Bacopa Literary Review

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Ah Hah! This is a Sestina!

By Poetry Editor Kaye Linden

Carolyne Wright won this year's first prize in the Bacopa Literary Review poetry contest. Why did I choose this poem over other engaging poetry? A sestina is a poem structured within a fixed form and it is a difficult form to write well because of its mathematical formulaic structure. I particularly enjoyed the way Carolyne incorporated a modern theme and dialogue into this traditional form. I enjoy writers who gently balance on the edge of tradition by mixing up genres, traditions and expectations. Carolyne is one such poet and I thank her for submitting to our poetry contest.

Q & A--The Sestina, with Kaye Linden, Poetry Editor for Bacopa Literary Review, and poetry prize winner Carolyne Wright

KL: What makes a sestina so special to you? 

CW: This is one of my favorite forms, and it has been a fun proving ground for a few generations of American poets. The end words, and the set pattern in which they are supposed to recur, test one's ability to stick with a subject and explore it from all angles, in a sort of lyric-narrative contemplation. For this and other reasons, I call the sestina an exercise in "poetic cubism." The sestina is a very flexible form, in that it seems to work equally well for deep, serious subjects; humorous, light subjects; and lyrical, philosophical subjects.

This is a form that I learned initially from Elizabeth Bishop, in the workshop of hers that I was part of at the University of Washington. Although for her class I wrote nothing "good," the lessons in poetic prosody and form have stayed with me up to this day.

KL: Describe the sestina's format?

CW: The first known sestina was composed in about 1182 in the South of France by the trouvere (poet/singer/composer) Arnaut Daniel (1150-1210). The poem's original language was Provenรงal, or langue-d'oc, now called Occitan--a southern variant of French. With its medieval origins, the sestina has a sort of archetypal structure, consisting of 39 lines divided into 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, and final 3-line envoi (the farewell, or what I like to call the "send-off"). These six end words are repeated in a set order: after the first stanza, every stanza's end words follow this pattern: 6 - 1 - 5 - 2 - 4 - 3.

The end-word recurrence pattern in diagrams looks rather like a spiral or a cat's-cradle. That is, the first end word of one stanza is always the last end word of the previous stanza, then back to the penultimate (fifth) end word of the previous stanza, then the second end word of the previous stanza, etc. So, if we are trying to write a sestina without the full template of end word ordering, we can use this 6 - 1 - 5 - 2 - 4 - 3 end-word ordering as the basic rule, moving from outward to inward, stanza by stanza, till we have written all six.

For the end-word order in the three-line envoi that concludes the sestina: the proper form is to fit two end words into each line of this final tercet--one inside each line, one at the end of each line. These end words can be in any order here, which gives more chance to continue to sound "natural" in this form, even in its tightest space. We compensate for that extra compression, the stricture of having to fit two end words per line in the envoi, with this freedom to put those end words in any order. (See Carolyne Wright's "Sestina: Into Shadow" as an example.)

The sestina's end-word sequence seems to have followed a set pattern from the beginning, and it apparently had a numerological significance in the time of Arnaut Daniel and the other troubadours. Though the pattern may look maddeningly arbitrary, the movement is always from outer words to inner words, almost a spiral turning inward. That sort of movement could have a spiritual / alchemical significance--certainly the medieval mind would resonate with that.

KL: How does a writer benefit from writing in this form?

CW: I love the effect of the end-word repetitions in the sestina. If we aren't specifically looking for these, they can be very subtle--I have been fooled a number of times, reading three or four stanzas into a poem before realizing, "Ah-hah, this is a sestina!" One of Marilyn Hacker's narrative sestinas, Untoward Occurrence at Embassy Poetry Reading, caught me off-guard in graduate school. It's in the voice of a guest poet reading at some overseas diplomatic outpost, who is gradually revealed to be a guerrilla fighter. It took me three stanzas, the first time I read it, to notice the pattern of repeating end words and to realize that I was reading a sestina!

The benefits for a writer in practicing this form are inherent in the repeating and interlacing of the end words, which cause the same ideas, as carried by those words, to re-combine and return. As I said earlier, the sestina embodies a sort of "poetic cubism." It is a form that tests the poet's ability to focus on the poem's subject and explore it from all angles, in a sort of lyric narrative contemplation. The poet finds herself invoking the same words in different variations over and over again--such repetition with variation lends to any pattern of words, including those of the sestina, a certain gravitas, a certain weight and significance.

The sestina is one of the formal poetic patterns that allow me to enter the depths of language to discover insights that I would not have accesse3d as readily through free verse. In fact, I used to discover insights more readily via free verse--at least I thought I did! And it's fun to read older poems of mine and re-experience those moments of coming upon some insight in the writing of those poems. But more and more, this experience, this kind of discovery, this kind of insight or illumination embedded in the language, comes in the writing of poems in form. 

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(The second half of my interview with Carolyne Wright is here. Also, click here for a tool to help you experiment with the sestina form. KL)


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