June 24, 2008
Thoughts on Sestinas
Thanks to everyone who gave an encouraging nod toward my sestina draft (which was "born" at around midnight on Sunday, and took about four hours to evolve into the 4-AM Monday version you see below). This is part of a mini-project of sestinas I'm doing...nothing related to a book MS, just a workout of the formal muscles. I'll leave it up for the rest of the day before taking it down.
CC asked if I would elaborate a bit on process. I don't want to overthink it, so I'll just throw out some scattered thoughts:
-I don't like interrupting myself to go check the exact for order for the repetition of word endings. So I keep a "form" ABCDEF sestina in a Word Doc, and use that as a blank starting place for drafts. That said, I recommend NOT filling in the specific end words more than a stanza in advance of the actual drafted poem. If you do, you'll feel boxed-in and psyche yourself out.
-Choose your end-words carefully, keeping an eye out for words that have homonyms or multiple meanings. This gives you more to play with. And if overall you're very fidelious to the form, consider making at least one bold substitution (i.e. "John" for "jaw"). Rules are meant to be bent, just not smashed into a million pieces.
-On a related note: I don't think strict iambic is necessary, but I think it's a mistake to not aim for a regular line-length. Sestina writers who ignore meter create a situation where the the eye sees the end words as the ONLY reason for any given line break. The sestina ends up feeling like a runaway train, ready to veer off the tracks at any moment, rather than a gyroscope set in motion. With a ten-syllable line, enjambment becomes a much more powerful tool in counter-balancing the repetition.
-Be strong of heart. The place where the repetition starts to beat the reader over the head is after the third stanza; it's also where you, as a poet, will grow tired of your subject. The same way that a sonnet has a volta (the six-line ending turn), this is where you want to create a narrative or tonal twist. Ask a question. Add a new element.
-The best sestinas are written from a mindset that, to the reader, is palpably obsessive. Don't deny the reptition; embrace it. Write a poem of grief or anger or urging, where the form nourishes the tone.
-Finally, trust the machinery. One of the funny things about sestinas is that beyond the first stanza they begin to dictate their own narrative path. This was originally an excuse to write about a piece of mythological trivia that has been nagging at me (it goes with Occam's razor)...but by stanza 3, the poem was all about John. The ostensible reason "why" I wrote the poem appears nowhere in this draft!
Hope that's illuminating. What are your thoughts on sestinas? Who does them well? How have your own attempts gone, if any?
"Specimen Jar Poetry Puzzle inspired by Elizabeth Bishop" photo taken from Hex Presse, WOMB's chapbook publishing project.