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Week 2 - Sestina



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This week we are going to explore the magic of highly structured poetry forms. And we will start with one of my personal favorites: the sestina, a complex 39-line form of poetry invented in the 1100s. The sestina has 6 stanzas with 6 lines each, and then a final 3-line stanza called an envoi. The 6 words used to end each line in the first stanza will be reused as the end words in every single stanza – but they must be repeated in a different order, which is dictated by the form. Phew! That’s a lot to think about it. Luckily there’s no rhyme scheme or meter to worry about. Let’s break it down.

To write your own sestina:
  1. Choose your 6 end words! They can all be related (e.g. all words related to birds) or they can be totally random. Consider using a random word generator or selecting 6 words from a page in a book. I recommend that you choose words of different parts of speech – a few nouns, a couple of verbs, an adjective. It’s helpful to find words that can be used as multiple parts of speech, such as “wind” (both noun and verb) or “fast” (adjective, noun, and verb). Check out the sestinas I included below for some example end words.
  2. Label your 6 end words as 1 through 6. 
  3. Write your 6 end words down the page in the order that they will need to end each line of your stanzas! I’ve listed that order at the bottom of the prompt. I encourage you to copy and paste this structure into your “Start Writing” page as an easy reference.
  4. Now you just need to fill out your sentences, and you’ll have your sestina! Remember, the rules for this form are only related to the end word of each line. Otherwise, you can get creative with the rest of the words and the length of your lines.
This all seems like an awful lot of effort, doesn’t it? But poems like the sestina offer the opportunity for form to reflect content. You will often see restrictive poetry forms used as vessels to express emotions that feel out of one’s control. There is something comforting about writing in strict form when your subject is unwieldy and overwhelming. Why do you think so many sonnets are about love?!

Happy Writing, dear writers! I hope you enjoy this wildly complex form as much as I do.
Anna

Check out these beautiful sestinas as inspiration:

Ethel’s Sestina by Patricia Smith 
    About an elderly Black woman who died during Hurricane Katrina. 
    End words: chair, sun, wait, sleep, son, come

The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina by Miller Williams 
    About home, time, and memory. 
    End words: home, time, come, goes, fast, to

The Book of Yolek by Anthony Hecht 
    About a young boy who lost his life in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. 
    End words: meal, walk, to, home, camp, day

Sestina Structure:
Stanza 1:
1
2
3
4
5
6

Stanza 2:
6
1
5
2
4
3

Stanza 3:
3
6
4
1
2
5

Stanza 4:
5
3
2
6
1
4

Stanza 5:
4
5
1
3
6
2

Stanza 6
2
4
6
5
3
1

Stanza 7 (the “envoi”)
    *This stanza is only 3 lines! Each line should contain 2 of the end words.
6, 2
1, 4
5, 3