One of the hardest, most intimidating forms of poetry is that of the Sestina. Most poetry these days is written free form, without regard for structure and rules, but that’s part of the evolution of poetry. The Sestina, like the Sonnet or any other form utilizes such strict rules to focus the mind away from some of the other aspects. If you focus hard enough on one point, the others just sort of fall into place.
Plus it’s that much more impressive to produce a work of art from within such strict guidelines. The Sestina is one of the most oppressive forms there is, not because of a meter or a verse, or couplets, but because of six simple words.
So here’s the form. Choose six words, versatile words. Words that can be used as nouns, verbs, adjectives. Word that can pluraled and used in past and future tenses. These words will be used a lot so keep them loose and agile. If you pick something long and polysyllabic this is going to be hard.
Your sestina is 39 lines, six stanzas of six lines, and a seventh of three. Each line is of blank verse with a varied meter between four and six beats. The end of these lines is marked by one of your six words. The order of the words is of vital importance as well. Here’s a sestina written by Rudyard Kipling, one of the better known Sestina’s (and better written I might add):
Speakin’ in general, I’ave tried ’em all
The ‘appy roads that take you o’er the world.
Speakin’ in general, I’ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get ‘ence, the same as I’ave done,
An’ go observin’ matters till they die.
What do it matter where or ‘ow we die,
So long as we’ve our ‘ealth to watch it all
The different ways that different things are done,
An’ men an’ women lovin’ in this world;
Takin’ our chances as they come along,
An’ when they ain’t, pretendin’ they are good?
In cash or credit no, it aren’t no good;
You’ve to ‘ave the ‘abit or you’d die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,
Nor didn’t prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some’ow from the world,
An’ never bothered what you might ha’ done.
But, Gawd, what things are they I’aven’t done?
I’ve turned my ‘and to most, an’ turned it good,
In various situations round the world
For ‘im that doth not work must surely die;
But that’s no reason man should labour all
‘Is life on one same shift life’s none so long.
Therefore, from job to job I’ve moved along.
Pay couldn’t ‘old me when my time was done,
For something in my ‘ead upset it all,
Till I’ad dropped whatever ’twas for good,
An’, out at sea, be’eld the dock-lights die,
An’ met my mate the wind that tramps the world!
It’s like a book, I think, this bloomin, world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you’re readi’n’ done,
An’ turn another likely not so good;
But what you’re after is to turn’em all.
Gawd bless this world! Whatever she’oth done
Excep’ When awful long I’ve found it good.
So write, before I die, “‘E liked it all!”
Kipling’s six words are “all, world, good, done, good, die”. You’ll notice they’re short, simple words that won’t necessarily appear overwhelming to the reader, so the fact that they read each word seven times throughout the 39 lines isn’t immediately apparent. In the first stanza he uses the words in the aforementioned order. In the second stanza, you use word six first, then word one, five, two, four, and three.
Using the preceding stanza for each new stanza you follow the pattern above. It’s like a math problem with a repeating formula. The key to the Sestina isn’t in the formula though. If you can’t get the formula down, why bother writing it at all. No, the key is in making it sound as natural as possible without giving up the form.
I’ve found that writing a sort of story makes it simpler. It also calls for the reuse of certain words. Similarly, when you write, use simple language. Don’t sound flowery and poetic. Tell a simple story with simple words, and make it interesting. Also, don’t use each word the same every time. You see Kipling using along sometimes instead of long or ’em all instead of all. It makes it seem like a different word is being used even if it’s not.
If you can make it through the first six stanzas, you’re presented with the seventh and the task of using all six words, this time in whatever order you desire in three lines. And often this is a sort of conclusion, as if to an essay, summing up the story from your poem. But, don’t let it be only summary. Keep it consistent with your tone and progression. If you begin repeating yourself ever in this form, you’ve failed the form, and abandoned your readers.