What Are Sestina Poems?
Sitting down with pen in hand, poets may find themselves lost in a sea of possibilities. Choosing a form to work within can paradoxically enhance creativity, since the writer is forced to think of new words and ideas to fit the structure she has selected. Sestina poems are a challenging and complex structure of six-lined stanzas that have inspired many poets over the years, including the great writer Dante.
The person who most likely invented the sestina is Arnaut Daniel, a 12th century troubadour. The poem, often performed with musical accompaniment, belonged to a complex class of poetry called the "trobar clus." These elaborate forms originated from the tendency of troubadours to invent complex styles as a form of competition among themselves, according to Alberto Rios' webpage at Arizona State University. The form's popularity has been varied throughout the years, experiencing a resurgence during the 16th and 19th centuries.
Sestinas are known for their complexity. The hallmark of this form is repetition of the words that end each line of the poem. A sestina has six lines, which are represented as A, B, C, D, E and F. Following the first stanza are an additional five six-line stanzas and a three-line envoli, or tornada. The structure of the sestina is as follows: ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, ECBFAD, DEACFB, BDFECA and ECA or ACE for the envoli. Note that the envoli must include the three remaining words elsewhere within the three lines, resulting in a stanza that includes all six of the repeating words.
Besides Daniel, many other poets have written sestinas over the years. Ezra Pound, John Ashbery, Louis Zukofsky and Elizabeth Bishop are just a few of the writers who have employed this complex form. Some poets have experimented with the sestina, elaborating even more on the already demanding structure. For example, Poets.org points out that Algernon Charles Swinburne created a double sestina when he wrote "The Complaint of Lisa." Swinburne used 12 end words instead of six and ended his poem with a six-line envoi.
Dante, when not conjuring up frightening images of hell or writing of the divine, enjoyed creating sestinas. Here are two stanzas of his poem, "Sestina of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni." Notice how the second stanza has the same ending words as the first, although in a different order.
To the dim light and the large circle of shade I have clomb, and to the whitening of the hills, There where we see no color in the grass. Natheless my longing loses not its green, It has so taken root in the hard stone Which talks and hears as though it were a lady.
Utterly frozen is this youthful lady, Even as the snow that lies within the shade; For she is no more moved than is the stone By the sweet season which makes warm the hills And alters them afresh from white to green Covering their sides again with flowers and grass.
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