Sestina Obsession

Formal poetry fascinates me. Not that I can write much in the way of decent rhymed and metered poetry, but I love the discipline.

I don’t recall when the sestina became one of my formal poetry obsessions but for a while I wanted to write a good one so badly that I kept a sticky note in the back of my writing journal for words that I thought would be the best ones to utilize in a sestina. Like the word ring. Verb? Noun? Multiple meanings?

My compiling of words has been going on for at least a few years if not closer to a decade (off and on). I keep thinking I can be one of the few to craft an enjoyable sestina.

I have yet to make a viable example.

A sestina, “is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet . . . for a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time”(Wikipedia).

The first stanza can be thought of having end words:
1 2 3 4 5 6

The proceeding stanzas are then:

2nd stanza 6 1 5 2 4 3
3rd stanza 3 6 4 1 2 5
4th stanza 5 3 2 6 1 4
5th stanza 4 5 1 3 6 2
6th stanza 2 4 6 5 3 1

and then the tercet or envoi  further complicates the poem with line one containing words 2—5, line two 4–3 and line three 6—1. (

Perhaps an example is now in order? Or two.

First up is a link to a sestina by Ezra Pound and this second link is to a series of modern sestina’s that were presented on McSweeney’s. (Or now three as I link to a fun sestina in the only journal Vox Poetica)

Why do I think contemporary poets need to try forms like the sestina? Because working in form can often actually free you. When you try to make a thought fit into a specific form, suddenly you find words that you use less often appearing on the page, you find you have to think more about sentence structure and line breaks. Formal poetry can, in fact, free you from your own bad free verse habits.

Not that I will ever turn away from free verse. Free, primarily narrative verse, is still where I thrive but every once in a while if I feel like playing with words or I think I have nothing to say, I pick a form and see what my subconscious wants to say.

For additional enjoyment how about a game involving sestinas?

Or a video of BOA author Alan Michael Parker reading a sestina? Can you pick out the six key words without the text of the poem?

Additional links:

Jessie Carty’s writing has appeared in publications such as The Main Street Rag, Iodine Poetry Journal and The Houston Literary Review. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks At the A & P Meridiem (Pudding House 2009) and The Wait of Atom (Folded Word 2009) as well as a full length poetry collection, Paper House (Folded Word 2010). Jessie is a freelance writer and writing coach. She is also the photographer and editor for Referential Magazine. She can be found around the web, especially at where she blogs about everything from housework to the act of blogging itself.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. meika says:

    I find I have the same relationship with formal forms while strongly preferring free verse as a more natural fit. I agree with the ‘freeing up’ when using structured forms too, and certainly there are many forms to choose from: haiku, petrarchian sonnets through to sestinas. In fact there are so many one wonders why there are 1) any at all 2) and why they are regarded in some movements as limiting. Maybe they are just tokens of call and command.

    Anyway, I guess, one can just make up a arbitrary set of rules as one’s own formal form, or is there a rule against that?

    One question would be, how would anyone know that’s what you doing? You’d have to explain it, *cough* and then put up with people saying you’re doing something else entirely. *cough*

    1. jessiecarty says:

      Have you ever tried to invent a form? I have tried to come up with something clever and I’ve never managed it. I’d love to be able to interview people who come up with forms just to see what their impetus was. Why this meter, this rhyme, this repetition?

  2. meika says:

    Well, yes, I’m quite fond of arbitrary line lengths (4 words) and connotative enjambment (I think I just made that up), where the last word on the line and the first word on the next must be connotatively related, either through meaning, etymology, conventional association/usage etc.

    Had a chapbook of such sonnets published when I was young.

    It’s a constrained free verse form I guess, where oral/aural traditions of rhyme, rhythm/meter are deprecated (but not outlawed) in favour of the readers’ ability to read without moving their lips.

    Not necessarily for the more sensate among us.

    1. jessiecarty says:

      Fascinating! I love when poets think about things like the oral/aural tradition of poetry. I find myself often getting too wrapped up in trying to tell a “story” that I sometimes forget the pure beauty of the way words sound. Looking forward to checking out your post regarding you own formal creation 🙂

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