Monday, 8 July 2019


I've noticed sestinas creeping back into poetry collections. Apparently it's a trend that's been going on for a while. Melanie Seddon points out that "It is commonly believed that the sestina first appeared in southern France in the twelfth century, conceived by troubadour poets as a flamboyant display of skill ... The reappearance of a restrictive twelfth century form that had all but disappeared from common usage during the preceding centuries seems puzzling and at best unlikely. ... The sestina, however, is not a villanelle or pantoum; it makes no demands on the poet in terms of meter or rhyme or foot. Its requirements border on the mathematical and its prescriptions are mainly syntactical."

Stephen Burt emphasises this latter point - "Unlike the ... sonnet the ...structure of the sestina corresponds to no prominent process in human conversation or in the logic of discursive prose ... they require neither expertise with inherited meter nor facility with rhyme". He suggests that "Most contemporary sestinas descend, not from Bishop or Justice, but from the putatively anti-academic writings of the New York School poets, especially Ashbery and Kenneth Kock" and that its revival is more to do with a sense of language's inadequacy - "Young poets now tend not to believe that the poetry they publish in books and journals can disclose organic preverbal truths, invigorate broad movements for social justice ... When these ethical spiritual, political, and historical ambitions fall away, what is left is entertainment and craft or, to put it in another way, technique and fun ... The sestina thus fits a poetics of diminished, regretful, comic, self-skepticism."

Melanie Seddon shares that opinion - "as the interests of poets became focused on that of language itself, on its limitations and inadequacy in closing the gap between the individual and the outside world, the concept of language as an artificially constructed system ultimately freed the poet to choose whichever form she or he so pleased".

In 2013, "The Incredible Sestinas Anthology" came out, edited by Daniel Nester, with sestinas by John Ashbery, David Lehman, Matt Madden and Patricia Smith, etc. In a review Ben Yagoda wrote

  • "The modern revival probably started with Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” and W.H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralis√©""
  • "As befits the postmodern world, there are quite a few self-conscious sestinas here: Dana Gioia’s “My Confessional Sestina” (which begins: “Let me confess. I’m sick of these sestinas/written by youngsters in poetry workshops")"

The Form

The sestina's traditionally used when meditating on a theme - not as repetitive as a villanelle, but sometimes as obsessive. There's a mood of fateful inevitability.

James Fenton in a Guardian article suggested that "it is not technically difficult to pull off. The awkwardness is in making it interesting. Two ways have been tried. One uses somewhat inconspicuous words, on which it is easy to improvise variations. ... The other approach takes very noticeable and characterful words, which tax the ingenuity of the poet, but which play to the distinctive strength of the form".

The repeated words are sometimes known as "teleutons". Marianne Shapiro in "Hieroglyph of Time" points out that "Sestina poets generally avoid using verbs or adjectives" for these words. Variety is introduced by

  • Using puns instead of repetition
  • Using a long word that ends with an end-word (e.g. "closing" used when the expected word is "sing")
  • Using a combination of the above two idea. James Merrill’s “Tomorrows” uses the numbers as his end words, varying so that for example “two” becomes “tu,” “Timbuctoo,” “to,” “into,” and “too.”
  • Using synonyms instead of repetition
  • Using anagrams instead of repetition - Jacques Jouet's Anagrammatic sestina (translated from French by Rachel Galvin) has end-words staple, spared, recaps, carets, ternes, and tinsel. "staple" for example reappears as petals, plates, as pelt, pastel, palest and pleats.
  • Repeating words at the start of lines rather than the end.
  • Using long lines to dilute the boredom induced by repetition.
  • Adjusting the strict end-word repetition pattern of 123456, 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531, (25)(43)(61).

The envoi, which is often epigramatic, is also known as the tornada. Sometimes in the envoi a significantly different word is substituted. There may be no envoi, or a one-line envoi. It's often suggested that poets should write the envoi first.

Modern Examples

Robert Hass in "A Little Book on Form" wrote that "For a form to which books on form give so much attention, there are remarkably few memorable poems in the English and American canon" (p.193). Many poets have tried, often only once.

Rather than assemble some classics, I've looked through books and magazines for examples, paying particular attention to relaxations of the rules. In general the deviations are minor, and the poems sag in the middle - sestinas often seem to me a stanza too long. The poems by Dom Bury, Marianne Morris, Meryl Pugh, and A.E. Stallings merit particular attention.

