The Sestina: an Obsessive Verse Form
I wrote my first sestina in 1977 or 1978, as an exercise (strictly voluntary!) in a year-long poetry workshop given by Dr. Christopher Wiseman (a well-known Canadian poet originally from England) at the University of Calgary. He began the year, despite (or especially because of) the preponderance of contemporary free verse, discussing and detailing various formal verse forms. This is something I had never learned in school, something my friend Laurie Roberts had always had a talent for, but something I never could seem to get the hang of. I tried most of the forms we studied: some with success (at least technically), some never got finished (though I finally finished my Petrarchan sonnet a few years later).
After completing my first sestina, which was successful only as an exercise, I was on the lookout for a subject or theme worthy of the form.
I found learning the basics of poetic metre (or rhythm: the ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM of poetry) extremely helpful. I also fell in love with obsessive verse forms (perhaps my French ancestry rearing its head). I wrote a villanelle and a sestina, and became addicted to refrain lines (repeated lines, like a one-line chorus), even in my free verse. This passion for the power of rigidity and repetition gripped me hard, and has me still in its clutches: the epitome of this formality is my poem The Shadow, technically free verse, in that it is no recognized form, but actually a poem so formal that the form allows almost no room for the essential variation.
So, what is formal verse? What are obsessive verse forms? And what the heck is a Sestina? Formal verse doesn't have to wear a tux, but it has a particular shape, which can include a rhythm with a certain number of rhythmic units (feet) or beats per line, or sometimes syllables per line, often a specific number of lines per stanza (poetic paragraph), and often a particular rhyme scheme. Obsessive verse forms use repetition more than rhyme, and are often unrhymed. The repetition can be of certain lines or words in particular places. The villanelle has two refrain lines that occur in the first and last stanzas, then alternate as the last line in the middle stanzas.
The sestina? It dates back to the thirteenth century, popular in both Italy and France, and was used by both Dante and Petrarch. R. F. Brewer, in his Orthometry: The Art of Versification and the Technicalities of Poetry, with a new and complete Rhyming Dictionary comprising 6000 words (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1931) says, "Some writers claim for it the supreme place in poems of fixed form -- above the sonnet even." The sestina is a 39-line poem, with six stanzas of six lines each, and a final stanza of three lines (the envoy). It has a rigid order for the repetition of its six end words.
John Hollander has this to say about the sestina:
I didn't have Hollander's book when I started The Room in 1978, and by 1983, when it was finally finished, there was little I could do to alter it. So I didn't deliberately make the words concrete and abstract nouns, though the samples I'd read probably influenced me to make them nouns. I took the idea of playing changes on the words from my experience with the villanelle. I am most proud of my use of the word volume, which alternately refers to the space of the room, the sound of the voice, or the bound book. While this sort of thing is thought to be a bit too clever, really, to be stooped to, it serves the practical purpose of keeping the poem from becoming dull and predictable -- a terrible risk with any repetitive form. Sestinas are typically unrhymed, but I took a leaf out of Swinburne's book, and decided to try a rhymed sestina, thus gilding the lily. So we have the rhyming pairs room/volume, look/book, and off-rhymed face/voice.
|And so it is that the first stanza's word
Order -- "Sestina," "Word," "End," and then "Ways"
(Three abstract, three concrete like "Forest," and "Light"
Which interweaves with leaves high in the forest) --
With the words' meanings serving different ends,
Repeats its pattern through the whole sestina.
John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse, (a clever, funny, and illuminating book about verse forms, each written in the verse form described).
This is the pattern the word order is supposed to follow:
|1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6|
room, look, voice, book, face, volume
It is dim. It grows dark as I stand in a room. -- 1
Something is with me. I don't dare to look -- 2
Through the space of such quiet. There is a voice, -- 3
A voice I can't hear. I stumble: a book -- 4
Is here with me. It rests on the floor; near it, a face -- 5
Turns slowly towards me. I search for the volume: -- 6
| 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3|
volume, room, face, look, book, voice
The last word of the previous stanza is repeated in the first line, like this:
The end words then go in a kind of back-and-forth pattern, so the next end word is the end of the first line of the previous stanza:
Down in the dark there are words without volume.
I don't stand alone with the voice in this room --
The next end word comes from the previous stanza's last line but one:
The book is below me -- between us, the face
The next end word is from the previous stanza's second line:
Hovers darkly before me and dares me to look
The next end word comes from the previous stanza's last line but two:
Through the grate of its eyes, and reach for the book.
And the final end word comes from the previous stanza's third line:
The book makes a sound: it's the sound of a voice.
Third stanza|| 3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5|
voice, volume, book, room, look, face
The pattern then begins again in the same way in the next stanza, in accordion fashion, bouncing back and forth, starting from the last line of the previous stanza, up to the first, down to the fifth, up to the second, down to the fourth, and up to the third. And each subsequent stanza does the same, always following the previous stanza.
Fourth stanza|| 5, 3, 2, 6, 1, 4|
face, voice, look, volume, room, book
Fifth stanza|| 4, 5, 1, 3, 6, 2|
book, face, room, voice, volume, look
Sixth stanza|| 2, 4, 6, 5, 3, 1|
look, book, volume, face, voice, room
Last stanza, or envoy|
First line|| 3 - 4|
voice -- book
Second line|| 5 - 2|
face -- look
Third line|| 1 - 6
room -- volume
You will notice I did not adhere perfectly to the word scheme in the envoy, switching the places of look and voice, though this did keep the rhyming pairs together in a way that sounded better to my ear, and allowed me to say what I wished:
I look to the silence: it covers the book.
However, such a minor variation in a form this structured is to be expected, and after all, it was for the sake of the poem. Don't think it didn't bug me, but in Alexander Pope's wise words, "There is no beauty that hath not some strangeness to the proportion."
I turn to the face; I swallow its voice,
And I swell through the room till it screams with the volume --
When I wrote this poem, I followed the pattern from a book on poetics. I think it was somewhat later that I noticed the echo between the last line of one stanza and the first line of the next. It wasn't until trying to describe the structure here more explicitly than I've ever seen it, that I noticed the precise accordion-fold pattern. This is not a pattern I've ever seen in any other verse form. It reminds me of a cross-over pattern of alliteration common in some types of Celtic poetry, like so:
The men are fed
The fields are mowed
For more information on what inspired this poem, and my working method, look at the story of The Room.