sestina liberation

The assignment: To write a sestina. My students were not creative writing students, but undergraduates from all disciplines, and this was part of my Perspectives: Art Science and Spirituality interdisciplinary course.  We were exploring the nature of the Self in various ways through the arts and sciences, and their sestina was to be about themselves, exploring who they were.The sestina is a poetic form with a set pattern of ending words and stanza structure. It uses the same 6 words as the end words of separate lines, over and over again through 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, each stanza in specific different set orders. No rhyming or rhythm needed. Then in a final 3-line stanza you use all 6 words mixed in with other words. ( 123456, 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531; 2-5, 4-3, 6-1 ) I gave them the format, and helped with online computerized ways to make it even easier to get started with it (like this). I shared Elizabeth Bishop’s Sestina as a good example.(click here if you want to read it.)

Not everyone liked the assignment to start with, but in the end most enjoyed the process and result. Sharing their final poems in class (but only if they wanted to), let them share who they were with each other, and discover each other, in new ways.

I have returned to this exercise and am currently writing a sestina each day.  I pick the words the night before.  By the 4thstanza most of us tire of the words’ obvious meanings. Stanzas 5 and 6 force us to dig deeper into how these words require unpacking from our subconscious.  And the final 3 lines including all 6 words can lead to a kind of resolution.  It is wordplay, and also loosens me up as well as exposing feelings and giving me insight into ideas, myself, other people, or situations.

I am no poet, and have no illusions that mine will ever be shared or that I have written “good poetry”. But the process itself is freeing. It reminds me that words can be fun, ends in themselves, and that helps encourage my other writing.

In so much of life I see words obscuring truth. But this exercise reminds me that words don’t necessarily hide the truth, but can liberate it.