How to Write a Sestina

A Humorous Introduction to Sestina World

I have been addicted to sestinas ever since I wrote my first one, on a three hour train ride between London and Stafford. Critics of the sestina claim that they are too often repetitive, end-stopped, dull narratives, and it's true they can tend that way from inexperienced writers. Still, for me they offer the chance to write a poem that is fun and full of changes of direction; it's a bit like entering a theme park. So, come with me as we push the turnstile and enter Sestina World. I'm about to write a sestina, and you are coming along for the ride.

First things first: what IS a sestina? It's basically a seven stanza poem, where the first six stanzas all have six lines, and the final one has three. However, this is the tricky part. The six words that end the lines of the first stanza--we'll call them a,b,c,d,e and f--must be rotated in such a way that they also end the lines of the next five stanzas. There is a set pattern for this:
a b c d e f (first stanza)
f a e b d c (second stanza)
c f d a b e (third stanza)
e c b f a d (fourth stanza)
d e a c f b (fifth stanza)
b d f e c a (sixth stanza)

You'll notice that each stanza's last line ends with the same word as the next stanza's first line, which offers no end of opportunities for tricks.

Now the last three lines each contain two of these end words in the following pattern:
a d (1st line of the 7th stanza, "a" must be in the line, but the line must end with "d")
b e (2nd line of the 7th stanza, "b" must be in the line, but the line must end with "e")
c f (3rd line of the 7th stanza, "c" must be in the line, but the line must end with "f")

There you go. Simple isn't it? Now, as you get more sophisticated with sestinas you can mess with the words a bit (as James Cummins does in his book) but to begin with it's probably best to stick closely to the rules. Similarly, sestinas can be written in Iambic Pentameter and mine often turn out that way because, hey, I Dream in Iambic Pentameter, but for your first sestina you don't need to worry about that.

It's pretty clear that the most important decision is what the words should be. Here are Anna's top tips for sestina end word choice:

  1. Choose at least some words that are homonyms i.e. have several different meanings e.g. "mean"
  2. Choose words that can be used as either nouns, verbs or adjectives e.g. "swell"
  3. Choose one word that is so innocuous it can be put practically anywhere. Prepositions are good for this e.g. "down"
  4. Choose one polysyllabic word that is highly specific to your subject matter. (This will be the hardest one to rotate but it will contrast artistically with the others.
  5. Choose a word that either rhymes or alliterates with one of your other words
  6. Choose a hard hitting word which will be your end word.

Clearly we need a subject. I'm sitting here with a raging sore throat waiting for a Doctor's appointment (No, really, I am!) so that is going to be the subject of my sestina:

Sore Throat Sestina--it has a ring to it don't you think?Now my words will be: mean, swell, down, medicine, well and die. Guess which one's going to be the f word? Hmm, that came out wrong.

At this point I'm not going to decide the order of the other words, because I'm now going to write the end of my poem. Yes, you heard me. Unlike Alice, we are going to begin at the end. One of the other problems with sestinas can be that they don't end so much as, well, stop. The trick to avoid this is to write a devastatingly brilliant ending and then work toward it. You can always rewrite it if it turns out not quite to fit your needs.

Oh don't be mean! There must be medicine
I can put down this throat to make me well
or it will swell and swell until I die.

Erm. I didn't say it had to be a serious sestina, did I? Of course you can write very serious sestinas, and I have, but it is a form that lends itself rather well to silliness: again see the James Cummins book.

Writing the last stanza has assigned my words thus:

so now we're off! We go back to the beginning and come up with a scene-setting first stanza:

This morning I woke up as if a mean
demon in the night had slithered down
my neck. My tonsils had begun to swell.
I moaned; I coughed; I drank some medicine
naively thinking I would soon feel well.
Ten minutes on I still thought I might die.

Note: try and avoid end-stopping all the lines, another common beginner's mistake. Now stanza 2. Try and use "die" in a different sense as a reversal of the previous line.

"Oh come on stupid. You're not going to die."
my husband said. He wasn't being mean.
The thing is: I'm the one who's always well.
He isn't used to seeing me go down
with nasty bugs, or swallow medicine.
"Soon," he said, "Once more you'll feel just swell."

Again, try and use "swell" differently in the next stanza. Not hard, I don't really like that meaning of swell.

But my left tonsil continued to swell
all morning. I knew no-one ever died
of a sore throat, and yet no medicine
was soothing it. What could this symptom mean?
I started feeling more and more cast down
and wondered if I would ever get well.

Note that I have changed "die" to "died" in this stanza. All but the most purist of sestina-writers would agree that this is acceptable.

Only one thing to do: consult the well
of information on the Internet. That swelling
cyberspace would help me pin this down
(or tell me just how long before I die).
I googled
sore throat symptom, and the meaning
of this popped out on

Here I have used "swelling" for "swell" and "meaning" for "mean." I've also really pushed the boundaries by adding ".com" to "medicine." Hey, it's my sestina.

It could be Mumps! And there's no medicine
to take for that. Just waiting to get well
but all the time in pain. What kind of mean,
sadistic virus is this? This is swell:
it could be Strep Throat. I could even die
of Scarlet Fever. Now I'm feeling down.

Oh darn it. I used "swell" in that way again. Never mind.

So in ten minutes I am going down
to see the doctor. Maybe medicine
will stop me feeling like I want to die.
Oh to be strong, and tonsil-less, and well!
Oh for a pill to reduce this nasty swelling.
Oh for someone to tell me what this means.

Now we look back at the end stanza we wrote in the beginning:

Oh don't be mean! There must be medicine
I can put down this throat to make me well
or it will swell and swell until I die.

Hmm. Doesn't quite follow. Still, a few changes gives us.

And if the mean Doc says no medicine
he can pour down this throat will make me well,
but time. Oh swell! All this pain, and I can't die.

OK. It's a first draft of a funny one. But you get the technique. Now excuse me. I have a Doctor's appointment.

Anna Evans is a British citizen but permanent resident of NJ, where she is raising two daughters. She has had over 100 poems published in journals including The Formalist, The Evansville Review, Light Quarterly, Measure and many others. In 2005 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a finalist in the Howard Nemerov sonnet award. She is editor of the formal poetry e-zine The Barefoot Muse and is currently enrolled in the Bennington College MFA Program. Her first chapbook Swimming was published in March 2006 by Powerscore Press.

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