The sestina poem is a centuries old poetry form with a strict format that requires the precise repetition of end words. It is a challenging form to write, as the form demands poets to adhere to a precise mathematical structure while still advancing complex ideas in language. Poets who want to challenge themselves will find great joy in tackling the sestina form.
The sestina itself has an interesting history: it originated in France around the year 1200, but was popularized in 14th century Italy by prominent poets like Petrarch, before being popularized in France—technically its land of origin. The sestina form later found its way to England in the 15th century. It was repopularized among 20th century poets by contemporaries like W. H. Auden and Ezra Pound.
Because of its lengthy history and intricate form, the sestina poem can be studied for ages. For this article, we’ll dissect the sestina format and look at some contemporary sestina poem examples. We will also look at craft tips on how to write a sestina poem.
But first, let’s define this elusive form. What is a sestina poem?
What is a Sestina Poem?
A sestina poem is a 39-line poem composed of 6 sestets and a tercet. (In the sestina, the tercet is called the “envoi.”) Historically, sestinas were written in iambic pentameter; contemporary poems don’t require adherence to meter.
Sestina poem definition: a 39-line poem composed of 6 sestets and a tercet, with an intricate pattern of repeating end words.
What a sestina poem does require is the intricate repetition of end words (also called teleutons). Each word that ends the first six lines of the poem will be repeated as end words of different lines in each successive stanza.
This is easier seen than explained—read below on the sestina format to understand what the poem requires.
Adherence to iambic pentameter is optional; adherence to the repetition of end words is essential. The words that end lines 1-6 will be used as end words in a strict order throughout the rest of the poem, including in the three line envoi that concludes the poem.
A sestina poem will see end word employed in the following structure:
- Stanza 1: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
- Stanza 2: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3
- Stanza 3: 3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5
- Stanza 4: 5, 3, 2, 6, 1, 4
- Stanza 5: 4, 5, 1, 3, 6, 2
- Stanza 6: 2, 4, 6, 5, 3, 1
- Envoi: No strict order. There are two common types, but neither is required:
- Type 1: (2) 5 / (4) 3 / (6) 1
- Type 2: (2) 1 / (4) 3 / (6) 5
This structure seems arbitrary, but it does follow a precise mathematical logic. In fact, the order may have been inspired by the order of numbers on a six-sided die.
In Stanza 2, the end words follow a structure from the previous stanza: last word (6), first word (1), second to last word (5), second word (2), third to last word (4), third word (3).
The same structure is followed for Stanza 3. It borrows from Stanza 2: last word (3), first word (6), second to last word (4), second word (1), third to last word (2), third word (5).
The envoi, weirdly enough, has no strict order. It only requires that one end word (from the sestets) appears in the middle of each line, and one end word appears at the end of each line. One form that’s very common is (2) 5 / (4) 3 / (6) 1, but that’s not enforced. Even Elizabeth Bishop, a strict lover of strict poetry forms, wrote an unusual envoi that went (6) 5 / (2) 4 / (3) 1.
If you’re not mathematically minded, this might just look like a bunch of numbers to you. While I would love to talk about limits, derivatives, and integrals, I will instead, begrudgingly, show you a sestina poem, with end words bolded and marked for word order. Note that this poem is written in iambic pentameter.
To The Indifferent Women
By Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman. Retrieved from Poetry Foundation.
