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My Favorite Contemporary Sestina
The Sestina is a French syllabic form that consists of six sestets and ends with a three-line stanza called an Envoi.
The first sestet contains terminal rhymes that are repeated throughout the poem in an established order. The power of the Sestina is how the poet uses the words chosen as the original terminal rhymes and how the poet integrates these rhymes throughout the Sestina.
The organization of the repitition is an elaborate puzzle that builds tension until the explosive Envoi which closes the poem up with it's final use of the terminal rhyme.
Here is the standard arrangement of the Sestina:
Stanza 1: (Introduction of terminal rhymes) abcdef
Stanza 2: (the beginning of the puzzle) faebdc
Stanza 3: cfdabe
Stanza 4: ecbfad
Stanza 5: deacfb
Stanza 6: bdfeca
The Envoi has within each line an embedded terminal rhyme and an ending terminal rhyme:
Line 1 of Envoi: be
Line 2 of Envoi: dc
Line 3 of Envoi: fa
Each line can be any length.
The secret to the success of a Sestina is the words chosen to be the repeated terminal rhymes. These words will determine where the poem travels and why it seems to be travelling in a certain direction.
Below I have included one of my favorite contemporary sestina from one of my favorite poets, Diane Wakoski.
Diane Wakoski and her "Sestina to the Common Glass of Beer: I Do Not Drink Beer"
Diane Wakoski was born in Whittier California and attended UC Berkeley until the completion of her BA in 1960. After her graduation she moved to New York City with La Mont Young and started her poetry career.
Currently she is married to Robert Turney and is the Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University. She has over twenty collections of poetry and has won multiple awards including the William Carlos Williams Award for her book "Emerald Ice."
The Sestina to me is a word puzzle that is similar to sitting in front of the fire with a cross word puzzle trying to find the right words that fit.
Diane Wakoski's poem, "Sestina to the Common Glass of Beer: I Do Not Drink Beer," is a perfect example of how the puzzle pieces of the Sestina fit together.
It seems to me that she chose her terminal rhyme words and began to write. Through my own experience in writing a Sestina it is amazing how the placement of the terminal rhymes in each stanza represents a circle. Similar, I feel, to the circle of fifths in music theory. When you finally figure out how to work the terminal rhymes into your poem you will notice that the envoi closes the circle.
Diane tackles a discussion of history and perspective with great skill. She incorporates her terminal rhymes with precision to explain to the reader her outlook on history and how perspective can change things.
I love how she uses words for her terminal rhymes that would not naturally seem to fit into a discussion about history and perspective. But she is able to take beer, daffodils, and the sun, and make her discussion pointed and poignant.
She then uses the envoi to conclude her discussion like a brilliantly planned Lincoln Douglas debate. The reader can tell that Diane was having fun writing this Sestina. Simply because the Sestina is fun to write, once you have chosen your terminal rhyme then you get to solve the puzzle of making your poem work with the circular rhyme scheme and envoi.
I would like to point out that here on Hubpages there is quite a collection of well written Sestina's and I would recommend to anyone interested in writing one to take a look.
Sestina to the Common Glass of Beer: I Do Not Drink Beer
"What calendar do you consult for an explosion of the sun?
And how does it affect our poor histories?
The event might be no different to our distant perspective
than a whole hillside of daffodils,
their own trumpet faces; or a cup of coffee, a glass of
A familiar thing to common people: a beer,
when it is hot, and the sun
into your eyes. Makes you forget history's
only meaningful in retrospect. While flowers, like daffodils,
only have their meaning in the fleshy present. Perspective
cannot explain sexual feelings, though. Perspective-
ly, veiwing a glass of beer,
we compare the color to daffodils
and perhaps a simple morning view of the sun.
The appetite is history's
fact. Common. Dull. Repetitious. Not flashing.
Suddenly, without explanation. The routing of bowels and
past like a train, they come. No previews or perspective.
Sexual feelings are unexplained, as unexpected beauty.
no good at telling us about love either. Over beer
in a cafe, you might stay up till sun-
rise, but even that's routine for some, as every spring the
waxy, yellow as caged canaries, spring daffodils
make me want to touch them. Is this the flashing
disappearing feeling of love and sex the sun
also brings to my body? With no object, no other body's
only the satisfaction of self wanting completion? I wdn't
I'd order a cognac or wine, instead. History's
full of exceptions, and I think I'm one. Yet, what history's
really about is how common, recurring, we all are. The
once planted, really do come back each spring. And
is a habit most ordinary men have. The flashing
gold liquid recurs in war, in factories, in farms. The sun
has explosions that we do not know, record, or ever keep
Thus, the sun embodies more of the unknown than most
We get little perspective outside ourselves. Daffodils
lift me above (to the sun), the faces flashing
each springtime when my friends, not I,
sit in some bar or outdoor cafe,
by Diane Wakoski from "Waiting for the King of Spain" Black Sparrow Press 1976
The poem is not written exactly as written by poet due to format issues.