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An Italian poetic form that consists of six stanzas with six lines each, followed by a three-line envoy. The lines of each stanza end in the same six words, which are rotated in the pattern ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, and so forth. The six end-words are reintroduced (in any order) in the envoy. The name "sestina" means "song of sixes", and the form was popular with Italian and French troubadours a long, long time ago.

Sestinas are difficult to write, but the American poet Robert Frost reportedly once said "I have never read a sestina that was genuninely bad." Writing a sestina can be compared to riding your bicycle down a hill -- the pedals pretty much push your feet. To write a sestina, choose six words you'd like to hear repeated six times, then write the poem. Properly executed, sestinas have a hypnotic, echoing rhythm to them that is terribly effective.

I wrote a sestina once in high school while sitting in an incredibly boring class, if you care to read it. Of course, it doesn't hold a candle to this awesome sestina written by Elizabeth Bishop, which I present here for the sake of illustration and for the sake of your enjoyment. Take note of the words at the end of each stanza. This poem is probably autobiographical, for those curious and who know anything about Bishop.


Sestina

Elizabeth Bishop
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

I wrote this for a poetry class I had a 2:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


When writing a sestina, one
Must always remember to
Check over everything at least three
Times, for
Sestinas are quite difficult to write in only five
Or ten minutes. Complex song of sixes

I once wrote a complex song of sixes
I only wrote one
I wrote it and I wrote it five
Times over again, trying desperately to
Fit every line to a mold and make it look natural for
My class. It's Thursdays, before three

Tuesdays too, sometimes before three
They sing complex songs of sixes
I sit in my seat, apprehensive, waiting for
The class to end because I never won
My battles with the song of sixes. Two
'O clock rolls around, I sing a little song of five.

See, I can do limericks, little songs of five.
Those, I have written, and songs of three
The haiku's on a Tuesday afternoon, up until two.
I think I managed to write six
Of those. That might be a song of twelve, but only one
Song of sixes have I ever written for...

What have I ever written for?
Sitting up late until five
In the morning, only to fall to one
Song, the song of three
Twice over again. Yes, it's six
And maybe it's sick, but if I don't get it by two

I think I'll just have to
Skip class today and head to lab at four.
Stupid damn song of sixes.
A friend of mine once wrote five
Of them. My professor wrote three,
But me I have only ever written one

Song of sixes and it is going to end in
Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, One,
Done.

Near Tina says Vanna

I just would like to state here that hello
is not really what one says to a mulatto
brought up for murder 1. The albino
judge, face sharp and pinched as a mosquito
had heard the theories of altered libido.
"This is not justice, this is denial,"

I whispered, "a travesty of denial
much deeper than any muttered hello
can contain." I could tell that the libido
argument was making the poor mulatto
squirm and twitch as though a trained mosquito
had been sicced on him by that albino.

Everyone called hizzoner albino
though he had lots of color. More denial,
I fumed, and more of that damn mosquito
obfuscation! Oh don’t mind me, hello!
Clearly I was the last hope that that mulatto
had, with all this blather of libido.

He had no more and no less libido
than anyone else there, me, the albino,
or the DA, Vanna. The mulatto
stared at Exhibit A in denial.
Was that shank was how he had said hello
to Miss Tina, felling her like a mosquito?

Wait! That’s it! In winter, what mosquito,
whether it had a prodigious libido
or not, could so much as signal hello
anyway? I sent a note to Judge albino
floating the idea of a denial
exonerating the poor mulatto

of all charges. Each of us is mulatto
just as each of us is part mosquito.
Vainly, then, do we sing our denial.
It is no more than frustrated libido
that quickens both the swarthy albino
and yourself. How low, how low your hello?

Signaling my mulatto of suspect libido,
as low as a mosquito was to that albino,
the motion of denial became just "hello."

a sestina...sort of throws together my contemporary art class with one on theodicy as it pertains to wisdom literature, plus I went walking by the river...


Wondering about Wonder, We Start Where it Stops

Everyone has their own image of God;
trees throng mine, towering, so there's no chance
of ignoring them, not breathing their love.
Wet ground stirs profound sadness: broken
wonder tossed asunder by a choice
vulnerability, water's poem.

Total control can murder a poem—
lead one to trust an unjust, stagnant God
expressing charity as if it were a choice,
a singular happenstance ruled by chance,
which augments hierarchy; words get broken
into ideologies, token love.

Warbling passion, humble, effortless love
seeps out of the earth, weeps like a poem
or a river, grace awoken and broken
by the same source of mnemic force that God
sows in the mind for us to find by chance
later in a dance, stumbling upon choice

by manifesting voice, but is it choice
that pulls a statue out of stone? When love,
so scarcely known, spills forth from skin, does chance
provoke its purpose into a poem?
I've been collecting questions to ask God
(of sunken ships, bodies being broken).

One woman asks, who has not been broken?
Students stare, then start to compare choice
with motive in the many masks of God.
I reflect and know I project love
onto the divine, sing a poem
to the sky, as if there were no chance

of not being heard. But is it a chance
to think of sacred treasures as broken
pots, palm ashes, a half-buried poem?
All appeal to tangibility, choice.
Not quite dead, deep ritual red love
pulsates in fusillading pother, God.

Living, whether by chance or by choice,
bread is broken. I wander, loosing love,
another poem, another God.

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