Kaleidoscope: A Few Thoughts about the Sestina
I have been writing a lot of sestinas lately. I find the form attractive. The form is a balance between rigor and freedom; I mean that the primary requirement of the form is a pre-determined placement of the endwords as the stanzas unfold. At the same time, everything else is open to the poet’s creativity.
Part of my attraction to the sestina is that the form occupies a unique place in contemporary poetry. It is the one place where both formalists and free versers meet. It is intriguing to me that poets such as Ezra Pound and John Ashberry can write sestinas, while at the same time Auden and Donald Justice can also write sestinas. In other words, the form of the sestina is open enough to allow for multiple approaches to poetic construction. If you are a formalist, you can compose a sestina using metrical lines and rhyme. If you prefer free verse, you can compose a sestina with lines of irregular count and without the use of rhyme. And both approaches produce sestinas that are recognizable examples of the form.
Since I am attracted to a syllabic approach, I apply syllabics to the sestina form. Principally, I do this by maintaining a consistent syllable count for all of the lines. At times I will change count for a particular stanza; but within the stanza all lines have the same count. And I have found that the sestina is welcoming to a syllabic approach.
I think of the sestina as a kaleidoscope of words. The endwords cycling through the stanzas resembles, to my mind, the way that elements in a kaleidoscope will shift and cycle through various configurations as one turns the scope. To my mind the visual effect of the kaleidoscope resembles the sonic effect of the way the endwords in a sestina shift and change position in relationship to each other.
Exploring what other people have done with the sestina, I discovered that some poets have applied to the process of endword rotation to verses with different numbers of lines. The classic sestina has six line verses, concluding with a three-line envoi. There are six of these six-line stanzas, and when one adds the closing three lines, that makes for a 39-line poem.
Some poets have adopted the process of the sestina to three-line poems, calling these shorter poems ‘tritina’. A five-line version will be called a pentina, etc.
I discovered that the founder of the sestina, the troubadour Arnaud Daniel, called the form a ‘cledisat’, in the French dialect of his time. ‘Cledisat’ means something like ‘interlock’. The term ‘sestina’ came after the form was adopted by the Italians; the term ‘sestina’ refers to the six-line stanzas.
I like the term ‘interlock’; I think it describes well the way the endwords of the form are interwoven, or ‘locked’ into each other as they turn around each other. So I began to think of the form as defined by the rotational scheme of the endwords and that this rotational scheme could be applied to a poem of any number of lines. From this perspective a sestina is a six-line interlock.
Each of the interlocks has unique features. For example, I discovered that with the four-line interlock the endword for line three retains its position through all of the rotations. Here is how it works:
1 4 2 1 (envoi)2 1 4 2
3 3 3 3
4 2 1 4
This gives the endword for line three special significance as the other endwords rotate around it. I found this particular type of interlock especially attractive.
I wonder if the place that the sestina interlock holds in the world of poetry today tells us something about our poetic culture at this time. Normally we think of the different approaches to poetry as combative and distinct. Yet here we have a form that seems to be a common ground. This indicates that there does exist a place where the conflicting views of how poetry works, and how it should be constructed, do not create a barrier to accessing this particular form.
It is intriguing to me, for example, that many free verse poets are willing to accept the restrictions of the sestina. Does this tell us something about free verse that, perhaps, we have overlooked? And the modern revival of the sestina among formalists, and their willingness to engage with this form that also attracts those who compose in a free verse manner, may tell us something about formal verse at this time as well. It is not clear to me exactly what that is; but perhaps that will become clearer in time.
In the meantime, I am enjoying the exploration of this common ground.