Tough week? Try winding down by writing a sestina. I’m only half-kidding.
I had a terrible week last week, trying to revise chapter 2 of How the Other Half Laughs. The problem is that I’m trying to kill two birds with one stone. Bird #1 is to revise the chapter so that it fits with the book. Bird #2 is to revise it so that it addresses the comments of reviewers at a journal where I’m trying to get the thing published. I think I realized after weeks of trying to wrangle the thing into a coherent form that the two goals are incompatible. I mean, hitting two birds with a single stone is pretty hard to do!
Why bother with #2? Well, I think in order to get a raise next year I need to get something from the book published in a journal. And if the book doesn’t find a publisher, then I’ll need the journal publications in order to apply for promotion to full professor. (This promotion comes with a ~$10k raise, so it’s nothing to sneeze at, especially since literature professors tend to max out at a little over $100k. Needless to say, I have not yet “maxed out.”)
You won’t be surprised to learn that I ended up playing a horrible game of Twister with myself, trying to cover too many dots in incompatible directions.
Maybe it’s because I had spent the whole week torturing myself, but for some reason I thought it would be a great idea to spend my weekend relaxing by writing … a sestina. If you don’t know what a sestina is, it’s famously complex. It’s probably the most complex form that I will try to attempt during my year of writing a poem every week (sort of). There are more intricate forms– the chant royal, for instance–but this is about as difficult as I’ll get here. It’s so complicated that I can’t remember how it works– I have to refer to a chart.
Ironically, however, I found writing a sestina surprisingly easy. Maybe it’s just easier than trying to do the impossible task I set out for myself with my one-stone-two-birds revision. (Note to self: learn from this.) Or, it may have just been such a relief to have someone provide a rigid structure for my words that no matter how complicated it was, it was more enjoyable than having to make so many choices between amorphous, overlapping, and contradictory options, as I’d been doing with my chapter revision.
My poem took 2 days to write, over a few sessions of less than 15 min. each. I was very surprised. I won’t make any promises about its quality, but I think it at least makes sense. One thing I’ve learned in reading a bunch of sestinas in preparation for writing this post is that many poets, even well-known ones like Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, write poems verging on nonsense in order to get them to fit the rules of the form. I tried really hard not to resort to the fantastical in mine.
So, now that I’ve whetted your appetite, here’s what a sestina is. Basically, it’s 39 lines: 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, and a final, 3-line stanza called the envoi. The poem doesn’t have a strict meter or rhyme, but rather is governed by an intricate pattern of repetition, where the last words in each line rotate in position from stanza to stanza. Let’s say you have the first stanza, which has lines ending with the words A, B, C, D, E, F. Then in subsequent stanzas, you end each line with the same words, but in a different order, as follows:
If you look closely (or if you’re just really anal), you can see that the rotation follows a specific pattern. First of all, the last word in each stanza becomes the word ending the first line of the next stanza, and the second line of that stanza ends with the word that ended the first line of the previous stanza. The rest of the words are determined by basically matching the words of the previous stanza in pairs, where lines 1, 3, and 5 end with the words ending lines 6, 5, and 4 of the previous stanza, and lines 2, 4, and 6 end with the words that ended lines 1, 2, and 3 of the previous stanza.
Head spinning yet? I found this diagram quite useful in figuring out how the end-words moved from stanza to stanza:
And then in the final 3-line envoi, all six words are used, 2 in each line, in an order I can’t remember but you can find on the poem’s Wikipedia page ;-).
Even though the rules of the form are impossible to remember, I think you’ll see (or hear) that the poem does have a sort of trancelike, circular quality. Your body feels the pattern of repetitions, even if it can’t quite put a finger on how it works. I really like how the lines in each stanza are both reversed and followed in order in the next stanza– for some reason the pattern reminds me of the blooming of a flower, moving from inside out.
It is a meditative form, like the pantoum (which I attempted here) and the villanelle (which I have yet to try). (Or it may simply may show up the repetitiveness of human expression, as this amusing sendup of the art exhibition rejection slip shows.) But the richness of variation prevents the form from seeming repetitive, the way a villanelle can.
