TNB Night Owl – Sestinas

Typewriter, photo by Takashi Hososhima

It’s been a little while since we visited the oddities of English, literature, and English literature. Let’s have a look at sestinas.

A sestina is a form of poem, like a haiku or a sonnet. Much like those, it has a very specific pattern which must be followed. Unlike those, it does not have a content expectation for the classical style. (Haiku, for example, are typically expected to have a nature element for a strict interpretation, and sonnets often have a point-counterpoint aspect between the first eight and final six lines.) Without any restriction on content, it would seem to be a particularly easy type of poem to write… until a good look is taken at the format.

A haiku might be interpreted musically as a set of bongo drums. A sonnet could be represented as a rocker’s drum set. A sestina is Neil Peart’s arrangement.

Thirty-nine lines, using a strictly defined and constantly shifting pattern of final words to produce a sense of rhyme where none is necessarily required. Classically, there’s also a syllable pattern. It’s among the most difficult poem styles to exist in the English language, which is the reason they’re so rarely encountered. Most often they’re a challenge that a writer sets for themselves, just to see if they can successfully write one.

Here is one of the most famous examples, W.H. Auden’s Paysage Moralise:

1  Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,
2  Seeing at end of street the barren mountains,
3  Round corners coming suddenly on water,
4  Knowing them shipwrecked who were launched for islands,
5  We honour founders of these starving cities
6  Whose honour is the image of our sorrow,

7  Which cannot see its likeness in their sorrow
8  That brought them desperate to the brink of valleys;
9  Dreaming of evening walks through learned cities
10 They reined their violent horses on the mountains,
11 Those fields like ships to castaways on islands,
12 Visions of green to them who craved for water.

13 They built by rivers and at night the water
14 Running past windows comforted their sorrow;
15 Each in his little bed conceived of islands
16 Where every day was dancing in the valleys
17 And all the green trees blossomed on the mountains
18 Where love was innocent, being far from cities.

19 But dawn came back and they were still in cities;
20 No marvellous creature rose up from the water;
21 There was still gold and silver in the mountains
22 But hunger was a more immediate sorrow,
23 Although to moping villagers in valleys
24 Some waving pilgrims were describing islands …

25 “The gods,” they promised, “visit us from islands,
26 Are stalking, head-up, lovely, through our cities;
27 Now is the time to leave your wretched valleys
28 And sail with them across the lime-green water,
29 Sitting at their white sides, forget your sorrow,
30 The shadow cast across your lives by mountains.”

31 So many, doubtful, perished in the mountains,
32 Climbing up crags to get a view of islands,
33 So many, fearful, took with them their sorrow
34 Which stayed them when they reached unhappy cities,
35 So many, careless, dived and drowned in water,
36 So many, wretched, would not leave their valleys.

37 It is our sorrow. Shall it melt? Ah, water
38 Would gush, flush, green these mountains and these valleys,
39 And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.

So, we’ve got the shifting final words, the correct sequence of usage, a rough iambic pentameter, check, check, check. It’s evocative and holds up as a cohesive narrative concept, check.

But personally, if I decide to challenge myself, I’ll stick with writing sonnets.

Question of the night: are there any poems or poem structures you find particularly appealing?

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.