You who are happy in a thousand homes, (1)
Or overworked therein, to a dumb peace; (2)
Whose souls are wholly centered in the life (3)
Of that small group you personally love; (4)
Who told you that you need not know or care (5)
About the sin and sorrow of the world? (6)
Do you believe the sorrow of the world (6)
Does not concern you in your little homes? — (1)
That you are licensed to avoid the care (5)
And toil for human progress, human peace, (2)
And the enlargement of our power of love (4)
Until it covers every field of life? (3)
The one first duty of all human life (3)
Is to promote the progress of the world (6)
In righteousness, in wisdom, truth and love; (4)
And you ignore it, hidden in your homes, (1)
Content to keep them in uncertain peace, (2)
Content to leave all else without your care. (5)
Yet you are mothers! And a mother’s care (5)
Is the first step toward friendly human life. (3)
Life where all nations in untroubled peace (2)
Unite to raise the standard of the world (6)
And make the happiness we seek in homes (1)
Spread everywhere in strong and fruitful love. (4)
You are content to keep that mighty love (4)
In its first steps forever; the crude care (5)
Of animals for mate and young and homes, (1)
Instead of pouring it abroad in life, (3)
Its mighty current feeding all the world (6)
Till every human child can grow in peace. (2)
You cannot keep your small domestic peace (2)
Your little pool of undeveloped love, (4)
While the neglected, starved, unmothered world (6)
Struggles and fights for lack of mother’s care, (5)
And its tempestuous, bitter, broken life (3)
Beats in upon you in your selfish homes. (1)
We all may have our homes (1) in joy and peace (2)
When woman’s life (3), in its rich power of love (4)
Is joined with man’s to care (5) for all the world. (6)
As mentioned previously, notice that the envoi does not follow a strict order. In this envoi, it’s in the same word order as the first stanza; as you’ll see in the other sestina poem examples we share, that word order is pretty much up to the poet.
Notice, also, how each of the end words relate specifically to the poem’s theme and central topic. This sestina poem was written during the early Feminist movement in the United States, and it advocates for women to seek participation in the world, not just in their own homes. Each end word relates directly to that theme, allowing each stanza to contemplate and advance the poet’s message.
Variations on the Sestina Format
Poets can’t seem to leave form alone. Whether it’s varying the length, format, or requirements of the poem, here are a couple of variations on the sestina format that you might also be interested in.
- The pentina, which is composed of cinquains instead of sestets, with a two-line envoi.
- The tritina, which is composed entirely of tercets, except for a one-line envoi.
- Lawrence Schimel wrote a decaying sestina.
- The double sestina, which has twelve sestets and a three-line envoi.
- The other double sestina, composed of twelve 12-line stanzas and a six-line envoi.
Sestina Poem Examples
Let’s look at some contemporary sestina poem examples. All of the following poems were written by living, contemporary poets. We will reference these poems when we move towards how to write a sestina poem.
1. “The Liftings and the Fallings” by Jonah Winter
Grandmother, how I long once more in the gloaming
to hear your voice. Voicelessly, it speaks
in whispered sighs, the wind: statelessness.
With each daguerreotype I touch, a shroud
of darkness falls. I recall the breast pump
you gave me, how we gazed at the wainscoting
together, listening, how the wainscoting
echoed, a halcyon of sound, how the gloaming
enveloped the liftings and the fallings of the breast pump,
its capacious stillness immeasurable now. It speaks
to me in a voice I cannot hear, through a shroud
of silhouettes, bracken, statelessness.
Revenant, appear! Your statelessness
malingers in the chiffonier, the wainscoting’s
absence, in the veil of dreams, the shroud
of sleep, the sidewalk of meaning, in the gloaming
of hunger, the chifforobe of chance … One speaks
of incandescence, of what is needed, of breast pumps,
of fields which are no longer. Your breast pump
murmuring cantilevered statelessness
quells each ceaseless passerby, speaks
the language of grief, recombinant—such wainscoting
was not easy, such corridors—in the gloaming
of our hearts, as once they were, this shroud
forever flowering. Osterlind, our shroud,
undreams the unknowable. Breast pumps,
two fluttering ghosts, dreamless, undo the gloaming
in the leaves of dawn. Such statelessness
was not easy. With tenderness, the wainscoting
sings a song that you used to sing, speaks
with your voice, Grandmother. Persephone speaks
through you, in a tremolo: loud shroud.
Wrong song, for now, my heart demures … The wainscoting
fades. The day is ended. Lost are the breast pumps
of sunlight. All is gone. All is statelessness,
ruin. I sit alone, in the after-gloaming …
And yet, in this post-gloaming, something speaks
to me of statelessness, then lifts the shroud
from my eyes: your breast pumps hang from the wainscoting.
This sestina haunts with each twist of language, each syllable turning the corner into new and surprising meanings. Throughout, a heavy sense of loss and mourning carries the reader through dense, expansive imagery. Notice how the poem employs its teleutons often with new or unexpected meanings, allowing the poem to be anything but predictable.
