Sestinas do not get nearly the same kind of PR as sonnets, but I love them much more, in part because, rather than rhyme (and you know how I feel about rhyme), the key to a sestina is the end words.
Before I go on, I should say that no, Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight” is not a sestina. It is a villanelle. We tend to get taught these two together in school but there are many more famous villanelles than sestinas. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is another great example of a villanelle that you might be thinking of. Everyone always mentions these two whenever I talk about sestinas. Sigh.
A sestina is a 39-line poem with only six end words. The order of the repetitions is as follows from verse one through six:
Then the envoi takes the first three end words of that last stanza as the middle words of the last three lines, and the last three end words as its last three end words:
This means that A will be the final word of your poem, so you have to choose that one carefully. I find it also helps if one or more of your end words can act as two different parts of speech. For example:
Ode to the Sestina (Draft 1)
Let me now speak in praise of the sestina, and how
it allows me to look at things six and a half ways. I
take a phrase said to me, like a cookie’s fortune about love
and travel, and I hold it up like a gem. All those
facets reflect the light differently. I shine six
colors of light on the phrase, giving each word six lines
to stretch its legs and walk around, do tai chi, line
up for lunch, grab a cup of Joe, and demonstrate how
my blue eyes see the wor(l)d. It only takes six
repetitions before I crack the code, find out why I
can’t stop thinking about the phrase. It’s like those
songs that get stuck in your head, with lyrics about love
or how you want your burger, but it’s not about love
so much as attention, herding the cats of the mind into line
for inspection. The joy and the challenge of those
constraints of a formal form of poetry like this are how
to spread the wild wings of creativity, as if I
were a caged eagle in a zoo. But I don’t feel caged. Six
words repeated offers far more space than six
strides or wing-flaps. Maybe the difference is my love
of words and the many worlds contained in them. I
could make an epic quest inside each one, draw a line
showing my journey on a parchment map. I can show how
it’s done (certainly it helps if at least one of those
words can be both noun and verb), but showing those
intricacies is easy compared to showing how a mere six
repetitions opens up meaning. I don’t always know how
it happens, that slow unwrapping as if a poem were love
or a veil or a kilt. But I almost always find that toeing the line
gives me freedom, the way banks constrain a river’s flood. I
follow the turnings, the rise and fall of the language I
have travelled all my life. And when alchemy turns those
words into a fragile kind of gold, then line
And this is where things always fall apart for a while. Then I just stand up and walk away. Go to the bathroom. Get more coffee. Make a sandwich. Work with some clients (because I often have an open Word document on my computer at work to add a line or two in between appointments). And I trust that the magic that has gotten me this far, and the Working Poet’s Work Ethic that makes me go at it again and again, will see me through. Eventually.
What do you think is the most well known sestina? Is there one that springs to people’s minds after they realize (or after you tell them) that “Do Not Go Gentle” is a villanelle?
Interesting question. Let me leaf through my books. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any that are particularly famous.
The other villanelle that immediately comes to my mind is Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking.” The only sestina I think of off the top of my head is Bishop’s “Sestina,” appropriately enough.
I haven’t tried writing a sestina in perhaps 25 years. Maybe it’s time!