So who came up with this thing, which for poets represents a torture chamber and brass ring alike? It’s attributed to a 12th-century French troubadour named Arnaud Daniel, who is praised by Dante, Petrarch, Pound, and Longfellow–though Dante did sentence him to Purgatory in his Divine Comedy. (Here’s a side-by-side translation of one of Daniel’s sestinas, if you’re curious.)
Upon reflection, I think I thought about writing a sestina because the process seemed so much like the process of revision: an endless permutation of words in different combinations, looking to see how things might fit. It also seemed a lot like practice, which I’ve also done a ton of as a musician, a tennis player, a writer, a knitter, a baker, and … yes, as an aspiring ballet dancer.
Unfortunately, I was a bit too plump and short to make it in ballet, but I loved those Saturday mornings in ballet class when I was young. Here’s the poem:
Plié; rélevé. Hand resting gently on the barre.
A novice can blithely enjoy such
Quiet, dust motes rising in sun.
Regular practice makes muscles go.
Practice hones movement, the body a clock.
Turns muscle contractions into art’s touch.
Fingers clasp a pen, or touch
Keys; the hand rests on the barre.
An anchor, firm, like the tick of the clock,
Controlling the flow of words, such
Unruly figures, which wantonly go
Darting into corners, away from the sun.
It shines through the windows, early spring sun,
Uncomplicated; one wants to touch
The warm light on the wall, to freely go
Off to the horizon, that faraway bar
Of sand on the bank, one wants to drift to such
Distance. Ticking, the clock
Reminds us of the task at hand. The clock,
More reliable, steady, than the unfaithful sun,
Warmth, yes, but on cloudy days, such
Confusion. Better to simply touch
The button, “Set alarm”; touch the bar,
“Snooze”; one knows how far, today, to go.
But no one knows how far an idea might go.
There is no way to set the clock
For completion, one would never want to bar
The light that breaks through storm clouds, sun
Emerging, warmth released with a touch.
Practice rooms have no windows. Such
Restriction; schedules; practice; such
Discipline required to make one go.
Write and rewrite, touch and retouch
A thing until it makes you sick, the clock
Reminding you of all the cycles of the sun
You’ve wasted, gone, and on the wooden barre
Your fingers so calm, such faith in the clock
Dividing the time left to go; still, the sun
Too far away to touch; so high, the bar.
I had a lot of fun writing this poem. In case you’re curious, the way I did it was by thinking of the six words that I wanted to incorporate as line-endings, and then writing the envoi first. I incorporated some rhyming words, just to see what would happen when they cycled through the proscribed pattern.
Throughout, I was reminded by something that my chamber ensemble coach and flute teacher at Loyola, David Lavorgna, has said about practice: that you basically just want to try out all possibilities and figure out, through doing, what ends up expressing what you want to express. He suggested to me once that I should just try all the possible combinations of slurring, tonguing, or tonguing in duples or triplets or whatever, to see how a phrase should be. And trying all kinds of different tempos. And different dynamics. Without trying, how do you know?
I also was reminded of a book I use in teaching my Understanding Literature course, The Art of Poetry, by Shira Wolosky. I love this book. It actually taught me how to understand the “art of poetry.” One of the things that Dr. Wolosky says in one of her chapters– on sonnets, I believe– is that people like Wordsworth and Keats turned to tradtional forms because they learned that “creativity is generated by restrictions.” The rules actually force us to reach outside the little gray cubicles of our lives and express something new. I definitely felt this as I tried to write something that made sense given the seemingly arbitrary rules of the sestina form.
That said, I also learned that this is a poem that celebrates repetition and the desire for organic/free expression against a rigid, algorithmic form. It’s a poem that demands discipline, and perhaps because of that, makes one yearn to escape it. Yet it also makes one appreciate repetition and discipline, too. If you’re interested in reading more, the Academy of American Poets has a great definition and discussion with lots of links. And McSweeney’s has a lot of good contemporary examples.