Flexing the Form: Contemporary Innovation in the Sestina
Imagine the troubadour life, competing for the admiration of the court to secure your living as an artist. You and your fellow lyric poets seek out increasingly acrobatic modes to display your facility and grace with language. So it’s only a matter of time before you arrive at the sestina, which embraces a set of constraints right out of an episode of American Ninja Warrior. But whereas a television show might be lucky to hang on for eight seasons, the sestina has been around for more than eight centuries—and has received, in the past few decades, a wide variety of attention. What sets the sestina apart?
The invention of the form is usually credited to Arnaut Daniel, a twelfth-century troubadour of the Provençal region in what is now France. Daniel’s invention dictates the use of six stanzas with a shorter, three-line closing stanza—the envoi—as well as the repetition of end words in a prescribed pattern. Daniel’s surviving texts show that he worked through several variations before the form settled into the distinct shape by which the sestina is recognized today. Sometimes his lamentation of love’s travails claims an eight-line stanza, and sometimes an end sound is repeated in subsequent stanzas, rather than the exact repeated word. But in Daniel’s seminal example, “Lo ferm voler qu'el cor m'intra,” he commits to six-line stanzas that double down on the repetition by making the final end word of one stanza the first end word of the next. From Ezra Pound’s translation of this poem, which appeared in a 1981 issue of the Iowa Review:
I cling mam to her as is the flesh to the nail-tip
And take warning of neither friend nor uncle.
Ne’er love I sister of uncle
As I love her I love, by my soul's hope.
“Ne’er love I sister of uncle”: in other words, I love her more than my own mother. The required repetition (“d'oncle” / “mon oncle”) inspires a clever dislocation of one’s mother as the “sister of uncle.” The repetition also creates an effusive, cascading energy that matches the speaker’s desire in Daniel’s poem and is an essential quality of the sestina form.
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) was an admirer of Daniel’s work, as was Petrarch (1304–1374). They popularized the sestina in Italian. Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) introduced the sestina to English audiences. His double sestina “Ye Goat-herd Gods,” written circa 1580 as part of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, offers seventy-five lines of pastoral dialogue. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) and, much later, John Ashbery (1927–2017) would also take a turn at this ambitious variation. Swinburne’s “The Complaint of Lisa” rhymes end words in each stanza as well, though that has never been a strict requirement of the form. Ashbery then borrowed from Swinburne’s end words for the double sestina he embedded into his 1991 book-length elegy, Flow Chart.
The sestina is frequently associated with the nineteen-line villanelle, which establishes two refrain lines in the opening tercet that are alternated as stanza closures and reunited in a final quatrain. The villanelle is also threaded with end rhymes between the second lines of each of its five tercets. But the villanelle, while hypnotizing (as is the triolet), is so tightly laced as to almost invariably invite thematic rebellion against the predetermined outcome: hence Dylan Thomas’s call to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” or Elizabeth Bishop’s controlled art of losing in “One Art,” or Theodore Roethke’s “waking slow” in “The Waking.” The refrains, by the end of the first stanza’s drafting, have already determined the closing rhetoric.
In contrast the sestina writer may not know where the path will lead. Attentive readers will note the frequency with which sestinas’ narrative stakes change in stanza four, just past the midpoint. This isn’t dictated by any rule; instead, it’s a natural outcome for a form that requires the unexpected to sustain momentum. In the fourth stanza of Miller Williams’s “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina,” a “you” is identified, and the poem becomes a direct address. In Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” the inanimate objects of the house begin to speak. In Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek,” the transition between stanzas four and five is when Yolek (“who had bad lungs”) walks from “The Home / For Jewish Children” to the camp that will take his life.
Major American poets of the twentieth century who published sestinas include Ezra Pound (“Sestina: Altaforte,” circa 1909), the aforementioned Bishop, Hecht, Ashbery, and Williams. Williams’s “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina,” published in 1992, is notable because its playful strategies presage the manners in which the sestina has been flexed in subsequent decades. In stanza three, the end word to becomes too; in stanza four, fast becomes part of breakfast. Each stanza’s typical line length reduces by measure to the point that, in the penultimate stanza, the end words form a statement of their own, a plea: “Time / goes / too / fast. / Come / home.”
