Poetry: Sestinas

The sestina is a complex poetic form that uses intricate repetition rather than rhyme to achieve what can sometimes be an amazing effect. It requires a great deal of skill and ability to play with words which makes this form a good form to challenge one’s writing abilities. It makes the writer think about how to use words and how to play with the multiple meanings of words.

The thirty-nine-line form was first created by a French troubadour of the twelfth century named Arnaut Daniel who Dante and Petrarch acknowledged as the master of the form. The name “troubadour” probably comes from trobar, which means “to invent or compose verse.” Troubadours sang their verses of courtly love and court intrigue accompanied by music. They were quite competitive with another. Wit, style, and complexity were the weapons that they used to slay one another and vie to be the preeminent troubadour.

The sestina utilizes a pattern of repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, ending in a three-line “envoi.” The lines may be of any length. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:

1. ABCDEF
2. FAEBDC
3. CFDABE
4. ECBFAD
5. DEACFB
6. BDFECA
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

The “envoi” must also include the remaining three end-words, BDF, in the course of the three lines so that all six recurring words appear in the final three lines. If you want to write a sestina, here is a link to the sestin-a-matic that will help keep the order of the end words in line for you while you compose your poem: http://dilute.net/sestinas/

Sestinas can be fabulous! They require that each use of a word capitalize on a different meaning in order to keep the poem fresh and expand the meaning as a whole. Sestinas can be about any subject and have any tone the poet wishes. Luminary poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, and John Ashbery. Enjoy this selection of sestinas!

Here is Elizabeth Bishop‘s “A Miracle for Breakfast”

At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
–like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds–along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
–I saw it with one eye close to the crumb–

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

Here is Ezra Pound‘s sestina titled “Sestina: Altaforte”

Loquitur: En Bertrans de Born.
Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a
stirrer-up of strife.
Eccovi!
Judge ye!
Have I dug him up again?
The scene in at his castle, Altaforte. “Papiols” is his jongleur.
“The Leopard,” the device of Richard (Cúur de Lion).

I

Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.

II

In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace,
And the lightnings from black heav’n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash.

III

Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour’s stour than a year’s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there’s no wine like the blood’s crimson!

IV

And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might ‘gainst all darkness opposing.

V

The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.

VI

Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle’s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges ‘gainst “The Leopard’s” rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry “Peace!”

VII

And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought “Peace!”

Here is W.H. Auden‘s “Paysage Moralise”

Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,
Seeing at end of 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 dawn came back and they were still in 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 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.

Here is John Ashbery‘s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”

The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits
in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How
pleasant
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye,” she
scratched
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach

And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
“M’love,” he intercepted, “the plains are decked out
in thunder
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my
country.”

Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach
When the door opened and Swee’pea crept in. “How pleasant!”
But Swee’pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib.
“Thunder
And tears are unavailing,” it read. “Henceforth shall
Popeye’s apartment
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or
scratched.”

Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. “I have news!” she gasped. “Popeye, forced as
you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened,
duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the
scratched
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and
thunder.”
She grabbed Swee’pea. “I’m taking the brat to the country.”
“But you can’t do that–he hasn’t even finished his spinach,”
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.

But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush. “Actually it’s quite pleasant
Here,” thought the Sea Hag. “If this is all we need fear from
spinach
Then I don’t mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon
over”–she scratched
One dug pensively–“but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that.” Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.

Poetry: Elizabeth Bishop’s Sestina


Even though we are vastly different in many, many ways (she was independently wealthy, graduated from Vassar, traveled widely and lived in many countries, and was a lesbian), I have always felt an odd kinship to Elizabeth Bishop. Like her I was raised by extended family and passed around. I always felt like a guest. She was quoted as saying once that she always felt like a guest growing up as well. When I learned of this, I had the odd sensation of familiarity with her and her poetry. Our differences and similarities unite us.

Whether she was comfortable in this world or felt the perpetual guest, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry was described by Robert Lowell, who was a very good friend of hers, as follows: “Elizabeth Bishop is the contemporary poet that I admire most …. There’s a beautiful completeness to all of Bishop’s poetry. I don’t think anyone alive has a better eye than she had: The eye that sees things and the mind behind the eye that remembers.”

Tonight I have been reading some of her poetry. I think she is one of the most accomplished modern poets. She is also one of the modern poets who receives far too little attention even though she was a Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize Winner. She is not one of the names that springs to people’s lips when they are asked to name a favorite modern poet and this is a shame.

In the past I have posted “I am in Need of Music” which is a spectacular poem. There are so many that are wonderful– “Exchanging Hats,” “Loves Lies Sleeping,” and “At the Fishhouses” to name a few. For this post I chose “Sestina.” A sestina is a form poem that is very challenging to write because the words at the ends of the lines must be used in a specified way. The best sestinas use and re-use the words in combination to create a variety of meanings. Bishop’s “Sestina” is magnificent.

Sestina

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Poetry: Elizabeth Bishop’s I Am in Need of Music

I am going to say little about Elizabeth Bishop. Her body of poetry is not as vast as some other poets, but her work is some of the most significant poetry of the last fifty years. Read this one to yourself out loud and feel the rhythms.

I Am in Need of Music
by Elizabeth Bishop

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.