Tag Archives: sestina

Becoming friendly with words again

Have you ever written poetry? Not to produce a poem as professional poets do or with the aim of creating something to be admired, but just for the fun of playing with words, being friendly with them? Sestinas are a poetic form, where 6 words are used over and over again in 7 stanzas, no rhyming.  (A good example is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem entitled Sestina, which was my first introduction to the form in the book, The Redress of Poetry by Seamus Heaney.) In a college class I taught, students were asked to write sestinas to explore who they were and picked words that resonated with them or meant something to them.  The repetition took them beyond the superficial as they continued with repetition to put the words in different contexts, with a final stanza pulling all together.  Although skeptical to start with, most of them quite appreciated the process in the end, and many also enjoyed the opportunity to share their final poem with others if they wanted to.

I am currently writing sestinas myself as a daily exercise.  I pick my 6 words, sometimes the day before, and then in my morning contemplative time I write one.  These are not intended to be great poems, or read by anyone other than me, but the stretching into the words, the playing with them, the exploration – this feels good.  I dig into my desires and emotions that are under the surface, unarticulated. I sometimes pick words from my journal from the day before, or take a theme of interest to me, and pick words related to that.

Structure helps. I follow the requirement of having the 6 words at the end of each line in the first 6 stanzas, in a set order, and then pull all together in the last 3-line stanza using all 6 words, which feels very satisfying. You may want to try this.  The rules seem complicated at first, but once you get the hang of it, it really is simple to follow as you go from one set to another as in a square dance, picking up the last word in the last line, and making that occur at the end of the first line in the next stanza.

We so often think of poetry in terms of the end result, the poem itself to be read and hopefully appreciated.  But this exercise of writing these sestinas has no such aim.  My aim is to become friendly with words again, and to dig into my thoughts and feelings that are bubbling under the surface, and give them air.

sestina liberation

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

I have given the assignment to students to write a sestina – not creative writing students, but undergraduates from all disciplines. This was a 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.