Exercise Two: The Sestina

Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

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

FE - Time to plant tears, says the almanac.                  
BD - The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove     
CA - and the child draws another inscrutable house.*
*The letters to the left are for you to see the repeated word scheme; they are not a part of the original text. So "A" shows all the lines with the word "house" and "B" stands for the lines with the word "grandmother" etc.

The sestina is a form that is a labor of love and it requires the poet to work with a very small set (six) of reoccurring words. The rhyme is based on the recurrence of the end words (I've added the capital rhyme letters above so you can see how the end words match up). So here's how it works - the only way to get at it is to just jump right in.

Step One
The lines do not have a predetermined length, but, as you can see in Bishop's poem, you will need to end with a triplet that has line which can be split in two, so you will need at least a tetrameter. Since the form is already complicated enough, try to stick with iambic (which,undoubtedly, you will have to break to keep with the rhyme scheme). Begin by choosing your subject and your six words. For example:
Subject: School
------ chalk (remember, the image has to reappear again and again)
------ him (this is a cheat - a pronoun is useful because it can refer to a variety of characters)
------ learn (a verb is also a great choice because it offers lots of possibilities of action)
------ repeat (this word and others like "echo" are used to emphasize the form)
------ door (offers lots of opportunities for coming and going)
------ again (this might be tricky, but it helps to emphasize the form)
Step Two
Start to construct your sestina. Worry first about getting to those end words, then go back and edit so that your lines are as consistent as possible (i.e. iambic, tetrameter or pentameter). You may need to rearrange as you go, which is fine - the form will force you to create a poem with a meaning that you perhaps did not first intend. Once you have finished the six sestets (stanzas with six lines), you can move on to the final envoy which is a triplet.

Step Three
The envoy is composed of all six of your end words, arranged however you like, but each line must contain two of your end words. Sometimes you can try to compose the envoy first and create the sestina to build up to it, but I wouldn't recommend doing this out of the gate because it is going to limit your language even more than the form itself does since you would have to keep pushing your images to work up to a pre-determined conclusion. Try a few the normal way first, by constructing each sestet one after the next. When you are confident, you should definitely try it the other way (constructing the triplet first).

Here's another example sestina (and I'll let you write the rhyme letters if you like):
Sestina by Dante Alighieri

I have come, alas, to the great circle of shadow,
to the short day and to the whitening hills,
when the colour is all lost from the grass,
though my desire will not lose its green,
so rooted is it in this hardest stone,
that speaks and feels as though it were a woman.

And likewise this heaven-born woman
stays frozen, like the snow in shadow,
and is unmoved, or moved like a stone,
by the sweet season that warms all the hills,
and makes them alter from pure white to green,
so as to clothe them with the flowers and grass.

When her head wears a crown of grass
she draws the mind from any other woman,
because she blends her gold hair with the green
so well that Amor lingers in their shadow,
he who fastens me in these low hills,
more certainly than lime fastens stone.

Her beauty has more virtue than rare stone.
The wound she gives cannot be healed with grass,
since I have travelled, through the plains and hills,
to find my release from such a woman,
yet from her light had never a shadow
thrown on me, by hill, wall, or leaves’ green.

I have seen her walk all dressed in green,
so formed she would have sparked love in a stone,
that love I bear for her very shadow,
so that I wished her, in those fields of grass,
as much in love as ever yet was woman,
closed around by all the highest hills.

The rivers will flow upwards to the hills
before this wood, that is so soft and green,
takes fire, as might ever lovely woman,
for me, who would choose to sleep on stone,
all my life, and go eating grass,
only to gaze at where her clothes cast shadow.

Whenever the hills cast blackest shadow,
with her sweet green, the lovely woman
hides it, as a man hides stone in grass.
Seems like most poets are so spent after they actually compose a sestina that they can barely bring themselves to come up with a clever title. You can almost hear them say, "To hell with it, I'll call it Sestina. I need a beer." It's hard work, but, just like a good workout at the gym, the sense of accomplishment you feel by looking at your sestina after you've slaved over it for probably days is worth the pain and misery of working at the form. Enjoy!