Sunday, June 29, 2014

How to Write a Sestina

In my last post, I started talking about poetic techniques. I want to continue to share that love with you by talking about a format I love.  It's a lesser-known poetic form called a sestina.

Poetic forms with strict rules are a challenge, but writing these constructions is a great way to expand your skill as a writer. The sestina is a unique poetic structure that is a great challenge to writers. Though the form may seem intimidating, once you learn the basics you will find that composing sestinas is fun and rewarding.

Sestina Basics

Sestinas are formed by 39 lines, divided into seven stanzas. The first six stanzas are each composed of six lines while the last one only has three, and is a conclusion to the poem. Before you begin writing a sestina, you will need to decide on six words that will repeat throughout the poem.

Each stanza uses these same six words at the end of the six lines; however the order is changed in every stanza. The final stanza of three lines has two of your words per line - one in the middle and another at the end. Choose the six words that you intend to use before you begin writing the poem, and then structure the end words like this:

Stanza 1: A, B, C, D, E, F
Stanza 2: F, A, E, B, D, C
Stanza 3: C, F, D, A, B, E
Stanza 4: E, C, B, F, A, D
Stanza 5: D, E, A, C, F, B
Stanza 6: B, D, F, E, C, A
Stanza 7: AB CD EF

Sestina Tips
  1. Choose end words that have multiple meanings. If you can use your words in different ways depending on the context of the stanza, your sestina will have more depth.
  2. Read sestinas to learn how to write them. Many poets have experimented with the sestina form. The poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote two famous sestinas, titled "Sestina" and "A Miracle For Breakfast" which are two very different versions of the form. Other good examples that can easily be found online include Rudyard Kipling's "Sestina of the Tramp-Royal" and Ezra Pound's "Sestina: Altaforte."
  3. In your first draft, list the number of the end word at the beginning of each line. This will help you organize your thoughts. If you compose on the computer, you can simply type the end words first and then fill in the rest of the poem.
  4. Do not worry about using a rhyme scheme in your sestina. Because of the changing order of the end words, it is difficult to come up with a consistent pattern. Focus your efforts on the form itself.
  5. Keep your language simple. It is complicated enough to create a coherent poem with specified words at the end of each line. Begin with basic word choice until you master the form.
  6. Practice as much as you can. As with any form of poetry, the more often you write it, the more comfortable you will become with the structure. Your first attempts may be poor, but those first steps will help you improve.

Writing structured poetry is rewarding. It is a personal challenge to create a poem that not only expresses genuine emotion, but does it in a tightly controlled format. Practice writing sestinas with these tips and you may find a new favorite poetic form.

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