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Types of Poem Forms – French Sestina Poems

Updated on February 12, 2012

Perhaps one of the most daunting tasks for any aspiring poet is the first time they attempt to write a French Sestina poem. Writing a Sestina requires a good bit of thought and time, but it is a poetic fixed form well worth the effort to master, even if it is a complex fixed poem form known as a “Trobar clus" (closed poetic form). This little-known and problematic form of French poetry was customarily only appreciated by the privileged or tasteful patrons. Furthermore, the Sestina is the perfect poem form for a somewhat long narrative well told in poetry form.

History of Poetry – French Sestina Poem

There is somewhat of a bit of controversy over who exactly came up with the French Sestina poem format. It seems to have originated sometime in the twelfth century and many credit the first known Sestina to Arnaut Daniel, promoting the idea that he was a troubadour, when actually he was in my opinion more likely a Trouvère poets. Trouvère poets were subsidized by their titled benefactors and a few were of blue-blooded bearing themselves. Regardless, it certain that Arnaut Daniel was for many of his time, a very famous poet (and mathematician) and greatly admired by other literary masters, such as Dante and Petrarch.

Since Sestina’s are meant to be performed not read aloud or memorized by spoken word artists, but sung to music it makes it difficult to know for sure who exactly came up with this difficult poem form.

Arnaut Daniel - Lo ferm voler qu'el cor m'intra

Arnaut Daniel - Source: Bibliothèque Nationale 13th century, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Arnaut Daniel - Source: Bibliothèque Nationale 13th century, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Rules For Fixed Form Sestina Poems

  • Each of the six stanzas consist of six lines and ends in a tercet (an assembly of three lines of verse that rhyme with each other or with another cluster of three) called the "Envoy."
  • The total length of a Sestina is thirty-nine lines.
  • Each line can vary in length, but in most cases will be more or less the same to be consistent.
  • The first stanza sets the order scheme for the rest of the next five stanzas. However, each are repeated in a different order called a “lexical repetition.”
  • All repeated lines are unrhymed lines.
  • The first line beginning with the second stanza ends with the same word as the one that ended the last line of the stanza above it.
  • In the concluding Envoy, each of the six rhyming words are used in a unique format of one rhyming word in the middle of each line, along with a second rhyming word at the end of the line.

The ending word scheme and order of lines of a Sestina are as follows:

1st stanza

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

2nd stanza

6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3

3rd stanza

3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5

5th stanza

4, 5, 1, 3, 6, 2

6th stanza

2, 4, 6, 5, 3, 1

Hints For Making Writing A Sestina Easier

Your best bet is to choose six words that you possibly want and play with them. Nouns and active verbs work best. Consider that after you write your first stanza it is best to make a list of all the ending words (terminals) to have them convenient for writing your next five stanzas, along with the ending and center words of the Envoy. Think witty light verse rather than strict poetry. However, some poets swear by another method for writing a Sestina, in that they simply write the first six line stanza and then rework it into improved end words.

Usually, I find that writing a Sestina is a work in progress even once I initially think I'm done with it. The Sestina below is an example, that I no doubt will come back to again and again before I am completely satisfied with my results.

Disenfranchised Voices

We were the smiling comfortable fools

Raising falsely entitled children across the land

Where big butt SUVs hogged the road

Where soccer moms put on fake faces

Of which every prize moment facebook posted

While the American dream was secretly stolen and gone

Where or where has the middle class gone

We were the borrowers the bankers made fools

Upon which our backs record profits posted

Raising falsely inflated credit scores across the land

Where rising inflation painted frowns on faces

Where big worries loom down the road

Where budgets no longer include any road

While food in the food banks are often gone

Where the homeless include Veteran faces

We are the middle class uninsured fools

Raising " Occupy" signs all over the land

Of which the news media reluctantly posted

Where the arrested must have bail posted

Where freedom of speech took another road

Raising "I Am the 99%" wherever there is public land

While a lifetime of work pensions are all but gone

We were the true believer capitalism fools

Where young and old wear disillusioned faces

Where the rich and their lobbyist friends don smiling faces

Of which facebook outrage failed to keep posted

We were too trusting apathetic fools

Where outsourced jobs took a different road

While many of our young soldiers were Middle East gone

Raising a new generation of broken and wounded in Veterans land

Raising another generation of broken in an under-educated land

Where futures do not show in shining fresh faces

While hopes, dreams, and a way of life are mostly gone

Of which the depression of the masses keeps getting posted

Where reality begins to take the lower road

We are marching to a middle class long gone

Who were the fools and what will happen in freedom land?

On this long road with many faces.

We the disenfranchised cried out and posted, if not what was American will soon be gone.

Jerilee Wei © 2011

Double Sestina

Now, if you are really wanting a challenge you should try to write a Double Sestina. Similar to a Sestina with twice the amount of work, the Double Sestina follows poetic rules of:

  • Twelve repeating end (terminal) words
  • Twelve stanzas
  • Concluding the poem with a six line Envoy

"Sestina: Altaforte" by Ezra Pound


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    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 6 years ago from United States

      Thanks shea duane! Being a senior citizen with high school teenager living in the house I am mildly shocked that different poem forms aren't taught like they were in the old days. But then not really. It's a shame.

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 6 years ago from new jersey

      You're right... sestinas are very difficult to write. They are also a great learning experience for anyone who wants to be a poet. Another fantastic hub. Thank you.

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 6 years ago from United States

      Thanks Ginn Navarre! We need a lot of voices right now.

      Thanks Patty Inglish, MS! I'll look forward to seeing your poem.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 6 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Beautiful Hub and Poetry! This is one variety of poem I have not written yet, but will do so in the future now I've read your Hub. Thanks for the clear explanation and the beautiful example.

    • Ginn Navarre profile image

      Ginn Navarre 6 years ago

      Yes indeed this would be a great way to express ones voice in todays economic situations.

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 6 years ago from United States

      Thanks anginwu! Poem forms are often overlooked today for social statements.

      Thanks Storytellersrus! Don't you just a challenge? I do.

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      I find this style challenging and challenging! I can't wait to try my hand. Thanks so much. Great job.

    • anglnwu profile image

      anglnwu 6 years ago

      What a clever way to speak out about the social and economic situation using the sestina. Enjoyed the read:)

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 6 years ago from United States

      Thanks Tom Rubenoff! I try.

      Thanks carol3san!

    • carol3san profile image

      Carolyn Sands 6 years ago from Hollywood Florida

      Gee, that's a lot of great information you shared, and it was very helpful. Thanks. I voted you up.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image

      Tom Rubenoff 6 years ago from United States

      Wow. What a powerful sestina. The sestina is a difficult form, too, but you really made it work for you, and in the process made it perfectly clear how to write one for anyone who cares to learn. Bravo!

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 6 years ago from United States

      Thanks Frieda Babbley! It really wasn't that bad. For me it just takes time for a poem to sit and then review it many times over a long time to be satisfied with it.

    • Frieda Babbley profile image

      Frieda Babbley 6 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

      Wonderful. This is a favorite from your French Poetic forms series. Really enjoyed the video, and our poem is so right on (form and subject). Really makes me want to try this one out, as daunting as it may be.