April 22, 2014 by KWills

The letter S

Invented sometime in the twelfth century and attributed to Arnault Daniel, the sestina is a beautiful form but a complicated one, so bear with me.

Choose six words to fit the theme of your poem. They don’t need to rhyme, although it is useful if they are one or two syllables at most. It would also help if they have more than one meaning, or else have homophones (words that sound the same despite being spelled differently; won/one, pair/pare, liar/lyre, etc.)  If you want to, you can use a suffix in place of a whole word (-ation, or -ment) but it’s a bit messy, so try to limit this “word-splice” to no more than one of your six.

Write a verse so that each line ends with one of your six words. There’s no set meter to follow, but it’s traditionally written in iambics (with substitutions at your discretion, of course).  This verse is now your template, from which the order of the other verses will be taken.

Write out your six line-end words in the order you used them. Label them A-F, then set out the next five verses with the end-words in this pattern:

Verse 2: F, A, E, B, D, C
Verse 3: C, F, D, A, B, E
Verse 4: E, C, B, F, A, D
Verse 5: D, E, A, C, F, B
Verse 6: B, D, F, E, C, A

The sharp-eyed amongst you will have spotted that this is not just a random jumble; there is a rule that shows how each verse relates to the next. It is a sort of spiral, moving from the last line to the first, then the fifth, then the second, the fourth, and finally the third. As apply this spiral to the second verse, you get the order for the third, the third to the fourth and so on. If you apply the same bottom-to-top spiral pattern to the sixth verse you would get the words in the same order as the first verse: A, B, C, D, E, F.

The poem ends with a three-line envoi. All six words are used, like so:

— B — E
— D — C
— F — A

Traditionally, the word “sestina” itself will appear in the envoi, although that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. The ‘B’, ‘D’, and ‘F’ words can come anywhere in the middle of their lines, the ‘E’, ‘C’ and ‘A’ words must be at the end. Again, there are no requirements as to the exact meter of the envoi.

At first glance, the sestina feels like just another one of those “half-way to a word puzzle” poems, like a double acrostic or a diamante. Although the rules are complex, the repetition of the six end-words does carry an emotional weight throughout the whole poem, and the length allows you to thoroughly explore your topic. My topic: Fiction.

On Fiction

So spin for us a tale
With hidden seeds of truth
Suspended in a lie.
Wise words for those who hear,
Bright gems for those who see;
Now let the fiction grow.

The simple facts will grow
To be a thrilling tale
But still, within, we see
The origins of truth
By sifting what we hear
We de-construct the lie

But let the fiction lie
And let the stories grow
There is no malice here
In spreading such a tale
While all still know the truth
Unchanging as the sea

And so, until the sea
Shall dust and barren lie
Shall fiction hold the truth
And let the story grow
The wisdom of the tale
Is there for all to hear

And those who will not hear
And those who will not see
Enjoy the simple tale
Dismiss it as a lie
The seed will only grow
In those who seek for truth

As fiction holds the truth
So truth is ever here
Where there is room to grow
Upon the endless sea
Immortalised, to lie
And thus concludes my tale

That this is truth, now see
Sestina here shall lie
To fully grow this tale.


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