NaBloPoMo Poetry Contest: Sestinas

BlogHer Original Post

In honour of NaBloPoMo's April theme -- POEM -- as well as National Poetry Month, we're going to look at four types of fixed form poems. Fixed form poetry is meant to free the mind by providing a structure much in the same way a house frees the person who lives inside to focus on things other than the elements outside. The first form we're going to look at is the collapsing sestina.

The sestina has six stanzas, all six lines long, with a final three-line envoy. Unlike a lot of other fixed forms, sestinas don't rhyme or have a set meter. Instead, they utilize six end-words in various ways, pointing out sometimes the subtle meaning shifts in those end-words depending on their context.

One of the easiest poems to look at in order to understand the form is Carole Oles "The Magician Suspends the Children" published first in The Loneliness Factor in 1979 which begins,

With this charm I keep the boy at six (A)
and the girl fast at five (B)
almost safe behind the four (C)
walls of family. We three (D)
are a feathery totem I tattoo (E)
against time: I’ll be one (F)

Ignoring those letters in parentheses for a moment, the six end-words are all numbers in this case: six, five, four, three, two, and one. Yet you can already see Oles playing with the form in the first stanza. Instead of the number two, she incorporates it into the word "tattoo." Later in the poem, she uses "won" in place of "one," "too" in place of "two," and "for" in place of "four." It's a poetry form with a lot of leeway.

To see other usages of end words, check out Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina" or Ezra Pound's "Altaforte."

The second stanza takes those end-words and uses them again to end each line, except it mixes up the order. If you look at those six lines above as each pertaining to those letters in parentheses, the order then collapses upon itself -- A, B, C, D, E, F becomes F, A, E, B, D, C (or last, first, second to last, second, third to last, third).

In the third stanza, it collapses again: C, F, D, A, B, E. If you look at the end-words in the third stanza, you'll see that they are fore, wun, three, six, five, onto.

In other words, the full form of a collapsing sestina (since there are also sestinas that utilize the end-words as end-words but play with the order of the lines):

Stanza One: A, B, C, D, E, F
Stanza Two: F, A, E, B, D, C
Stanza Three: C, F, D, A, B, E
Stanza Four: E, C, B, F, A, D
Stanza Five: D, E, A, C, F, B
Stanza Six: B, D, F, E, C, A
Envoy: uses two end-words per line (with three lines total) with one word appearing in the middle of the line and the other word still being utilized as an end word.

Pretty cool, right?

So now comes the big question: who wants to try their hand at writing a sestina? For the next three weeks, NaBloPoMo is holding a poetry contest. To enter,

  • Write a sestina between now and Wednesday at 11 pm EST.
  • Post it on your blog or on BlogHer as a member post.
  • Submit the post url using this form.
  • If you are chosen, your poem will run on BlogHer, be featured in the newsletter and via social media sites, and we'll pay you $50 to run the post.

So get writing!

Photo Credit: Typewriter via Shutterstock.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.


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