Although seemingly counterintuitive, limitations nourish creativity. If someone asked you to write a poem in one hour and gave no guidelines whatsoever, you might end up staring at a blank piece of paper for sixty minutes. On the other hand, if the person specified that this poem must be twelve lines long, rhyme in an ABAB pattern, and include the words “salt,” “dive,” and “molten,” your brain would be much likelier to start firing with associations and possibilities right away.
It’s no surprise, then, that poets often turn to predetermined forms to get their creative juices flowing, such as haikus, villanelles, sonnets, pantoums, and ghazals. One of my favorites is the sestina, which happens to be the only poetic form that the web version of the literary magazine McSweeney’s accepts for publication.
Creating a sestina is like putting together a puzzle, and is more confusing in description than in action. Each of six stanzas has six lines, and those lines end in the same six words. However, in each successive stanza the order of those words changes. A seventh stanza, just three lines long, includes the six words again, two to a line. If we assign each of these ending-words a letter A-F, here is their order in the seven stanzas:
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE
See how Elizabeth Bishop employs this form below using the end-words house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, and tears:
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.
*Now it’s your turn! With the end-words “dawn,” “noise,” “black,” and three of your choice, write a sestina. Quick now, I’m only giving you an hour…