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Sestinapalooza

Elizabeth Bishop in 1954

Elizabeth Bishop in 1954

I’ve been waiting 40 years for The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing), without realizing it. Like many people, I was introduced to this poetic form by Elizabeth Bishop’s breathtaking poem “Sestina,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1956 (hence the spelling of the key word “marvellous”), and which my roommate was reading for a college class. The poem begins:

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.

That stanza alone is almost unbearably moving, but wait, there’s more. The new anthology’s editor, Daniel Nester, an associate professor of English at the College of St. Rose, explains in his Introduction that the sestina, which seems to have been invented in the 13th century, has a structure derived from the words at the ends of lines:

Over the course of six stanzas of six lines (sestina translates as “six” or “sixer”) and a seventh three-line stanza, these end words, called teleutons or repitons, appear in a different order in each round, except for the final three-line stanza, called the envoi or tornada, which uses all six end words in a triumphant send-off. The last end word of each stanza is the first word of the next.

It sounds complicated, but the form actually lends itself to plain diction, with the occasional hornbook word thrown in. (For Bishop, that word is equinoctial, describing the grandmother’s tears in the first line of the second stanza.) The sestina’s magic, as I felt upon first reading Bishop and feel now, having sampled the pleasures of this anthology, is the continual reappearance of the repitons, at moments you never quite expect, which ineluctably calls to mind the synchronicities and reverberations of life itself.

Also like many people, I imagine, I was inspired by Bishop to write a sestina myself. The effort is long lost, thankfully. To the extent I can remember it, John Frederick Nims’s line (quoted by Nester)  is apt: “Mediocre talents are irresistibly drawn to forms like the sestina, which offer easy satisfaction in that they seem only forms that need filling out, like an application for a library card.”

Over the years, I pricked up my ears on the fairly rare occasions I encountered sestinas, and found, contra Nims, that almost every time, they were at least pretty good. The form seemed to provide a mild antidote against ills the rest of poetry is subject to, such as cliché, pretentiousness, obscurity, and self-importance. As James Cummins, also quoted by Nester, observed, “The sound of a bad sestina might be the sound of life leaving the beast, but at least it’s life.”

What I didn’t know was how popular the form has been, and how capacious it can be. The modern revival probably started with Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” and  W.H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralisé,” both included in the anthology. Since then all sorts of poets have taken it on, in all sorts of ways. Mark Strand’s “Chekhov,”  adapted from a passage in the Russian writer’s notebook, is a sestina in prose; you have to hunt down the end-words. It works. Matt Madden’s “The Six Treasures of the Spiral” and Casey Camp’s “A Poem on the Severe Awesomeness of John Zorn,” are graphic sestinas. They work. (The Madden, where each repiton is a complete cartoon frame, words and picture, works a bit better.)

James Merrill’s “Tomorrows” uses the numbers one through six as his end words and then goes nuts with them in subsequent stanzas. Thus “two” becomes “tu,” “Timbuctoo,” “to,” “into,” and “too.” It works.

As befits the postmodern world, there are quite a few self-conscious sestinas here: Dana Gioia’s “My Confessional Sestina” (which begins: “Let me confess. I’m sick of these sestinas/written by youngsters in poetry workshops/for the delectation of their fellow students”), Alfred Corn’s “Pound-Eliot Sestina,” Donald Hall’s “Sestina,” and Miller Williams’s “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”  all ponder the form, and they all work, although Gioa’s tack seems a bit unkind.

Several poems show that the formal rigor of the sestina can blend nicely with the particulars of pop culture. Denise Duhamel’s tour-de-force fantasy “The Brady Bunch” is a double sestina, with 12-line stanzas and a six-line envoi, which kicks off, “No one talked about how Marcia and Greg gorged on wedding/cake, then watched porno movies and walloped the little ones.” Nester calls Sonya Huber’s “Dear Thrasher” a “found sestina”; it’s adapted from a letter to the editor of a skater magazine, and it’s a knockout that left me, like Elizabeth Bishop’s marvellous old grandmother, laughing and talking to hide my tears.

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