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It’s turning autumn outside the pub, and a few bare limbs are starting to show. There’s hot drinks made with mugs nearby.  Pour one for yourself and meet us in the usual corner.  Today we’re going back to sestinas. You’ve had a little time to think about the ones you started a month ago, or so.  I’m going to put the formula for the “set” form here again for review.

As you know in a sestina, you do not repeat complete lines as you do in pantoums and villanelles.  You construct the poem with six end words in lines that are traditionally decasyllabic, often in iambic pentameter, (although that is not always strictly followed). These words are called teleteutons.  The layout of the poem, writing to these six words, is called a retrogradatio cruciata (no this is not a borrowed curse from Harry Potter). This structure has two primary traits: (a) if instead of writing the envoy (tornada) one continued to write another stanza employing the same rotation of last words, that stanza would mirror the last words of the first stanza; (b) by not writing that 7th stanza means that each end word holds a unique place in every stanza of the poem, and never repeats that place.

If you care to explore this further, Sara Gwen Weaver takes this information and extrapolates it giving you mathematical models in which to write other repeating pattern poems and gives you an insight into how deliciously puzzle-like and mathematical this form can be.  Her article can be found here.

There are many ways that the sestina has been modernized.  For example one can break the poem into tercets or an alternative form by using a couplet. These word orders could change from 123  456 to 135  246.  An even rarer form, they say exists using haiku in the 575 structure, instead of a tercet.  I thought that sounded intriguing; however I couldn’t find any examples of it.

Not one to be daunted, I wrote my own. You will find my exploration of the “haiku sestina” with the traditional endings and also using both prescribed words in each line of the last stanza as envoy.  The stanzas are not behaving as true haiku because they only employ the 5/7/5 syllables form. The lines enjamb and there is neither kigo (seasonal reference)  nor kireji  (cutting word between two images). I will link it (Art in 5.7.5)  to Mr. Linky for today.

There are other rare alternate forms which either reverse the closing word order of the six stanzas before the tercet, yielding 123456, 246531, 451362, 532614, 364125, and 615243; or restructure the order into a different “retrograde cross form” such as 123456, 435261, 256314, 361542, 514623, and 642135.

There is also the double sestina which seems to have been invented by Algernon Charles Swinburne who also is credited with having invented the roundel.   Here is his Complaint of Lisa.

The standard double sestina takes on this form:

stanza 1: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
stanza 2: 12 1 9 11 4 7 2 8 3 10 6 5
stanza 3: 5 12 6 4 7 1 2 3 10 9 11 8
stanza 4: 8 5 7 6 4 12 10 2 3 11 1 9
stanza 5: 9 8 6 10 1 2 7 4 3 12 5 11
stanza 6: 11 9 6 10 4 2 7 1 12 8 5 3
stanza 7: 3 11 7 8 12 1 2 10 5 6 9 4
stanza 8: 4 3 9 6 5 10 1 7 12 11 8 2
stanza 9: 2 4 5 1 3 8 7 10 9 11 12 6
stanza 10: 6 2 9 3 8 1 7 5 10 4 11 12
stanza 11: 12 6 8 4 3 5 9 10 2 1 11 7
stanza 12: 7 12 6 3 9 11 5 8 4 2 10 1
tornada: 12 10/8 9/7 4/3 6/2 1/11 5

Sestinas are an old form but perhaps because of the challenge, or because they are not required to have specific rhyme or meter, they appeal to writers of modern poetry. Their defined length prevents me from posting many here.

However, I would like to include one I found that appeals to me very much by the poetic alter ego of author Lewis Turco writing poetry under the name Wesli Court (an anagram). The poem is entitled The Obsession. It is unusual in that all six of the teleteutons form the first line of the poem and the first line of every succeeding stanza reformed to match the required end word. Because of this, it was impossible to come up with a standard envoy; therefore, he reshaped them one more time to provide a one line envoy made up of all six teleteutons.


Last night I dreamed my father died again,
A decade and a year after he dreamed
Of death himself, pitched forward into night.
His world of waking flickered out and died —
An image on a screen. He is the father
Now of fitful dreams that last and last.

I dreamed again my father died at last.
He stood before me in his flesh again.
I greeted him. I said, “How are you, father?”
But he looked frailer than last time I’d dreamed
We were together, older than when he’d died —
I saw upon his face the look of night.

I dreamed my father died again last night.
He stood before a mirror. He looked his last
Into the glass and kissed it. He saw he’d died.
I put my arms about him once again
To help support him as he fell. I dreamed
I held the final heartburst of my father.

I died again last night: I dreamed my father
Kissed himself in glass, kissed me goodnight
In doing so. But what was it I dreamed
In fact? An injury that seems to last
Without abatement, opening again
And yet again in dream? Who was it died

Again last night? I dreamed my father died,
But it was not he — it was not my father,
Only an image flickering again
Upon the screen of dream out of the night.
How long can this cold image of him last?
Whose is it, his or mine? Who dreams he dreamed?

My father died. Again last night I dreamed
I felt his struggling heart still as he died
Beneath my failing hands. And when at last
He weighed me down, then I laid down my father,
Covered him with silence and with night.
I could not bear it should he come again —

I died again last night, my father dreamed

© All Rights Reserved to Lewis Turco

You’ll find the web page for his new book The Gathering of the Elders here with a reading of the above poem by the author.

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I read many variations in preparing today’s article.  Since they’re so lengthy, I am linking you to several which you can read at your leisure:

A standard one by Elizabeth Bishop called Sestina

Two Lorries, a variation by Seamus Heaney with his own reading of it is which is quite wonderful.

And for the last link, I will include a poem here that combines the double sestina form with a modern treatment in tone and language. This will satisfy you who oscillate between loving free verse and set form. There’s a bit of both here for you.  It’s just too good for you guys to miss but as it’s 13 long-lined stanzas it would overwhelm this article. Please read Hardboiled Poem by Gary Keenan.  Fair warning, you might need a drink refill before you finish it!

Once again, link your own sestina to Mr. Linky and try to read at least two or three of your fellow poets linked there.  Thank you so much for coming by and hanging out today.