ADMIRING LITERATURE: The Mysterious Sestina

In literature, poetry on July 21, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I have been a dilettante reader and writer of poetry. The finest period in my sparse history of writing poetry was when I was attempting to improve my efforts by going through X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia‘s Introduction to Poetry (I have their 8th edition, 1994).

One of the highlights of my journey through this book (it was the year 2002, I remember) was my discovery of a wonderfully mysterious and captivating form of poetry called a SESTINA. I’m sure, you, if you have always been an amateur dabbler in poetry like me, have never heard of it before. So if you care, come along with me today and discover the joys of understanding, reading and composing (if you please) a sestina!

six-petalled flower

A six-petaled flower

Sestina is a poem of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-lined stanza called as envoi. The lines are not rhymed. However, the poet uses a set of six words repeated as end-words in a fixed pattern through the six stanzas. The envoi uses the six words again, three ending one of the three lines, others embedded elsewhere in the lines.

The patterning is an example of neat numerical ordering. If the end words of the first stanza are ABCDEF, their order in the next stanza would be FAEBDC; the sequence for the third stanza would be CFDABE; the fourth being ECBFAD; the fifth, DEACFB; and finally the last would be BDFECA.

Can you see what is happening here? If you can successfully modify the last sequence so that it yields the original order (the first stanza order, that is), you have got the trick!

Due to this heliotropic structure, the sestina has the power to create an unusual reading experience.


If you wish to stop here and encounter a few sestinas first, please go through to the end of the page and click through my personal selection of a few favorite sesitnas available on the net.]

The end-words

The six end-words (also called as teleutons), since they figure so frequently in the sestina, must be chosen with care. As John Frederick Nims explains in his essay The Sestina, in a good sestina the poet has six words, six images, six ideas so urgently in his mind that he cannot get away from them; he wants to test them in all possible combinations and come to a conclusion about their relationship. [Cf. Kennedy and Gioia, 1994, p. 192]

This is not the only way the poets have plied their end-words. The other way, in Elizabeth Bishop‘s words, is to use as colorless words as possible –like Sydney, so that it becomes less of a trick, and more of a natural themes and variations. [Cf. Victoria Harrisson’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Intimacy, p. 82]

The repetition

like the repeated turns of a helix...Ezra Pound called the sestina a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself. Marilyn Hacker likened it to a camera on a rotating boom/ six words spin slowly round and pan the room. (from The poetry Dictionary, p. 279)

ferris-wheelWormser and Capella, in their book  Teaching the Art of Poetry liken, the sestina’s effect to that of a Ferris wheel: One moves in a circuit and keeps seeing the same sights from slightly different vantage points. (p.191)


The obsession…

This somewhat tipsy repetition can be fascinating, mesmerizing, or, as some have asserted, obsessive!

The repeated words, inexorable in their order, seem designed to convey a state of obsession… [Anthony Hecht in Green Thoughts, Green Shades, Ed. Jonathan Post]. To the extent that they may even invite a monotony that best accompanies a dolorous, despairing, and melancholy mood…

However, many poets, through the “cunning” of art, do often refuse to yield to that mood of solitary and redundant woe. Rather, they successfully divert us by drama, pathos, a crescendo of emotional forces and… encourage us to feel that in one way or another each succeeding stanza will provide some novelty or a wholly new perspective.

The inevitability

In every fresh sestina, it is interesting to observe how the writer has dealt with the inevitability of the end-words turning up again and again at different points.

A learner was asked: “Did you plan it like that or did you just follow where the poem led?” Reply: I’d had the first line knocking around in my head since the beginning of the week, when I picked the prompts, and I knew how I wanted the poem to end…but the bit in the middle just sort of wrote itself… think I went into some sort of sestina induced trance.

John Ashberry once remarked that writing a sestina was like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet. [Cf. Kennedy and Gioia, 1994, p. 192]

However, good artists never let the inveterate form dominate the mercurial art, as you will find in the sestinas below.

A brief anthology

In my bouquet of sestinas below, I hope you will find all the different shades of their splendor and magic!

  • Elizabeth Bishop‘s famous Sestina. It reads like a modern fable whose meaning is only half manifest, the rest to be deduced from the suggestions in the motifs that the poem relies on. It’s one example of a mesmerizing sestina; you keep returning to it to enjoy it and to decipher it more and more.
  • Here is another sestina by Elizabeth Bishop, A Miracle for Breakfast, illustrating the success of the form in conveying social problems of current eminence. The form seems very suitable for depicting the on-the-surface urge induced by a perpetual state of deprivation. The background is the 1930s’ Great Depression in America.
  • James Cummins’ sestina from a sequence of 24 sestinas called The Whole Truth based on the famous fictional detective Perry Mason. It is one of my favorites and narrates the fictional aftermath to Perry Mason’s mind after his retirement from the field.
  • Caroline DaviesMother’s Song, a haunting depiction of the bewildered state of mind of an obsessed and possibly psychotic mother. She’s trying to understand and justify how she dealt with her baby, responding to a nurse who has commented on her (Nurse’s Song byLouise Gluck).
  • Another contemporary and light-hearted sestina that shows how well the sestina can be used to write a contemporary monologue: Pam White’s The Concord Art Association Regrets. Notice how the relentless repetitiveness creates the air of mundane self-conceit. Scroll down to get to the poem.
  • A final example is Lewis Turco‘s (Wesli Court) The Obsession, incorporating an interesting variation in the form. The poem illustrates the delightful possibilities of innovation in an apparently rigid form of poetry. Scroll down to get to the poem.

seven petalled flower (starflower)


  1. […] ADMIRING LITERATURE: The Mysterious Sestina […]

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