Let’s talk Sestinas.

The Sestina is an complex form based in intricate repetition. It’s a 39 line poem attributed to Arnaut Daniel from the late 12th century, of Medieval French origin.

The original Sestina is 6 stanzas of 6 lines and a concluding triplet envoy, where the end words, or teleutons, of the first stanza’s 6 lines are repeated throughout the poem, as the teleutons of each following stanza, in specific orders. So, take the 6 end words of the first stanza, and use them as the end words of the rest of the stanzas. In the final envoy, you use all 6 words, 3 of them buried mid line, and the other 3 as end words. Simple, yeah? Here it is as a layout of end words:

1. ABCDEF
2. FAEBDC
3. CFDABE
4. ECBFAD
5. DEACFB
6. BDFECA
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE with BDF buried accordingly

What makes the sestina interesting is that the order is based on one sequence of numbers, 6-1-5-2-4-3, based, of course, on the first stanza being 1-2-3-4-5-6. Then the order of repetition in the three lines of the envoy is BE / DC / FA. The problem, as you can imagine, is that the repetition gets obtrusive and start sounding clumsy. This is the trick, right? Many, then, enjamb their lines to bury the repetition, or use homographs of the end-words, like wind (as in “south wind”) and wind (as in “wind your own clock”), or even such ploys as can and toucan. However some go in the opposite direction and specifically use obtrusive and obvious words, purposefully drawing attention to the repetition.

But wait, there’s more. Of course, poets then took it a step further, with the double sestina. Developed by Algernon Charles Swinburne, (read it here) it’s a twelve-line, twelve stanza form with a six line envoi for the especially masochistic poet.

Here is the schematic for that one:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
12 1 9 11 4 7 2 8 3 10 6 5
5 12 6 4 7 1 2 3 10 9 11 8
8 5 7 6 4 12 10 2 3 11 1 9
9 8 6 10 1 2 7 4 3 12 5 11
11 9 6 10 4 2 7 1 12 8 5 3
3 11 7 8 12 1 2 10 5 6 9 4
4 3 9 6 5 10 1 7 12 11 8 2
2 4 5 1 3 8 7 10 9 11 12 6
6 2 9 3 8 1 7 5 10 4 11 12
12 6 8 4 3 5 9 10 2 1 11 7
7 12 6 3 9 11 5 8 4 2 10 1
envoy: 12 10/8 9/7 4/3 6/2 1/11 5

Truth: I tried to translate that into letters, and make sense of it for you, but I got a mad headache. I’ll get back to you on that.

My addition to this gleeful poetic sadism is: The Haiku Double Sestina. I’ve been thinking about this, and I think this has to be the most ridiculous, masochistic poetry form ever invented. Correct me if I’m wrong in the comments below with what absurdly intricate form you’ve got. The idea of it is this: first a haiku, 5/7/5 but exactly 12 words. You use those twelve words as the starting words for each stanza in the same order as the end words. The rest of the double sestina is the same. Alternately, you write a haiku chain with each haiku stanza being 12 words, and move forward accordingly with your double sestina.

Ridiculous, right? I’ll let you know when I finally write mine. It’ll depend entirely on having a proper supply of coffee and whisky. You’ll be the first to know.

 

Cheers!

Johnny