A Guide to Poetry #2: Verse Forms #1: Sestina

A sestina is a structured 39 line poem consisting of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by an envoi of three lines.

The words that end each line of the first stanzas are used as line endings in the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern. It is a 12th century Provençal form, which remains popular to this day.

If we number the lines of the first stanza 123456, the endings of the lines of the second stanza will be in the order 615243. The lines of the third stanza will end 364125, the fourth 532614, the fifth 451362, and the sixth 246531.

The six ending words then all appear in an envoi of three lines (a tercet, to use the proper nomenclature). The first line of the envoi usually contains 6 and 2, the second 1 and 4, and the third 5 and 3.

Examples

Gatecrashers


That’s me. I do it every bloody time,

Grown too convivial in the velvet rooms,

Mulling with our old crowd, the smartest set,

Propped reckless on the sticky, unlatched doors,

Halfway through my best anecdote I fall

Crying and cold onto the roaring street.

Wet, wailing loud enough to wake the street,

I am locked out, condemned to serve my time

With people I don’t know in rented rooms

All sat about a television set,

Privately pining for those one-way doors

While summer programme schedule turns to fall.

Soon I forget both Eden and the Fall,

Start asking what the word is on the street,

Enquire after the weather or the time,

Seek out the living in their living rooms,

And, following a pub-band’s late night set,

Bang girls against back-entry garage doors.

Work, preferably not out of doors

For fear the barometer should fall,

And talk more knowingly, more hip, more street,

Of Coltrane and cocaine and space and time.

I work the heaving crowds, I work the rooms,

Uncertain, only my expression set.

I stay within my demographic set

And rail at what’s arranged behind closed doors,

Squint skyward waiting for the bomb to fall

Keep an eye out for signs to easy street,

Have kids, become more conscious of the time,

Sat silent in the empty waiting rooms.

It’s late. We’ll all be sent, soon, to our rooms.

We’ve known from early on our path was set

On trolleys, through the hospice’s swing doors,

Despatched by fire or heart attack or fall.

We think, now, what came before this street,

That place we tripped from into world and time.

Life’s dead-end street is but a painted set.

We fall through doors to unsuspected rooms,

Resume our anecdotes, are done with time.

Alan Moore

Note the irregular envoi in Moore’s poem, incidentally. This is not uncommon.

Paysage Moralisé

Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,

Seeing at the end of the street the barren mountains,

Round corners coming suddenly on water,

Knowing them shipwrecked who were launched for islands,

We honour founders of these starving cities

Whose honour is the image of our sorrow,

Which cannot see its likeness in their sorrow

That brought them desperate to the brink of valleys;

Dreaming of evening walks through learned cities

They reined their violent horses on the mountains,

Those fields like ships to castaways on islands,

Visions of green to them who craved for water.

They built by rivers and at night the water

Running past windows comforted their sorrow;

Each in his little bed conceived of islands

Where every day was dancing in the valleys

And all the green trees blossomed on the mountains

Where love was innocent, being far from cities.

But no dawn came back and they were still in the cities;

No marvellous creature rose up from the water;

There was still gold and silver in the mountains

But hunger was a more immediate sorrow,

Although to moping villagers in valleys

Some waving pilgrims were describing islands…

The gods,” they promised, “visit us from islands,

Are stalking, head-up, lovely, through our cities;

Now is the time to leave your wretched valleys

And sail with them across the lime-green water,

Sitting at their white sides, forget your sorrow,

The shadow cast across your lives by mountains.”

So many, doubtful, perished in the mountains,

Climbing up crags to get a view of islands,

So many, fearful, took with them their sorrow

Which stayed with them when they reached unhappy cities,

So many, careless, dived and drowned in water,

So many, wretched, would not leave their valleys.

It is our sorrow. Shall it melt? Ah, water

Would gush, flush, green these mountains and these valleys,

And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.


Let’s give it a go!

An Evening’s Meander Upon the Hill


123456

The moon sings between clouds of soft metal,

Forms a triskellion of argent light

Above the house I would go all the time

Atop a hill-world that defined our days,

Formless dreams cohering round your body

Teaching me cruelly the pitfalls of faith.


615243

Not that we had time for religious faith

When your heart would taste my heart of metal

A rare organ in a lonely body

Ancient like that moon, the sky’s only light

Filling the night, like you would fill my days

Feasting on that life like the clock eats time.


364125

These days I think of you, from time to time

Wandering through shredded curtains of faith,

But those late hours have stretched into days;

Evening’s ore now the morning’s metal,

Dark longings exposed to realism’s light,

Safely fading a watercolour body,


532614

That was once a photographic body –

Memory’s archives eroded by time,

Ensuring the heavy load becomes light.

But as we slip away, I still have faith

Like modern commandments set in metal

That I will love again, one of these days


451362

Someone with whom I want to share my days

Whose soul shines as brightly as your body

Whose body glitters like precious metal

That cruel dream-love people have all the time

Eternal awakening buckling faith

Deadening us to universal light.


246531

The moon recedes from the morning sun’s light;

Returning, it’s like I’ve been gone for days.

As fire might temper a martyr’s faith,

Fatigue sharpens my mind and my body.

All circumstance an artefact in time’s

Crucible, cooling love to dead metal.


(6+2,1+4,5+3)

Shall faith be our light, when romance has gone?

Shrapnel metal twists hope as days twist years;

The ache of my body time’s measurement.

Laurence Thompson, 10th December 2011


Closing thoughts

I did the poem by first choosing the six endings and then building the poem around them. I haven’t kept to a rhythm, preferring a loose ten syllables a line. It occurs to me that the less freedom I place on my verse, the better the imagery that seeps out. It’s a strange thing that something so artistic is improved immensely by something so mathematical – I think I’m starting to understand Oulipo better.

I like the sestina because it more or less sets its own mood from the outset. Like in the Auden poem, you always have a sense of the pastoral and the outdoors – water, islands, mountains, valleys. The sorrow seems to act as a binding agent to these items, and the cities an diametrical that defines its opposites better. The Moore poem, with its doors and rooms and streets, is more claustrophobic. I wanted mine to have a texture and a visual “look,” if you like – light shining off a cold surface. Love losing its power to affect a wounded heart. Or is the narrator simply trying to convince himself of his own immunity? Hence the “faith” part, introducing a spiritual rather than religious aspect to it – the feminine moon giving way to the Apollonian, masculine sun. Which suggests an unusual change in temperature, in that the “moon” part of his life was warm and the “sun” part is cold and rational.

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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

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