Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “sestina”

Poetry Workshop: Sestina

I thought there has been enough recovery time since the last workshop, which focused on the villanelle.  So, let’s move on to the sestina.



The image above intimates that the sestina can be neatly labeled.  Hmm, perhaps not.  Below is a famous example by Elizabeth Bishop.  I do like her work, if I haven’t mentioned that before.  This offering is simply called, “Sestina.”

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house

Anything standout? Anything noticeable?  Yes, there are repeating words. Six of them. Nicely done. Sestina–six: yup, there is a definite connection.

A sestina according to the Bing dictionary:

  1. Definition of sestina (n)

    Bing Dictionary
    • ses·ti·na
    • [ se stéenə ]
    1. form of poem: a poem of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy or, with the last words of the first six lines repeated, in different order, at the ends of the other lines

Using Bishop’s model, let’s explore how that really works.

Oh, by the way–if you are one of those who groove on numbers more than poetry, you will really like sestinas, because it’s all about patterns.

Okay. Here we go:

The structure of a sestina, in this case, Bishop’s “Sestina,” is six stanzas of six lines with a three line envoy (the conclusion of the literary work). The pattern is: 123456; 615243; 364125; 532614; 451362; 246531 with the envoy as 531 or 135.  Return to the poem and decide which six words repeat throughout the poem.

If you really want to see how a sestina works without all the extra word wading go check out “Six Words” by Lloyd Schwartz. Very, very clever.


Well, that wraps up another National Poetry Month. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you learned a bit along the way, and appreciated new-to-you poets and their poetry.


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