Next Line, Please

Let’s Write a Sestina

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By David Lehman

January 20, 2015


 

The sestina, a verse form dating back to the Middle Ages, consists of 39 lines divided into seven stanzas: six containing six lines each and a concluding triplet. With its intricate rules, the form may seem hugely intimidating at first. In fact, however, the sestina has enjoyed great popularity among modern poets. You’ll find six examples of the form in The Oxford Book of American Poetry: two by Elizabeth Bishop, one each from Ezra Pound, Anthony Hecht, Harry Mathews, and James Cummins, and only lack of space prevented the inclusion of a seventh, John Ashbery’s “The Painter.” This link will take you to Elizabeth Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast.” Or read this recent effort by James Cummins here.

The same six words end all 39 lines in a sestina. These end-words (known in the trade as teleutons) must appear in a predetermined order. If the teleutons of stanza one are designated by the numbers one, two, three, four, five, and six, in the next stanza the same words must appear in this order: six, one, five, two, four, three. The same 6-1-5-2-4-3 pattern continues until we reach the end of the sixth stanza at which point the end-words line up in their original order. In the seventh stanza—ah, but that can wait.

We will write our crowd-sourced sestina in seven sessions, one stanza a week. For week one, your job is simply to write an opening stanza, using the following end-words in any order:

Port

Fear

Spirit

Dress

Book

Sing

You are entitled to take liberties. The word “port” can refer to a harbor or a kind of wine—or you can resort to variants such as “report,” “airport,” “support,” “sport.” You may use “fear” as either a verb or a noun. The same with “dress” and even “book.” Worry less about what you’re saying than about writing arresting lines that fit the pattern. Have fun; surprise yourself.

A paradox of the form is that though it looks daunting, in practice it can liberate the imagination. You’re so busy trying to solve a puzzle that you don’t get in the way of the poem emerging like a straight shot from your deep consciousness. John Ashbery has likened the writing of a sestina to “riding a bicycle downhill and letting the pedals push your feet.” Just how apt that simile is we’ll soon see, I promise.

Please post your entries to the comments section below. Deadline: Midnight, Saturday January 24.


David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.

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