2. “American Rome” by Sandra Beasley
Marion “Shepilov” Barry, Jr. (1936-2014)
Marionberry: jams of Washington
state. I thought they were mocking this city.
Take a mayor and boil his sugar down—
spoon-spreadable, sweet. We take presidents
and run them in a game’s fourth-inning stretch.
We take Bullets and turn them to Sea Dogs.
Do you remember that ballot? Sea Dogs
Dragons Stallions Express. The Washington
Wizards was no more or less of a stretch.
We wave gavels like wands in this city.
We’re the small town in which a president
can plant some roses. Each time I sit down
to try and say goodbye, all I write down
is Dear City. My neighbor walks his dogs
past a monument to a president’s
terrier, forever bronzed. Washington
has no J Street, no Z, yet the city
maps attend to fifty states and a stretch
of five blocks NE Metro track—a stretch
named Puerto Rico Avenue. Bow down
to the unmapped names: Chocolate City,
Simple City. Ben serves up chili dogs
through a riot, and Walter Washington
is the first and last time a president
picks our mayor. The truth is, presidents
come and go, four or eight years at a stretch.
Barry said, I’m yours for life, Washington;
Emperor Marion, who could get down
with Chuck Brown. Later, reporters will dog
his Bitch set me up, his graft. Dear City,
will you let me claim you as my city?
To love you is to defy precedent.
Your quadrants hustle like a pack of dogs
around the hydrant Capitol. They stretch
and paw, they yap and will not settle down.
Traffic: the berry to Washington’s jam.
For city miles, Barry’s motorcade stretched.
We laid him among vice presidents, down
where the dogs seek congress in Washington.
Both a rumination on politicians and an ode to Washington, D.C., this sestina poem uses its erstwhile mayor Marion Barry as an entryway into the city. Notice how the poem’s 10-syllable lines force the language into precision, concision—even how its images huddle and yap at one another like the streets around the Capitol.
3. “Sestina: Like” by A. E. Stallings
Now we’re all “friends,” there is no love but Like,
A semi-demi goddess, something like
A reality-TV star look-alike,
Named Simile or Me Two. So we like
In order to be liked. It isn’t like
There’s Love or Hate now. Even plain “dislike”
Is frowned on: there’s no button for it. Like
Is something you can quantify: each “like”
You gather’s almost something money-like,
Token of virtual support. “Please like
This page to stamp out hunger.” And you’d like
To end hunger and climate change alike,
But it’s unlikely Like does diddly. Like
Just twiddles its unopposing thumbs-ups, like-
Wise props up scarecrow silences. “I’m like,
So OVER him,” I overhear. “But, like,
He doesn’t get it. Like, you know? He’s like
It’s all OK. Like I don’t even LIKE
Him anymore. Whatever. I’m all like … ”
Take “like” out of our chat, we’d all alike
Flounder, agape, gesticulating like
A foreign film sans subtitles, fall like
Dumb phones to mooted desuetude. Unlike
With other crutches, um, when we use “like,”
We’re not just buying time on credit: Like
Displaces other words; crowds, cuckoo-like,
Endangered hatchlings from the nest. (Click “like”
If you’re against extinction!) Like is like
Invasive zebra mussels, or it’s like
Those nutria-things, or kudzu, or belike
Redundant fast food franchises, each like
(More like) the next. Those poets who dislike
Inversions, archaisms, who just like
Plain English as she’s spoke — why isn’t “like”
Their (literally) every other word? I’d like
Us just to admit that’s what real speech is like.
But as you like, my friend. Yes, we’re alike,
How we pronounce, say, lichen, and dislike
Cancer and war. So like this page. Click Like.
Like or dislike this sestina, it has moxie for using the word “like” 49 times (with one gratuitous “lichen”). There are reasons to appreciate the work in this poem, particularly how the repetition of “like” becomes rather annoying and superficial, which is exactly the point the poem is trying to make. One could also find the poem enraging in that it’s a superficial read on our relationship to the word “like” itself. Like many poems, how you read and respond to it might reveal something about your own beliefs and feelings, which are far more important than what the writer intends.