  • Patience Agbabi’s "Skins" ends with
    It’s past midnight. I’ll call a cab if you want me to.
    But your eyes know how to fit
    a condom like a second skin. Come on…
    (end-words - on, past, fit, eyes, to, skin using variations such as "hard-on", "passed", "Photofit", "ice", "tattoo", "ice")
  • Raymond Antrobus' "The Perseverance" ends slightly irregularly with
    I still hear popping in for a minute, see him disappear.
    We lose our fathers before we know it.
    I am still outside THE PERSEVERANCE, listening for the laughter
    (end-words - PERSEVERANCE, minute, before, father, disappear, laughter)
  • John Ashbery's "The Painter" ends with
    They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
    And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
    As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.
    (end-words - portrait, buildings, canvas, brush, subject, prayer)
  • Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina" ends with
    Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
    The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
    and the child draws another inscrutable house.
    (end-words - tears, almanac, grandmother, stove, child, house)
  • Dom Bury's The Opened Field won the 2018 National Poetry Competition, described by the judges as a "neutron star of a poem compressed inside the restraining machinery of a sestina ... The form is a perfect container for the interlinked themes". It ends with
    that what the land gives it must then learn
    to turn back into soil. One child, a name its task
    to steal. Five boys turn from an empty field.
    (end-words - task, turn, give, names, learn, field.)
  • Michael Donaghy's "Signifyin' Monkey" ends with
    It's easy. Look, he'd been her only trainer.
    Guard or no guard, he'd signed 'I'm lunch.'
    The blood! Of course they had to shoot the monkey.
    (end-words - lunch, guard, easy, train, sign, monkey)
  • Jonathan Edwards' "In John F. Kennedy International Airport" ends with
    'Our apologies again that Wales no longer exists.
    What an honour and surprise to serve you. Please, call me Lucille.
    Now I hope it's a pleasant flight, Mr First Minister, sir'
    (end-words - Lucille, surprised, sir, it, Wales, exists)
  • Jonathan Edwards' "One Fine Day" ends with a 4-line stanza, the first line ending the previous sestet.
    The mother of all headaches next day. On my way
    to the car, I saw Don get in his van shouted 'Alright there?,'
    but he had his hands-free in. Then he sped off for the motorway,
    clipping the kerb, blowing exhaust fumes all over our street
    (end-words - on, there, hand, way, lip, street)
  • Josh Ekroy's "Guided Tour" ends with
    The English - do they like to take care of family?
    Shia is shamed, if they do not. Remove sandals,
    this Mosque wants it. Now we are one blood.
    (end-words - English, Shia, want, family, sandals, blood)
  • Janet Fisher's "A Life" ends with
    Caught, strip searched, head shaved, in a room without curtains.
    names, dates, on the tip of his tongue. Then they slammed the gate.
    And two people grieved a packet, the rest put it to one side.
    (end-words - shave, tongue, fate, curtains, packet, side, with variations like "certain", "pack it", etc)
  • John Foggin's "Falling apart" ends with
    It was stone enchanted him. Cold attitude, and snow.
    Cirrus had all his love. He forgot how soft was her skin.
    His fingers frosted white, he could never hold her, always let her fall.
    (end-words - love, nimbus, skin, letters, snow, fall, though "nimbus" becomes cloud and mists; letters becomes say)
  • Oli Hazzard's "Some Shadows" ends with
    squirming through the trees, impossibly light;
    And I turn to see that you, with a stuttering finger, still read
    The bill, through twitching lips that shadow words.
    (end-words - light, trees, mute, shadows, read, fingers. "mute" seems to have become "twitching lips" at the end)
  • Seamus Heaney's Two lorries ends with
    As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
    Then reappear from your lorry as my mother's
    Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.
    (end-words - ashes, lorry, coalman, mother, Magherafelt, load - though load become "lode", "lead", "payload", "explode")
  • Peter Howard's "The Fabric Torn" ends with
    Or could it be that what sails is your ghost?
    Do you know its intent? Under what sky?
    Will you next see the sun? Eating what dust?
    (end-words - dust, sails, sky, tent, ghost, sun)
  • Gwyneth Lewis' "Advice on Adultery" ends with
    Don't give up hope at the knowing looks.
    Get your own back, have a change of heart:
    Ignore the men, start sleeping with the wives.
    (end-words - wives, hope, heart, looks, back, men)
