How to write a Sestina in 6 (not-so-easy) steps

You want to write a fine poem, don’t you? says that the effect of a sestina, achieved through intricate repetition, is often spectacular.
In a sestina, six words, repeated in a prescribed pattern, take the place of a rhyme scheme, weaving an enchanting web of sound for six, six-line stanzas plus one three-line stanza. I wanted to write a fine poem, so I tried my hand at this form.

And I came up with six (not-so-easy) steps for writing a sestina:

  1. Look at the world and be inspired by something spectacular. A great painting, for example. The pain of lost love. Or a view of farm implements and rutabagas in a landscape.
  2. Choose six words. Let them come from deep down inside you, a subconsciousness place you may not have visited in years, the graveyard of buried images and sounds that comes to life in your dreams.
  3. Assign each of those six words a letter, A through F.
  4. Write those words down right margin (making each word the last word in what is going to be each of the poem’s lines). You’ll end up with 6 stanzas (each with six lines), in exactly this order: Stanza 1–ABCDEF; 2–FAEBDC; 3–CFDABE; 4. ECBFAD; 5. DEACFB; 6. BDFECA.
  5. The 7th stanza (the envol) is only three lines—ACE. You’ll use the BDF words, one in the middle-ish of each line, so that all six words show up in the last stanza, too.
  6. Now all you have to do is come up with the beginning and middle words for each of those 39 lines. This might take you a while.
    • Decades passed between my first inspiration, when I was nursing a broken heart after a broken romance, standing in front of Henri Lehman’s painting of Calypso at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the completion of my Sestina for Calypso.
    • Decades passed because a sestina is a tricky form and my subject was complicated, too. I had to grow wiser to gain greater objectivity and distance. I also had to mature as a poet before I had enough tools in my poetry-writing toolbox to finish what I’d started. Now I’m letting go of my sestina. I gave it my best effort and I’m done messing with it. The romance is over.

In the Greek myth of Ulysses’ Odyssey, Calypso was the woman/sorceress who fell madly in love with Ulysses, bewitched him, seduced him, and kept him captive for years. Finally he came to his senses and fled her island to return home to his kingdom and his wife. Or at least that’s his version of the story.
Standing in front of the painting of a sorrowing Calypso, thinking about the young man who had broken my heart (ah, but I didn’t know at the time it was only a temporary heartache), I had a flash of insight. “Ha,” I said to myself, “He would like to think she never got over him. But she did.”
So I was inspired to tell Calypso’s story from her point of view, in the complex form of a sestina (because the ending of a romance is always complex, and so are women). And of course, by the time I completed it, my poem was barely about that almost-forgotten relationship with the young man I rather quickly got over. It became a poem. It was born of storyart and poetry. As much as poetry can be said to be about anything, this is about Lehman’s painting and the story behind it, also about Tennyson’s famous poem Ulyssesand  Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem An Ancient Gesture. And while, a long time ago in another life, it might have been about me, it no longer is at all.

Sestina for Calypso
(after the painting “Calypso” by Henri Lehmann, at Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

Not for eternity—that image of her on the stones
with crimson shawl around her thighs. She was a woman
posing for an artist. Her tears ended in time,
then she rose and returned to her garden. Its yield
is often bountiful, as yearly she sows and labors.
Potatoes feed her; what sustenance had that man’s idea?
He claimed she seduced him. But it was his mesmerizing idea
confusing her as the sun sank below craggy stones,
his humming suggestion, adorning her labors.
“Are you speaking of me?” she asked, “Or of some other woman?”
“Orchid,” he answered. His tear-shaped word enticed her to yield.
She unfurled purple, yellow and white. She blossomed. It was time.
Breathtaking, how rivers, trees, mountains, in time,
how everything became lyrical.  She birthed a consuming idea–
he might improvise songs for her. His music would yield
such lush love as had never grown on island stones.
Ulysses. His name enthralled her. And he called her Woman.
She uncentered him, he said, to finally cease his labors.
She believed him, but then she was young. His labors,
you know, were already his steadfast narration. Striving all the time,
he was only momentarily concerned with a woman,
with the rapture he called love—a mere idea,
a seaside dream that flung itself upon the stones
and dispersed. So why did she not know he would never yield,
why did she not understand his refusal to yield
to routine gestures, to pleasant boredom, to the daily labors
of love? I’ve already said she was young. “Men’s hearts are stones,”
she told herself after he was gone. But then time
illumined her brooding and she realized this idea
about that man named Ulysses–how a woman
could diminish in his mind, until she became to him no woman,
but a mythical creature to whom no decent man should yield–
a temptress, an oceanid nymph. And resolute in his glittering idea
that she was a sorceress, he returned to his neglected labors.
He wanted to reign as a king. But his idle sovereignty, in time,
cast him forth once more to roam beyond the silent stones.
So why does she scorn his idea that duty beckoned from behind those stones?
And why did she yield to a man who would certainly leave her in time?
She is an ordinary woman; she dreams and loves and weeps and labors.
Which six words (and/or which story, event or image) would you choose to write a sestina around? 
(For inspiration you can read sestinas by famous poets here, here and here).

