You want to write a fine poem, don’t you?
Poets.org 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Assign each of those six words a letter, A through F.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 story, art 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 Ulysses, and 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).