something about sestinas

So, I decided I should write a sestina. I figured if I was going to ask other poets to extend themselves and write something in a form they hadn’t utilized before (and, yes, I am asking you to do that), I should be willing to do the same.

Sestinas have a complex structure, and yet writing one isn’t as difficult as it may seem, because the choices that all poets face when constructing a poem are limited by the sestina’s demands.

Starting along the path of constructing a sestina, you know you are going to need six words that you will use repetitively. They have to be words that you won’t grow tired of and that will express a variety of ideas.

This is where the simplicity within the complexity of creating a sestina comes through. To start, simply choose six words. Just make sure they’re good, serviceable, versatile words.

It’s helpful to decide on a theme while you are picking your words. That’s what I did when I started my sestina. I decided my theme would be a bird feeder. I bought a new feeder recently and have been stocking up on seed for the approaching winter, so it seemed a timely choice.

After choosing this theme, I took a walk around my neighborhood. The sensations of autumn mixed with my memories of bird feeders and words began to present themselves. I recorded several of them on my phone.

Once I got home, I set up a template for my sestina – as suggested in the “What is a Sestina” YouTube video, listed below – and started inserting the words I thought would work best.

Here is what that looked like for the first two stanzas:

Then, I began writing lines that would fit with the end words. This is what I started with:

When I hit line six, I got stumped. Although life seemed like a good word at first, I simply couldn’t come up with a line that worked well with it. So I let it go, and decided on a different word. That choice led to adjusting previous lines, until I had this:

My choice of a different sixth word for stanza one seemed a good one, so I proceeded to stanza 2, which came together rather quickly:

Two stanzas down, and I was happy with what I had. Knowing what the end words would be for the rest of the poem limited what I could do from this point, which I found oddly comforting. Limited choices meant I could concentrate on making each line read well and making them fit my personal writing style.

My completed sestina is below, but before we get there, let me share some insights I had about working with this form:

  • Using such a highly structured form can actually feel liberating. Many decisions are made for you so you can concentrate on the overall effect instead of worrying about how to structure your poem.
  • Although the stanza structure and the last word of each line are predetermined, it’s easy to inject your own sense of rhythm into a sestina, thus personalizing it.
  • If you are faced with writer’s block, or have an idea for a poem that hasn’t worked yet, a formalized structure like sestina can offer a fresh way to approach your work.

I relied on several online resources to help guide my sestina efforts, these were the most useful for me:

Please consider writing your own sestina and submitting it to the Ruth Morris Moose Sestina Award by January 12.

Here is my completed poem:

A Winter Feeder

What first draws me in is black
eyes shining out from the cardinal,
who gives nothing away to the cold.
So I watch the flock dig for seed
through flying snow and then scatter
as if something with fangs is about.

On the table, a book that tells about
identifying the purple finch and black
capped chickadee. But how they scatter
food they dislike, the way the cardinal
drops its crest in anger when the seed
hungry sparrows fly in from the cold:

I see these things for myself, with the cold
slickness of the window-pane about
an inch from my face. I let the birds seed
my mind with the drama of their black
and white efforts to survive. The cardinal
rule to stay alert and ready to scatter

the flock if a shadow falls on the scatter
of birdseed that roughens the cold
ground scratched free of snow. Cardinal,
siskin, titmouse, blue jay, flitting about
the feeder, kicking aside millet to get black
sunflower seeds, this serving to seed

the snow with doves pecking the seed
from the ground among a scatter
of sparrows and glistening black
starlings. The book doesn’t leave me cold,
however, for their is much about
it that intrigues: a map of the cardinal

directions from which the cardinal
spreads across the land; what seed
each type of bird prefers; all about
the colors of their eggs. I scatter
the pages wide to fight off the cold
with facts until the sky turns black.

Nothing left of the cardinal but a scatter
of feathers that seed my heart with cold.
Now I know that that black cat is about.

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