24 thoughts on “How to write a Sestina in 6 (not-so-easy) steps”

  1. Tracy – I read your post some time ago and got side-tracked with the links you put in it to those poems, plus I wanted to find out more about sestinas, so I’ve whiled away a very interesting afternoon here – so thank you for that: I love the internet 🙂
    Your poem is definitely WOW as Phoebe above says. I hadn’t come across this form of poetry but I just love the idea of this challenge just as I love getting the correct balance in a Haiku.
    I’m going to have to have a go at this but please don’t set me a deadline. I foresee much frustration in the attempt!

    1. If I was going to set a deadline (which I’m not), to be fair, I’d have to give you until 2036. (It took me 22 years to finish this one!)
      I think you’ll enjoy the process, even with the inherent frustrations. The form is a kind of liberation–beautiful things happen because you’re trying to stay within the boundaries. It’s not an easy form, that’s for sure. Have fun!

    1. You’re honoring me, Jill, and I appreciate it. But you should know that I’ve felt a million times, “I could never do THAT.”
      The point is–when we’re called to write, we’re not supposed to write like others. We’re only supposed to write what’s ours to write. And when we tap into the truth of what’s within us, we achieve something uniquely our own. (22 years, it took me, to write that poem.)

  2. I was already stunned, reading this again and again, amazed. And then, Tracy, after I read your reply to Jill (above) I was even more inspired.
    Beautiful post. Another superb lesson and perfect example.
    I’m copying this one and will read it over and over…

    1. I’m so glad you like it, Marylin. When you have time, do read the Tennyson and the St. Vincent Millay poems. (I’ve memorized all of “An Ancient Gesture” and much of “Ulysses.” You’ll see the thread of the conversation, and with whom (or with which version of the story) I was agreeing and/or arguing.

  3. Wow! This is inspiring and it shows your great love of poetry and your patience.
    Well worth it in the end as it is a work of art. I LOVE your reply to Jill “when we tap into the truth of what’s within us, we achieve something uniquely our own”…

    1. I sincerely believe that. I’ve taught quite a few writing workshops (and theater workshops) and I’m always amazed by what comes out of people, when they’re able to be authentically themselves. But sometimes it takes a long, long time to be able to shed the masks and the expectations, to just be who we are. I know I did–I was always trying to please someone else’s expectations or requirements, and found it very difficult to just be me.

  4. Just beautiful, Tracy. I can relate to your story. The 22 years that passed, I’m sure, did provide perspective that you did not have when the wound and hurt was fresh.
    Your comments to Jill are on target: “We’re only supposed to write what’s ours to write.” It’s what I keep striving for. 😉

    1. I think the perspective I needed came about 10 years after the sadness. The rest of the time I spent fiddling around trying to get a handle on the poetry.
      And by the way, I think you achieve what you strive for, in authenticity.

  5. Richard Gilbert

    How amazing this all is, Tracy. Your exercise, your sestina. The closest I’ve ever come is a villanelle and I loved it. I’ll save this! I am on somewhat of a poetry binge this winter, too, so this really resonates.

    1. I’m glad you like it, Richard. I’ve had a long term lover’s quarrel with poetry. It gets on my nerves but I can’t live without it. As the New Hampshire poet Jennifer Militello once said to me, “Poetry is such a strange little niche.”
      Accurate, I’d say. And when you string those three words together–strange, little, niche–you end up with something that takes eccentricity to an extreme level. I’ve tried to be a poet, but I’ve figured out I’m not quite brave enough (or scornful enough of general public opinion about the merit of what one does with one’s time all day long) to be a poet.

    2. P.S. If I ever do decide to become a poet, I will make it my “school” to reunite narrative and poetry. That seed was planted by one of my first mentors, Keith Harrison. I finally understand what he was talking about. And I’ve finally learned enough about both poetry and narrative to know what I’m talking about, regarding my vision for where I’d like my poetry to go (if I ever really get back to writing it–right now, I’m working on a novel).
      If I had gone into academia (to teach, as I originally thought I was going to do), or if I had published when I was younger, I would have felt compelled to choose just one genre. I was either too flighty or too independent or too reckless to narrow down. I sometimes wonder whether I made a mistake. I suddenly have realized that I’m a whole lot older than I thought I was. AARP has sent me a card.

  6. Goodness Tracy, what a beautiful and moving and powerful poem. I am going to have to come back to this post to re-read it over and over as there is so much to digest here. I can’t begin to take it all in. I haven’t even tried Haiku! You are an amazing woman and like I’ve always said, I could learn so much from you although I don’t think so far as poetry goes I’ll ever go beyond the way I write mine. Thank you so much for sharing your heart here…

    1. Thank you, Sherri.
      As I said to Jill, I’m quite certain that all writers are called only to write from their own personality and truth, to the utmost of their ability. And a deep involvement with the history of poetry and poetics (the journey I’ve been on for many years) is definitely not for everyone.
      I’m quite certain you’re writing exactly what and where you need to be writing. And I’m looking forward to seeing more of your story.

  7. Thank you for sharing knowledge of sestinas, and your own wonderful work of years.
    I’m not sure I’ll try this, not really into writing poetry, but it is kind of an intriguing challenge, so who knows?
    Just looking out at the gleaming pacific ocean and listening to the constant sounds (noises) of Mexico, maybe my six words would be wake, shimmer, mist, clatter, breeze and soar.
    Now for the hard part…wait, what if I don’t have 22 years…I’d better get going or give up. Maybe I can at least get as far as setting out the end words.

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