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Why Write Sestinas?

By Camille Guthrie

Oh yes, why write sestinas?

  • I like the difficulty of the form: six stanzas with six end-words that have to repeat in a particular rotating pattern (twice in the three-line envoi at the end) like playing ping-pong with six balls and six other players. Sestinas are tricky.
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  • The repetition of the end-words gives you a chance to mull over the themes that obsess you. In Wuthering Heights, I noticed that Emily Brontë lingered over the words: heaven, hell, windows, revenge, power, heart—a perfect opportunity to make a sestina out of those lines when I have other things to do. A sestina lets a poet go Gothic.
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  • In Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, Angus Fletcher writes that each of the six terms is “a kosmos” which requires “an interpretive rehearsal in the reader’s mind.” Sestinas are interstellar improv.

    Supernova remnant from NASA’s Chandra x-ray observatory

    Supernova remnant from NASA’s Chandra x-ray observatory

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  • Sestinas are like writing a prayer in which each term earnestly pleas: “let me win this time.” Sestinas are delusional, but hopeful.
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  • Sonnets are too taut; villanelles are too pretty; epics too long and grand; acrostics too cute. Sestinas are just right. Plus, no bears.
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  • In his discussion of John Ashbery’s sestina “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” (another brilliant title!), Joseph M. Conte argues that the sestina is a “sort of exploratory device or probing tool.” Sestinas are bi-curious aliens.Ripley
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  • Conte continues: the predetermined structure of sestinas allows the poet to reject the “romantic notion of an organic form.” Sestinas have GMOs, but taste great.
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  • It’s an old French form, which Conte describes as “an elaborately gilt frame.” Sestinas are a fancy antique you inherited from Grand-tante Chantal.
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  • Susan Wheeler says that “Formal devices—repetition, rhyme, regular meters—serve to double time back on itself, to create the illusion of spontaneity, as opposed to techniques in narrative, which frequently aim to create the illusion of more time” (from “On Form”). Sestinas are back to the future.
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  • I’m bored sometimes, and don’t have cable. Conte also describes sestinas as a “game, puzzle, or assemblage.” You can tweet, or you can write a sestina.
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  • Micah Ballard writes process and sources: “The trick is to be of the atmosphere while owning the environment. No one wants to borrow the same mask every night, but even if you do, the experience of wearing it makes it yours.” Sestinas are costume parties.
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  • In “Personism: A Manifesto,” Frank O’Hara makes the classic argument: “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.” Sestinas are yoga pants.
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  • You can’t help your content, but you can control it. The rules make you smush your emotions into a strict form. Sestinas are a persnickety therapist.
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  • Susan Stewart, in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, says: “Forms are a legacy from the dead and to the future. They make us intelligible to others by providing limits.” Coherent zombie sestinas! (The proof is in  Swinburne’s double sestina, “The Complaint of Lisa”: “Howbeit I shall not die an evil death.” Yes, howbeit, sestina?)
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  • And, finally, Ashbery provides us with the perfect simile: “I once told somebody that writing a sestina was rather like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet. I wanted my feet to be pushed into places they wouldn’t normally have taken.” Sestinas propel us into the unknown on a trusty old Schwinn with a full basket.

4-15-13_Guthrie

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, April 16th, 2013 by Camille Guthrie.