How to write… a sestina.
The sestina can seem like a bit of a formidable form to the uninitiated — it’s kind of like poetry meets maths. Here’s a rough guide for those of you who fancy having a go…
Sestina is a complex poetic form originally from Italy, and the word “sestina” comes from the Italian “sesto”, which means “six.” That’s basically because the number six is essential to the form of the sestina — it has to have six stanzas, each with six lines.
Sounds easy, right? So far, yes. But there are additional complications. Once you’ve written the sestina’s six six-line stanza, you also have to write a tercet on the end — a final stanza of only three lines, usually called the envoy, as a kind of conclusion. But the most important thing about the sestina is its repetition.
Before you begin a sestina, you need to pick six words. Any six words will do, but think carefully… because these same six words have to be used — in a very specific pattern — to end every single line of the six main stanzas. They must also all be used in the final tercet.
Confused now? If so, I am not surprised. Basically, you can use only the six words you have chosen to end your lines (until the tercet, but we’ll get to that in a minute). This limits your options in terms of where lines can ‘go,’ and depending on what your words are, it may also limit the subject matter of your poem. As you can imagine, it gets pretty repetitive, too.
In order to avoid the repetition, and the risk of boring or limited lines, you should try to pick words that are flexible, or have several meanings. You’re allowed to change the prefix, suffix or tense of the word (so “flame” could become “aflame,” “flaming,” “flames,” “flamed”, “flammable” etc); you can change its spelling in order to give a different meaning (”see” could become “sea”); you can even change the word completely as long as the new word retains some link to the old one (I recently wrote a sestina in which “melon” became “melancholy” for example). Just don’t stray too far or technically it’s no longer a sestina!
When you pick your six words, give each of them a number between one and six — this will help you when writing out your sestina: the pattern you’re required to stick to (123456, 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531 — remember I said it was like maths?!) is tricky to remember and having the numbers at hand will really help. I recommend bookmarking this sestina creator — it will help you to remember which words need to come at the end of which line and save you memorising the order (it will also provde you with random words if you’re having trouble thinking of some!).
When it comes to the tercet, you need to use all of your six words somewhere in your final three lines. Preferably, you should use two in each line, but the order is not important — plus, this is fairly flexible. Technically, your sestina should also be written entirely in iambic pentameter, too… but frankly, you have heaps to worry about and it’s usually still considered a sestina even if you don’t bother with this strict metre.
I know that after all that the idea of actually writing one of the darned things seems terrifying… but I really would recommend giving it a go. Sestinas are hard to get right first time so give yourself room to play around, and don’t expect miracles — just enjoy messing about with a technique you’ve never used before. As you get more confident, you can try trickier words, or challenge yourself to keep your lines a regular length — this can be surprisingly hard! And once you’ve had a few goes, you can start to play with the rules a little bit and think about creating a subverted sestina of some kind… you can even try a double sestina which has twelve stanzas of twelve lines each, which all end with the same twelve words!
If you need a bit of help, the sestina creator is one of the best things you can use — it does a lot of the mathematical legwork for you. If that feels too much like cheating, Wikipedia has a little how-to… and if all else fails, you just need to copy out the pattern of numbers above and number all the lines on your piece of paper before you start!
If you do write a sestina, I’d love to see it — you can feel free to drop me a line to firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave your sestinas for all to see in the comments box!