4. “IVF” by Kona MacPhee
I come home early, feel the pale house close
around me as the pressure of my blood
knocks at my temples, feel it clench me in
its cramping grasp, the fierceness of its quiet
sanctioning the small and listless hope
that I might find it mercifully empty.
Dazed, I turn the taps to fill the empty
tub, and draw the bathroom door to close
behind me. I lie unmoving, feel all hope
leaching from between my legs as blood
tinges the water, staining it the quiet
shade of a winter evening drifting in
On sunset. Again, no shoot of life sprouts in
this crumbling womb that wrings itself to empty
out the painfully-planted seeds. The quiet
doctors, tomorrow, will check their notes and close
the file, wait for the hormones in my blood
to augur further chances, more false hope.
My husband holds to patience, I to hope,
and yet our clockworks are unwinding. In
the stillness of the house, we hear our blood
pumped by hearts that gall themselves, grow empty:
once, this silence, shared, could draw us close
that now forebodes us with a desperate quiet.
I hear him at the door, but I lay quiet,
as if, by saying nothing, I may hope
that somehow his unknowingness may close
a door in all the darkness we’ve let in:
the nursery that’s seven years too empty;
the old, unyielding stains of menstrual blood.
Perhaps I wish the petitioning of my blood
for motherhood might falter and fall quiet,
perhaps I wish that we might choose to empty
our lives of disappointment, and of hope,
but wishes founder—we go on living in
the shadow of the cliffs now looming close:
the blood that’s thick with traitorous clots of hope;
the quiet knack we’ve lost, of giving in;
the empty room whose door we cannot close.
This heartbreaking sestina poem about the longing to conceive is visceral, visual, and marked by an ominous stillness. The reader ends the poem holding onto the same hurtful hope: the final image, with an open door symbolizing hope for something the speaker needs to keep hoping for, feels lonely and desolate in its finality. This poem is an excellent example of how the sestina helps poets turn their obsessions into real, powerful language.
How to Write a Sestina Poem
The sestina poem’s length, format, and requirements make it a tricky form to write. But the sestina format’s challenges contribute to its payoff: you might write the best poem you’ve ever written. Want to learn how to write a sestina poem? Keep these 5 tips in mind.
How to Write a Sestina Poem: Be Intentional About Teleutons (End Words)
One challenging aspect of writing the sestina is employing the right end words. You want to use words that are primarily visual/sensual, that pertain to the theme of your sestina poem, and that can be used in a variety of ways.
Here’s some general advice for choosing your teleutons. These tips are not set in stone—in fact, most of these rules are broken at some point or another in the above sestina poem examples. Nonetheless, use these as a starting reference:
- Avoid using articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, but, or) or prepositions (words like of, to, for).
- Be cautious about adverbs, the modifiers of verbs. These words can be visual, but they’re often difficult to employ creatively.
- Use abstract words judiciously. Most of your teleutons should be concrete and visual/sensory. You can use one or two abstractions, though, for great effect, particularly if it relates to the poem’s themes—for example, “statelessness” in Jonah Winter’s sestina.
- Use words that can be employed in a variety of ways. Remember, each teleuton will be employed 7 times in your sestina poem. A good poem will use those teleutons in surprising ways. For example, it is easy to use the word “blood” in different ways—blood pressure, tinge of blood, menstrual blood, and blood pump all appear in Kona MacPhee’s sestina.
- Additionally, keep in mind that the sestina format requires you to use the last end word of one stanza as the first end word of the next stanza. So, you need to be sure the language you use is fresh when you leap to the next sestet.
Alternatively, you can try writing the first sestet without a clear theme in mind, and then let that sestet define the end words you employ for the rest of the poem.
How to Write a Sestina Poem: Offer New Ways to Look at the Same Words
We touch on this above, but it’s crucial that the sestina alters the reader’s perceptions of words as they are written and rewritten across each stanza. The length and format of the poem requires the poet to keep language fresh and interesting. By surprising the reader and showing new ways of viewing those teleutons, the sestina poem offers many new ways of looking at the same theme(s).
“Sestina: Like” by A. E. Stallings does this exceptionally well. (Yes, the constant use of “like” gets a little annoying, but that’s part of the poem’s point.) Some uses of “like” is employed in the following ways:
- To (dis)like something.