The first sentence in the first line of Williams’s envoi is “Forgive me that.” This makes sense in the narrative but is also a wink to the reader. In the past thirty years, the sestina has become the most prominent playing field for contemporary innovations in received form. We have largely abandoned Sidney’s standardized meter. The stanzaic divisions are negotiable, as in Jennifer Givhan’s “Chicken-Hearted,” from her 2016 collection Landscape with Headless Mama, which opts for tercets throughout. Homonyms often create a secondary set of end words, and radical enjambments are common.
Exemplars that direct our attention first and foremost to their gamesmanship include Ciara Shuttleworth’s 2010 “Sestina,” which consists exclusively of six end words arranged into various sentences. In the flip between stanzas one and two, “You / used / to / love / me / well” becomes “Well, / you— / me— / used / love / to….” Catherine Bowman’s “Mr. X” is a tale of loves gone wrong whose end words double down by all sharing the twenty-fourth letter of the alphabet: excuses, extra, ex, crux, deluxe, and fix (plus plausible substitutions, such as ax for ex), culminating in what seems to be death itself, “journey[ing] on the Styx with Mr. X in our boat.”
The emotional registers of sestinas, in all their cleverness, can teeter between glibness and sincerity. But many examples are both formally innovative and deeply affecting. In Julia Alvarez’s “Bilingual Sestina,” the momentary substitution of the end word numbering for nombres speaks to an underlying polarity between English and Spanish, and the complicated feelings around that divide. Because of the form’s prescribed repetitions, the sestina is a particularly effective vehicle to explore code-switching or performative display. A. Van Jordan gives us the double sestina of “Time Reviews the Ziegfeld Follies Featuring Josephine Baker, 1936,” and Danez Smith gives us “Godfather,” dedicated to James Brown. In “clare’s song,” published as part of her 2011 collection the new black, Evie Shockley is inspired by the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s novel Passing. Each end word (light; clear; form; cast; drop; pass) has the capacity to carry multiple connotations in the context of race and historical boundaries. Rather than reconciling these in traditional narrative, Shockley uses the form to treat each line as a march toward evolving meaning:
blonde fair bleached faded pale pastel light
blameless clean innocent guiltless pure clear
anatomy build figure person physique form
complexion countenance hue mien tint cast
bead dab dash ounce iota spot trace drop
succeed qualify answer do suffice suit pass
authorization permit ticket license paper visa pass
effortless facile moderate smooth undemanding light
abandon dismiss disown quit reject renounce drop
jump leap hurdle negotiate surmount vault clear
actors artists characters company players roles cast
behavior manner conduct custom practice rite form
The sestina is a capacious form—at thirty-nine lines it is, literally, a large field of text on the page. Taking advantage of this volume, Lawrence Schimel designed his poem “Deleting Names (A Decaying Sestina)” with an Oulipo-style constraint, winnowing the length of each stanza by one line. The dwindling structure and the reshuffling of end words around the absences until only names remains evokes the loss of friends in a post-AIDS social circle. The full sestina is only twenty-one lines long:
Scrolling through the at-the-limit list of names,
I’m caught unaware: my phone displays a friend
I’ll never be able to call again.
Now that all that’s left of her are memories
I can’t delete her entry, it seems too final,
as if it would erase our entire past together.
Phones are democratic: jumbled together
are lovers and colleagues, name after name
in alphabetical order. It was she who finally
convinced to me get a phone; the day my friend
and I went to buy it is still a vivid memory:
I was having one of those lapses of memory;
not long before, he and I had spent the night together.
We run into him on the street; both he and my friend
expect an introduction, but I’ve forgotten his name.
I’ve now forgotten so many boys; only their names
remain, stored in my phone’s memory.
Those I can delete, but not my friend’s.
It’s as if all that remains of our friend-
ship is this metonymy of her name
on a SIM-card full of memories and names.
