This week I struggled with a tricky poetry form, the sestina. My poet friend Suzette Bishop recommended I try it early on, but its long form and rigid structure was daunting, so I put it off in favor of shorter forms and free-form experimentation. When I returned to the sestina, I didn’t study it very carefully, missing the format rules, and just glancing at examples Suzette recommended. One famous example is by Elizabeth Bishop (no relation to my friend).
Then I tried my hand at it using randomly selected words. Liking the Haiku poetry magnets I’d purchased, I added to the variety by getting the Original Magnetic Poetry Kit also.
I took them out and created a lovely bowlful of words:
And I randomly selected these words:
It’s hard to tell when spring is here
or not; the calendar does lie
Long hibernating, we don’t like to wake
We’re slow and peaceful, sleeping
February comes, with snows and thaws
Some large rodent sees his shadow
Clocks move up, delaying the shadow
of the house across the street
A strange limbo of time
We wait, while knowing time speeds up
Water trickling through our hands
We try to freeze time in a picture
of that March blizzard, while we try to picture
the coming spring we know is due
All things happen in an order
Predictable, knowable, and sane
We only grow in one direction
watching plants rise within our garden
Until the snow is gone we cannot garden
The earth must first unfreeze itself
Feeling warmth of sun, and sky, and wind
Water underground begins to flow
feeding those thirsty roots we cannot see
Until some green appears one morning
We rise from hibernation that morning
Scrape the sleep from our eyelids
Splashing water on our face
Feeling our blood quicken, our temperatures rise
It’s not too late
We can be hopeful, and not bitter
The coffee brewing will be bitter
But it will wake us from our dreams
Start us moving out in daylight
Chasing heartbeats, drumbeats, ticking clocks
Knowing we are alive for now
Craving yet resisting the coming evening
Shadows growing in the evening
Taking us with them back to sleep
We don’t want to miss the summer
Can you tell I’m obsessed with this time of the year? When I showed the poem to Suzette, she kindly pointed out that I’d created a new form, which was her way of saying that I’d done it wrong! In my cursory look at sestinas, I only noticed that the last word of the end line of each 6-line stanza became the last word of the first line of the next stanza, all the way to the last 3-line stanza. In reality, Suzette explained, the form is a lot more complicated! From www.poets.org:
The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating 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:
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE
So in reality, the first couple of stanzas look something like this:
XXX XXXX XXXX XXXX A
XX XXX XXXX XX XXX B
XXXX XXXX XX XXXX C
XXX XXXXXX X XXXX D
X XXX XXXX XXXX XX E
XX XXX XXXX XXX XX F
X XXX XXX XXX XXX F
XX XXXX XXXXX XX A
XXX XXXXXX XXX XX E
X XXXXX XXX XXXXX B
XXX XXXX X XXX XX D
XX XXXXX XXX XXXX C
And so on, following the formula above. Suzette’s version of the envoi (the 3-line stanza at the end) was described as:
line 1: BE
line 2: DC
line 3: FA
In other words, that the end of each of the two phrases within the three lines should use first B then E, etc.
I found this to be very tricky! It felt unnatural, repeating these words over and over. It’s also acceptable to use different forms (like plurals), hyphenations, or homonyms of the chosen words, which helps a bit. Here’s my first attempt at a correctly structured sestina, using some of the original words I’d selected from the bowl of words:
The Mirror and the Shadow
Looking in a mirror with no shadow
I cannot see it as a picture.
Sun shines too brightly in the morning.
Like my coffee, images are bitter.
I much prefer the purple evening
arriving gently during summer.
It seems so far away, the summer.
Later and later comes the shadow.
Longer and longer lasts the evening.
I can no longer picture
the frosty gems that bitter
winter brings each morning.
But in the springtime, mornings
do not speak of summer.
The wind still blows bitter-
ly, even as the trees cast shadows
through my favorite picture
window, where I wait for evening.
Each March we delay the evening
darkness, capturing each morning.
We long for the sweeter picture
we hope will come with summer-
time as we banish the shadows
and cast away the bitter
clothes of winter and its bitter
sister, spring – longing for the evening,
craving the darkness of the shadow,
which claims less and less as morning
grows and crows earlier in summer.
And we look outside and picture
ourselves, growing and picture
our children, growing, and feel bitter
for the fleetingness of summer,
the inevitable evening
when we will be in mourning
for the end of life, for Death the Shadow.
Though we picture it perfectly, the evening
too is bitter, more so than the morning
When the summer leaves its shadows.
For my next sestina attempt, I chose another group of words randomly from my bowl of words, and came up with this:
Women in Malls
A pale slender finger
reminds me of the women
I know who want
to capture time
to hold the purple
shadows at bay and swim upstream
As I walk through malls they stream
past me, phones in their fingers
Wearing yellow, green, and purple
Dressed like vibrant women
Shopping just to kill time
Not knowing what they want
I know that I want
to float downstream
losing track of time
feeling water through my fingers
Hanging out with women
waiting for the purple
twilight to appear, the purple
shadows hiding what we want
Hungry, angry women
lost in the busy stream
Shouting, giving life the finger
Never enough time
But after some time
the sky turns to purple
I can soften my hair, my finger
curled around the strands, I want
to go against the stream
not be like other women
When we think that women
are the same, sometimes
we forget that in the stream
of life some love blue, some purple,
Some women only want
that ring upon their finger
The women who wear purple
all the time just want
to feel their streaming hair beneath their fingers
One thing I struggled with, apart from how to handle the repetition, was deciding on capitalization and punctuation. I knew some phrases should read clearly as sentences, but some should stand alone. I practiced reading them aloud. The second sestina definitely felt like it wanted less punctuation, freeing up how it could be read and interpreted to some degree.
Reading and writing poetry this month has given me a new appreciation for words and word choice, and I hope to continue to read and experiment with poetry from time to time. Let me know if you have any favorite poems, poets or poetry forms!