- As a comparison word in a simile.
- As the button you click on social media.
- Filler language, as in “I’m, like, so over him.” (Personally, I don’t like this critique of the word “like”—it’s no different than “um” or “er,” and we all use these words in casual speech.)
- As a word denoting similarity between two things.
- As a transition word, such as “likewise” or “belike.”
In fact, the juxtaposition of these different uses of “like” points to a lot of irony in our culture’s overuse of the word. What happens when our expression of enjoyment is reduced to such a lukewarm (likewarm!) word? Or when our support for social causes is reduced to something you click on, then scroll past, on every social media platform?
Think of the sestina’s theme(s) as jewels. Each stanza, each variation on the ways end words are used allow those themes to be multifaceted, like a jewel spinning in the light.
How to Write a Sestina Poem: Explore the Evolution of Ideas
As you write your sestina poem, you’ll likely discover new ideas you have about the theme(s) you’re exploring. Lean into this discovery.
For example, in Sandra Beasley’s “American Rome,” the first sestet is mostly a play on words around Marion Barry’s name. But, this soon segues into a hometown ode about Washington, D.C., about U.S. politics and city planning and the strange circumstances of history, all refracted through the city’s first (and only hand-picked) mayor. No two stanzas share the same themes; each one lets the poem evolve through play with language and ideas.
The best sestina poems are written with only a question in mind. If you knew what you were going to write, you wouldn’t need to write it in the first place.
How to Write a Sestina Poem: Embrace Patience With the Form
Many writers of sestina poems take days, even weeks to finish the first draft. This is a form that takes time, patience, and stamina. Embrace this, and your poem will go far.
Often, when poets encounter tricky forms, they find themselves so constrained that they can’t say what they mean to say. One workaround is to write first, then edit into a sestina later.
That said, sometimes it’s best to embrace the form’s complexities, to let yourself grapple with language. Spending an hour to write three words might seem futile, but those three hard-fought words might be the most impressive part of your poem. As poets, we have an obligation to resist the “mass production” work ethic. Spending hours to write a single line is its own form of “productive.” What’s more, productivity shouldn’t matter whatsoever in the writing of a poem, and certainly not in the writing of a sestina, a form that beckons us to slow down, to sit inside language and let it arise in us as it chooses to.
Don’t pressure yourself to master this form all at once, and don’t expect to write a first draft in record time. Be slow and methodical. You can even start, take a break, and come back to the sestina weeks or months later; poetry operates on its own timetable, not on anyone else’s.
How to Write a Sestina Poem: Be Slow and Methodical About Revision
In the same way that the writing process might take time, so might the revision process. Here’s a checklist for things to consider once you’re moving towards drafts 2, 3, 4, etc.:
- Is every word doing essential work? Look at each word carefully. If you can remove a word, and it doesn’t change the meaning of the line or stanza, then remove that word. Don’t insert words just to meet a certain metrical requirement. Even in a poem with 39 lines, every word matters.
- Has each teleuton been re-imagined in the poem? No singular word should be used in the same way, with the same meaning or context, every time it appears in the poem. Let your words contain different, multiple, and unusual meanings. You can even invent new meanings for your end words, as long as the reader gets it.
- Does each stanza contribute something new, important, and/or unexpected in relation to the poem’s themes? If you remove any of your 7 stanzas, does the meaning of the poem change? Every stanza should contribute something unique and essential.
- Does each end word have a clear relationship to the poem’s themes? Do these words evolve or even challenge that theme?
- Read the poem out loud. Does any part not flow off the tongue? Is that intentional? If not, revise so that the poem’s melody complements its meaning.
- Lastly: have you followed the sestina format with precision? If you haven’t: are you doing something intentional by breaking the form? Is it clear to the reader why you’ve broken the form?
And, if you find yourself stuck, there are plenty of sestina archives on the internet to inspire and challenge your writing process. Favorites of mine include Poets.org, The Poetry Foundation, and the erstwhile sestina column at McSweeney’s.
For more on mastering the sestina, check out this comprehensive piece by the brilliant Terrance Hayes.
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