluted, spiraling pattern and one has the opportunity to change the meanings of the repeated words (for many words have more than one meaning).  The word “dog” at the end of one line which might read “How I miss the little dog”, might appear at the end of another line as “Do not my weary conscience dog!”

The sestina’s inventor, according to The making of a Poem, A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, was Arnaut Daniel, who belonged to a group of twelfth-century poets – the troubadours – who needed, for their fame and fortune, to shock, delight, and entertain!

The sestina does not rhyme as the repetitions stand in for the rhymes. In the sestina, elaborate repetitions manifest as one follows the prescribed formula.  The required pattern for the sestina is as follows:

1.       It is a poem of thirty-nine lines.
2.       It has six stanzas of six lines each.
3.       This is followed by an envoy of three lines
4.       All of these are unrhymed
5.       The same six end-words must occur in every stanza but in a changing order that follow a set pattern.
6.       This recurrent pattern of end-words is known as “lexical repetition”.
7.       Each stanza must follow on the last by taking a reversed pairing of the previous lines.
8.       The first line of the second stanza must pair its end-words with the last line of the first.  The second line of the first stanza must do this with the first line of the first and so on.
9.       The envoy (or last three lines) must gather up and deploy the six end words.

 Is easier to show how this works with a poem example. Many of the famous sestinas may seem complicated due to their more complex subject matter, so I think I will use my simple poem to show you how the repetitions works. Then I’ll add a serious sestina by a revered poet, Anthony Hecht.

Not the Place to Eat a Peach
                                     By Liz Mastin

Upon seeing a young family, on an off-ramp, eating peaches!

Not the place to eat a peach –
On the off-ramp from I-5!
Many speeding cars turn down there:
Logging trucks with lumbering weight.
Highways really are quite foolish:
Stopping only tempting fate.

One may not believe in fate,
But should you choose to eat a peach,
The Flying J would be less foolish,
Up ahead four miles or five.
It’s so much better that you wait –
And you’ll find great coffee there!

Tell your children “Now there there!
Soon you’ll have a nice sweet fate!
Please be patient; try to wait
And you’ll soon have your nice plump peach!
Traffic is intense at five;
To step out now is foolish, foolish!”

Flaunting danger’s always foolish.
Logging trucks which exit there,
On the off-ramp from I-5
Head for the mill; that is their fate.
It’s not worth it for a peach
And what I’m saying carries weight!

Speeding cars will never wait;
They’re always late so it is foolish
Dealing with a messy peach,
Taking chances. You know there
Are some good reasons for ill fate.
Danger looms along I-5!

Beware all you who choose I-5
To eat a peach. You’d better wait.
You don’t want to meet cruel fate!
Move along and don’t be foolish.
I don’t want to see you dead there,
Damaged due to eating peaches.

 Sometimes something like a peach                                  
 Will brings about a foolish fate.
 Wait! Don’t eat there, on I-5.

NOTE: In writing my poem, I studied another sestina, and how the line-end-words were arranged.
Then, I numbered each stanza’s lines, and placed the correct end words at the end of each line and then begin to fill out the lines with some sensible (hopefully poetic) reasoning.

NOTE: In the first stanza, one is free to write whatever one pleases. From there is it only a matter of placing the end words in their proper order  in the following stanzas, according to the formula. It is a consistent pattern; “not” difficult once you get the hang-of-it.

Now here is a very “serious” sestina by a famous poet Anthony Hecht.

                  The Book of Yolek
                                      By Anthony Hecht

The dowsed coals fume and hiss after your meal
Of grilled brook trout, and you saunter off for a walk
Down the fern trail, it doesn’t matter where to,
Just so you’re weeks and worlds away from home
And among midsummer hills that have set up camp
In the deep bronze glories of declining day.

You remember, peacefully, an earlier day
In childhood, remember a quite specific meal:
A corn roast and bonfire in summer camp.
That summer you got lost on a Nature Walk;
More than you dared admit, you thought of home;
No one else knows where the mind wanders to.

The fifth of August, 1942.
It was morning and very hot.  It was the day
They came at dawn with rifles to The Home
For Jewish Children, cutting short the meal of
Of bread and soup, lining them up to walk
In close formation off to a special camp.

How often you have thought about that camp,
As though in some strange way you were driven to,
And about the children, and how they were made to walk,
Yolek, who had bad lungs, who wasn’t a day
Over five years old, commanded to leave his meal
And shamble between armed guards to his long home.

We’re approaching August again.  It will drive home
The regulation torments of that camp
Yolek was sent to, his small, unfinished meal,
The electric fences, the numeral tattoo,
The quite extraordinary heat of the day,
And the smell of smoke and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are Yolek will be there too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.

Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you are sitting down to a meal.

I hope you will try writing the sestina. It is not as hard as it might look and in fact is a very fun form.

Liz Mastin Bio
Liz Mastin is a poet who lives in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho during the summer and Bullhead City, Arizona in winter. She thrives on the study of the great poets, their biographies, the schools of poetry to which they adhered, and the poetic conventions of the times in which they lived.

While she enjoys free verse as well as metrical poetry, her main interest lies in prosody. She notices that most of the enduring poems are those we can remember and recite. Liz enjoys poetry forms such as the sonnet, the sestina, the couplet, blank verse, simple quatrains, etc. and she hopes to see modern poets regain interest in studied metrical poetry.

Liz is currently putting together her first collection of poems which should be completed this winter. The poems are a mixture of metrical and free verse poems.


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