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An Old Sea Dog's Sestina

Updated on February 14, 2014
Sestina | Source

A Lesson on Sestinas

I began writing poetry when I was 12 years old in the sixth grade, and I didn't start because I was an innate poet. My beginnings as a poet were purely because of homework assignments throughout my school years.

During my next stage of poetic writing, it was merely a way to purge thoughts that were cluttering my head.

At the age of 32 though (sometime in 2003), I began to study and learn more about the art of poetry as an autodidact. I bought books and magazines. I did research online. If a source covered the subject of poetry, my nose was in it. This is when I learned about a type of form poetry called sestina. I struggled within myself and wondered if I could ever write a sestina. Finally, in June 2013, I wrote my very first one.

But what exactly is a sestina?
Well, a sestina is a form poem, which means that it is a poem that adheres to specific rules. A sestina is a 39-line poem that has six 6-line stanzas and ends with a tercet (three lines) for an envoi. The last word in each line in the first stanza is used as the last word in each line of the following stanzas. Therefore, the words repeat ... a lot. However, those words do not end in the same order in the subsequent stanzas. For example, the first stanza is established with a ABCDEF scheme. The next stanza has an FAEBDC scheme. Then, the third stanza follows a CFDABE scheme. The fourth stanza is an ECBFAD scheme. Stanza five checks in with DEACFB. The last one follows the scheme of BDFECA.
The tercet envoi get a bit tricky. The first line has word B in the middle and ends with word E. Line two contains word D with word C at the end. The last line envelops word F and ends with word A.
Examples of sestinas can be found here.

If one were to do a search on the Internet for sestinas, one name stands out more than others, and that name is Elizabeth Bishop, who lived from 1911 to 1979. She was Poet Laureate of the United States (1949-1950), and she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956. She also received many other awards and prizes throughout her literary career. Her poem, simply titled "Sestina", is probably the most oft cited example of a sestina.

Sailor Looking Towards the Sea
Sailor Looking Towards the Sea | Source


Since this is my first attempt at a sestina, I will admit that it is not a very good one. The story behind it is purely fictional, but it is about a sailor that can no longer be upon the seas. He deals with his longing for the water by putting himself as much as he can into other aspects of life that include writing about his experiences, learning new things and finding a very loving woman that accepts him as he is. As I continue in my attempts to compose more of this type of poem, I hope and pray that the quality of them gets better.

An Old Sea Dog's Sestina

years spent sailing ocean after ocean.
he’s seen so many shades of blue,
but when he returned to solid ground,
he acquired too much time on his hands.
it seemed like he was abandoned by Hope.
he couldn’t find any new passion.

he never said it was really a passion,
but his heart clearly belonged to the ocean.
being a sailor for life was always his hope;
always seeing himself wearing shades of blue,
but that career was snatched from his hands,
leaving him anchored to the ground.

with his dreams chopped, diced and ground,
his heart shriveled without a thriving passion.
at times, into the air, he raised his hands
and grasped at an emptiness bigger than any ocean.
his soul soon turned a surrealistic blue
and his eyes became devoid of all hope.

then, a woman became his new hope,
with a place to set roots in the ground.
rolling waves turned into skies of soft blue.
learning everything grew into his new passion.
he will forever miss the smell of the ocean,
but happiness now is just the holding of her hand.

his fingers intertwined into her hands;
his heart and her eyes twinkle with glints of a hope
that swells to a vastness like an ocean.
their togetherness starts making steady ground.
the love they share epitomizes deep passion,
and she honors him with crafted gifts painted blue.

at night and under skies of midnight blue,
he ponders the future with steady hands.
writing, learning and loving become his passions.
tomorrow will bring a new day of hope.
and though he is content to stay firmly on the ground,
his soul will always be out on the ocean.

but one day, Death will turn him blue, releasing his hope.
his beloved will hand his body over to the ground,
but his enduring passion returns his spirit to the ocean.

© 2013 Charles Dawson


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