Once upon a time, dear inklings, Aaron mentioned that I’m always talking about sestinas. When I read his comment, I thought to myself, “That’s true — I am always talking about sestinas.”
Except when I’m not. And after I read Aaron’s comment, and after I thought my agreeable response, I realized that here, at Unstressed Syllables, I have, in fact, not been talking about sestinas at all.
What a horrid oversight on my part. I do believe it’s high time I rectified this.
At first glance, a sestina is nothing more than a rhyming poem of six six-line stanzas with a tercet — a stanza of three lines — at the end. At second glance, you’ll discover that the sestina contains six rhyming words that alternate at the ends of the poem’s thirty-nine lines. Thirty-nine lines of poetry, and you only have to come up with six rhyming words. That’s not so bad!
But it gets even better. You can split those six words into two sets of three each. The words in one set rhyme with each other, and the words in the second set rhyme with each other. So really, all you need is two sets of similar-sounding words. Easy!
The Tricky Part
Here’s the cool part about your rhyming words: You don’t have to use the same ones over and over again. In fact, for the purposes of the sestina, you’re supposed to mix it up a little — and by mix it up, I mean get funky with homonyms and homophones. Ooh la la!
Now, not all of the sample words I gave you above lend themselves to being toyed with. Ideally, each of your rhyming words will have at least one homonym (same spelling, different meaning) or homophone (same sound, different meaning); this will allow you a lot more leeway in crafting your sestina line-by-line and creating coherent content. (More on that later.)
Still, for now we’re just gonna stick with the words I’ve picked, what say? Here are my six with some of their possible alternates:
would / wood
should / shooed (but this is really stretching it!)
cup (noun) / cup (verb)
sup / ‘sup (as in “wassup y’all?” — yes, you are allowed to play this way!)
Okay, you’ve got your rhyming words and their possible substitutes. You know that these six words will alternate at the ends of every line throughout your sestina. (They’ll switch things up for you a little in the tercet, but we’ll get to that later.) Here’s where things get a leeeetle more complicated. But bear with me — we’ll get this thing figured out, I promise.
Much to the (unnecessary!) dismay of the sestina virgin, there’s a set pattern by which the rhyming words alternate from one stanza to the next. So to begin, we’re going to assign each rhyming word a number:
would/wood = 1
good = 3
should/shooed (iffy!) = 5
cup/cup = 2
yup = 4
sup/’sup = 6.
In your first stanza, the sequence of numbers is easy-peasy: 123456. The result is a first stanza with the following ending words:
Now, all you have to do is make up lines of poetry that end in those words — and you got yerself a first stanza! Traditionally, each line follows iambic pentameter, but I don’t usually hold with tradition, so I won’t tell you to do that. 😉
Ready to tackle the next step? Remember, the ending words of your first stanza follow the simplest pattern: 123456. Here is the pattern for the remaining stanzas:
Second stanza: 615243 (sup, would, should, cup, yup, good)
Third Stanza: 364125 (good, sup, yup, would, cup, should)
Fourth Stanza: 532614 (you’ve probably got the picture and can plug ‘em in yourself)
Fifth Stanza: 451362
Sixth Stanza: 246531.
See? Didn’t I promise it would be painless? If your brain’s not completely fricasseed by now, let’s look at the final stanza, the tercet, which summarizes not only the content of the preceding six stanzas, but also the pattern of the rhyming words:
1 (middle of the line) and 4 (ending word)
2 (middle) and 5 (ending)
3 (middle) and 6 (ending).
Yes, But Whatsit?
You got yer rhymes, you got yer kinky alternates, you got yer pattern — in other words, you’re looking at your formula, and you’ve assembled the variables you’re going to plug into it. One might think that as a sestina-rocking poet, your work is practically done. The thing’s gonna write itself, right?
Wrong. Though formulaic in its structure, a completed sestina is greater than the sum of its parts. Or it should be greater, anyway, and that’s where your content comes into play.
Choose as your subject whatever you want. When I sit down to write a sestina, I have a general idea in mind, and I try to select rhyming words which relate to that idea in some way. As I start plugging the words into the pattern of each stanza, I keep my original idea ever before me, so that I never lose sight of my theme. That theme is like a small voice, guiding me from the back of my mind and nudging me in the right direction if I get off-track through desperate bids to force my rhymes to work. (If they don’t, some re-thinking of line-ending words might be in order.)
From one stanza to the next, I let the theme coalesce and build until it comes to a point somewhere toward the end of the fifth stanza or within the sixth. The ending tercet summarizes the story as well as its “moral”: the message I, as the poet, am trying to communicate.
And there you have it. In the final analysis, a sestina is a framework within which to tell a story, make a point, send a message, and touch a heart. It can be inspirational, endearing, silly, insightful — or all of that and more. A sestina can identify a problem and offer a solution. It can describe an emotion in a way that resonates. It can speak to the soul with form and language that take a reader’s breath away.
Try It On For Size
Some of you, my dearest inklings, balk at structure. Some of you revel in it. As for me, I encourage all of you to try penning a sestina, if for no other reason than the thrill of rising to the challenge of a complex genre of writing. Writing a sestina leaves one with a greater appreciation for the flow of language itself, not to mention a satisfying sense of accomplishment. And that, for us writers, is always worth a little extra effort.
If you’d like some examples of full-length sestinas instead of just sample rhyming words, check out the comments section. I’ve posted three of my own creations that will hopefully clear up any lingering how-to questions you might have. And who knows — maybe they’ll inspire something. 🙂
And that’s WILAWriTWe!