Thursday, April 12, 2007


dough.jpgIn a sestina each line ends with the same 6 words but in a different order. It sounds hard but the constraints can be freeing.

Sestinas normally have 7 stanzas (groups of lines) but you don't need to go on that long. Just try two or three stanzas and then the last stanza (which has a different pattern). The pattern of ending words for the stanzas are:
The last stanza -- it's called the envoi which isn't important but sounded cool :-) -- is only 3 lines, and each line uses two words. The first word of the pair comes in the middle of the line and the second word comes at the end.
1&2 3&4 5&6
(If you like number patterns, the pattern for the end words of the stanzas isn't as random as it first appears. The article at Wikipedia mentions that it's like folding bread dough back on itself during kneading. Which I only mention because I had no idea what picture to use for a sestina and the bread dough made a nice image ;-)

If, like me, you often find yourself limiting yourself to subjects that poetry "should be" about (a hold over feeling from school undoubtedly!), here's a list of fantasy type words that might help you think outside the box:
ice, fire, creature, quiet, cocoon, black
ghost, night, moon, seek, hidden, curse
Some examples of words suggested by kids in Kenneth Koch's class:
pink, aquamarine, green, blue, purple, red
buildings, portrait, prayer, subject, brush, canvas
thunder, apartment, country, pleasant, scratched, spinach (a sestina about Popeye)
I should have copied the poem created by the kids from the book but I forgot before I returned it. Most of the adult sestinas on the internet have that intimidating formality to them that turns off droves of people from poetry :-/, but here's one that while very formal in tone feels very informal for a poem. :-) Notice she didn't stick strictly to the end word patterns. She changed whole to hole and used various forms of relate.
The Concord Art Association Regrets
Pam White

Your entry was not accepted. We regret
it wasn't (enough for us), a work of love.
We liked many of the colors on the whole
but the mass was just something unrelated
to the rest of our show. We hope your work
will have a bright future in another place.

We remember last year you tried to place
another photograph and it was also with regret
we turned you down. Though for that particular work
we found nothing about it (no one could) to love.
It was obscure and a little upsetting in relation
to the rest of our show which we look on as a whole.

Now you may think us ungenerous. On the whole
you are probably right, but this is our place
and we can do what we want whether you relate
to it or not. However we don't want you to regret
your association with us. We want you to love
us, send us money, but please, no more work.

You see right now we need money to work
on the building we're in. There's a hole
in the roof and one wall needs all the love
and attention it can get. Really the place
needs so much, which all costs. I regret
to remind you we need more space for related

works. We're trying to expand and relate
to lots of different kinds of work
so different people won't regret
their visit with us but will see the whole
beauty and tranquillity of the place
and come with us, a journey of love

where people of all races, colors, and creeds love
to look and bask and of course bring relations,
friends, and lovers. All are welcome to our place
here where all the world's magnificent work
can be shown in its entirety, the whole
place filled - with your exception, we regret.

We know you'll love the whole
work we're doing for this place.
We can't relate enough our regret.

(Copyright © 1983-2003 by Pam White.)
One site on sestinas mentioned "One of the challenges of writing a sestina is to create one that can be read aloud without the audience being conscious of hearing the same six words repeated seven times." Which Pam White seems to have achieved by using fairly ordinary words and not having her sentences and phrases end at the end of a line. (And not even at the end of a stanza!) Which sounds like another interesting challenge but don't worry about it this time! :-)

From Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children by Kenneth Koch.

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