While Schimel mourns the loss of a generation, Patricia Smith narrows her gaze to the loss of a particular life in “Ethel’s Sestina” from Blood Dazzler, her 2008 book-length portrait of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. This persona poem is based on 91-year-old Ethel Mayo Freeman, who, accompanied by her son Herbert, died waiting in her wheelchair for government evacuation from the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. The poem describes Freeman’s obedient wait for rescue services that never materialize.
Commenting about this poem to the Washington Post, Smith praised the sestina as a vehicle because of how it “mirrored the way elderly women speak, returning again and again to the same idea, the comfortable words.” At a critical juncture in the sestina, Smith willfully disrupts the form to alarm the reader. Words of comfort become a call to heaven, an exeunt to which we must bear pained witness, when Smith explodes the sixth stanza into twelve lines before arriving at the envoi:
Nobody sees me running toward the sun.
Lawd, they think I done gone and fell asleep.
They don’t hear Come.
Ain’t but one power make me leave my son.
I can’t wait, Herbert. Lawd knows I can’t wait.
Don’t cry, boy, I ain’t in that chair no more.
Wish you coulda come on this journey, son,
seen that ol’ sweet sun lift me out of sleep.
Didn’t have to wait. And see my golden chair?
In other innovative sestinas, a single unifying end word frames the entire poem. In A. E. Stallings’s 2013 “Sestina: Like,” a critique of Facebook in which every end word is like, she adds an epigraph, “With a nod to Jonah Winter,” whose “Sestina: Bob” uses the same satirical mode. Brandon Amico’s “Sestina for the Heartland” portrays an iconic state pressurized by circumstance and trying to retain its pride:
What of the country, the heartland? The homeland is Kansas.
The thicket of my language grows forth from Kansas.
Owner, worker, and the wheat what bind them spring from
Broken windows, stuttered sprinkler systems abide Kansas,
drafty windows and falling A/C units both make homes,
temporary in Kansas.
High heel or step-stool—four inches toward the Lord, the
Church of Kansas.
When we drive cross-country we draw a circle ’round Kansas.
When we fly, we fly over Kansas, we wave to Kansas
and Kansas preens its stalks, which wave in the warm emissions,
and turns back to Kansas.
Kansas knows Oregon like it knows Maryland, which is to say it
They grow corn in Kansas, grow children and Presidents in
They grow corn and sky. They grow nighttime in Kansas.
Sometimes the innovation is derived not from over-repeating the end words, but in barely repeating the end words at all. In Safia Elhillo's "Transport," she captures in the poem—what she calls a "slant sestina"—the feeling of being sexualized in public, stripped of agency:
After establishing these end words in stanza one, the poet substitutes synonyms (protrude becomes thrusting; hurts becomes throb, which then becomes ache) to emphasize repetition of thought. The end words are restored only in the envoi, which aims to find equilibrium after an inventory of trauma.
One of the sestina’s formal strengths and greatest opportunity for innovation is, ironically, its resolute place-holding. The default pattern of end words conditions us to associate occurrence with expected meaning. Therefore we can entertain substitutions, whether they be across grammar (e.g., Bob first as a proper noun, then a verb), sound (e.g., too for to), or proximate meaning (e.g., mallard for duck). Here, Elhillo asks us to think about entrenched meaning as entrapment, a rigor of “the old hurts” that can undermine agency. The slant sestina’s interrogation of itself is uncomfortable—and intriguing—and very much in conversation with Iliana Rocha’s sestina “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” which describes domestic abuse:
Knuckles crackling, star-like.
For each emptiness, you put a dent in me.
For each emptiness, you put a dent in me.
It’s worth repeating this line to kill
Seven stanzas of thirty-nine lines. ABCDEF to FAEBDC. An envoi of ECA (or ACE). Although the acrobatics of the form may be conscribed to rules, the sestina, as these contemporary poets show us, is anything but drab routine, instead offering leaps into the unknown.
Read this sestina sampler selected by the author.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2018 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2018 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.