  • Kona MacPhee's "IVF" ends with
    the blood that's thick with traitorous clots of hope;
    the quiet knack we've lost, of giving in;
    the empty room whose door we cannot close.
    (end-words - blood, hope, quiet, in, empty, close)
  • Kathryn Maris' "Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?" ends with
    you feel for me what you felt for her
    can't you say I'm better than that woman
    can't you get those books off the floor?
    (end-words - say, floor, feels, her, man, books)
  • Kim Moore's "How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping" ends with
    that I carry. It cools in my mouth in the dark
    and the moon sails on overhead. You ask
    about birds, but all I can talk of is stones.
    (end-words - stone, it, asked, moon, dark, birds)
  • Marianne Morris's "Little Song War" ends with
    Beneath the tomb of public opinion forms the crust of your pie.
    Your pie, i.e. a kind of having no allegiance to anything,
    whether black, white, this creep or that one, kettle or pot.
    (end-words - pie, pot, kettle, black, white, creep. These are all used in the final line. "black" is sometimes used a second time in a stanza instead of "kettle")
  • Togara Muzanenhamo's "Six Francs Seventy-five" ends with
    The deaf teller ran to me, tapped me on the shoulder as I thought of you,
    With no change to his eyes, he shook my hand and silently said with his lips,
    'It's your habit, and exactly six seventy-five'. I smiled and left he supermarket.
    (end-words - supermarket, teller, lips, change, you, five)
  • Ilse Pedler's "The Importance of Air" ends with
    In the morning, the stockman gives the order to hold the cow
    and before she can turn, the calf is gone. Her udder swells, heavy
    with milk but he’ll be back to take her to the parlour before long.
    (end-words - long, order, heavy, gone, cow, milk)
  • Meryl Pugh's "3rd Person Beautiful" ends with
    She is a beautiful girl. She is a beautiful
    girl. She is a beautiful girl. She
    is a beautiful girl. She is a beautiful girl.
    The repeated words are "She", "is", "a", "beautiful", "beautiful", "girl". In 4 places there are wrong words at the ends of lines. These are crossed out.
  • Peter Stewart Richards' "Zeno on Moebius Strip, the Social Paradox" ends with
    We must disclose, if only for the crack,
    there is no one, no thing, no need to hide
    on streets of indivisibility.
    The repeated words are disclose, crack, one, hide, streets, indivisibility, with indivisibility sometimes being replaced (by e.g. visibility)
  • Carole Satyamurti's "The Silence of the Lions" ends with
    there's no space for rebellion. At the waste ground,
    countdown to performace. From room to room
    children draw lessons from the afternoon.
    (end-words - afternoon, space, room, performance, ground, draw)
  • Hannah Silva's "Hello my friend" ends with
    Hello my dear friend there is no subject no winning numbers
    I am keeping you connected and I am following you,
    I've told you the good news and now await your urgent respond.
    (end-words - urgent, friend, following, connected, subject, news. The final "respond" - rather than "response" is irregular)
  • Kathryn Simmonds' "Sunday at the Skin Launderette" ends with
    a skin or rain ripples the darkening streets as water pours
    though gutters, pounding pavements clean, making
    everything a sort of new, while the work goes on inside.
    (end-words - side, clean, work, making, pour, skin. "side" becomes "outside", "beside". "clean becomes "lean". "pour" becomes "poor", "paw", "pauses", "pore")
  • A. E. Stallings' Like, use only "Like" as an end-word. It ends with
    But as you like, my friend. Yes, we’re alike,
    How we pronounce, say, lichen, and dislike
    Cancer and war. So like this page. Click Like.
  • Alan Sullivan's "Potala" from The Hudson Review ends with
    To learn the truth, we need not yearn for death
    or spurn our Earth, but choose instead of myth
    the steepest path, the least assuming faith.
    (end-words - truth death Earth myth path faith)
  • George Szirtes' "Cryogenic: The Big Freeze" ends with
    Here is the model. Who knows about later?
    Poems do what they can not to freeze up.
    It's language that survives. O K spells OK.
    (end-words - OK, model, up, can, later, there - "there" becoming "that" at the end)
  • Lewis Turco's Obsession ends with
    I died again last night, my father dreamed.
    (end-words - again, dreamed, night, died, father, last)
  • Heidi Williamson's Mobius Strip ends with
    Make a heap of loops at home and see
    how the joins make countless starts and ends.
    And think of ‘now’ as home. You can’t go back.
    (end-words - home, ends, loop, see, join, back)

See also

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