Tuesday, April 8, 2014

This Poetry Month, Enter the Sestina Arena

by Tom Haushalter

Here we are again, a week into April, a.k.a National Poetry Month, the de facto period of time for everyone who's generally not that excited about poetry to be inordinately, often uncomfortably excited about poetry.

Honestly, it has done a lot of good for poetry education and dissemination

But while National Poetry Month is busy turning the masses into poetry enthusiasts, what's really in it for, you know, actual poets? If every month is poetry month to us, what can we usefully make of April's magnifying glass on our craft? How do we up our own ante?

One off-shoot initiative is National Poem Writing Month (hashtaggably #NaPoWriMo), a challenge to anyone bold enough to write a new poem every day of April, which everyone (and I don't mean everyone) should try once. For the slightly less insane, I recommend trying your hand at a poetic form that is as far from contemporary fashion as can be. If you think I'm talking about a villanelle or a pantoum, you're getting warm.

I dared myself to write a sestina. Not wanting to go down this road alone, I dared a friend to write one with me. Nor was I ashamed to keep close at my side a copy of the newly published collection and celebration of the form, Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl. With this book, along with Daniel Nester's own clarion call for more sestinas, The Incredible Sestina Anthology, the form felt suddenly less intimidating—and new, not so twelfth century (when it first appeared).

One way to entice a friend to write a sestina with you (take note) is to appeal to his classic sensibilities. I shot an email to Adam L. Dressler: "Have you what it takes to step inside the Sestina Arena and subdue the beast?"

Dressler didn't flinch.

The sestina takes its unique form by employing the same six end-words (teleutons is the technical term) in each of six six-line stanzas, in a pre-set rotational pattern. But the kicker is that the final three-line stanza, called the envoi, must use all six end-words—two per line, with one in the middle of the line, the other on the end. These six teleutons act as the scaffolding by which you build the poem.

Dressler and I each submitted three words that, put together, would be our teleutons. I can't speak for his source material, but I scanned my copy of French poet St.-John Perse's Collected Poems; here are the six words that paved our way to the Sestina Arena:
Not what you'd call the breeziest set of words, but there they are.

Keep in mind: Dressler and I were not competing against one another. The adversary is the sestina, the punishing and unrelenting form itself. We were in this together. As two gladiators in the hold prior to combat, we fired drafts back and forth, rewrote whole stanzas, sharpened syntax, upgraded some verbs. A few screenshots of our late-night text messages:

When finally it's just you and the poem—and whatever attendant god or muse—a quiet spreads over the page, as it would over a crowd in that moment the animal emerges from the cage. 

First challenger:

by Adam L. Dressler

Of what use now to us are angels
when each must hide a heart of stone
that nothing save perhaps for sleep
might pierce enough for us to battle
this locust hum in which we sway
and drift apart like broken music?

We cannot grasp the distance music
or groping fingertips of angels
that, briefly brushing, fail to sway
our desolating faith in stone,
the ramparts we erect to battle
the scenes that seek us in our sleep.

We stir, we wake, and yet we sleep,
as deaf to silence as to music
though either could abate the battle
we will not cease against the angels
until we lift the veil of stone
that over every sense holds sway.

From tepid task to task we sway,
entangled in the hope that sleep
will wash, as water hollows stone,
away the slightest trace of music
so we might wade, immune as angels
into the mindless press of battle.

Let others, younger, stronger battle
daylong against the daily sway
while they can still recall the angels
who sang them out of and to sleep
and hid them safe in waves of music
like ancient leaves preserved in stone.

No miracle will loose from stone
or set beyond the breach of battle
those slivers of ourselves that music
might still possess the strength to sway,
no vision resurrect from sleep
our interactions with the angels.

Are angels locked, like us, in stone,
sleep drowning out our useless battle,
or do you sway to mortal music?

Hold your applause. The second challenger (moi), as night falls, enters:

by Tom Haushalter

We are none to observe the rites of sleep
who pursue an instrument, whose music—
like the map the architect does battle
with nightly, lines drawn and redrawn to sway
outcomes of form for beauty—leaves angels
in the design. Cathedral begun, stone

cut from white hillsides, hewn, heaved upon stone,
will never be done. To succumb to sleep
is really to guarantee that angels
bear us off on the unwritten music
that would have killed us anyhow, the sway
that would have drawn us to battle.

That's not to say I fled the battle
when midnight's arrows, dense as stone,
persuaded me I could hold sway
over provinces less averse to sleep.
Had I never struck those chords of music
that drew from nimbuses the angels

toting their brasses and strings, what angels
would bother? What cries go up in battle
for a cause long absent, for music
without form? In the middle of a stone
between here and the core of the earth sleep
dark records of potential no god can sway.

You can see as well as I how sway
the wintered wildflowers, pale as angels
surrendering themselves to sleep
in their husks, discarded artifacts of battle.
Mere sight of such austerity is a stone
thrown whining through the field—that old music.

We are prone to call a mind for music
apotheosis (a means to sway
secrets from lovers as from stone
the hammer can give breath to angels),
a priestly craft. Not quite—this battle
lays no laurels. To hope to wring from sleep

music's lost chord, that phantom of angels,
to sharper sway the tide of battle,
set your cornerstone on the edge of sleep.

And now, those so inclined should throw thumbs up or down in the comments section. But in doing so, realize that you accept the dare to wrangle your own sestina and share it with us. This is not a democracy.

Stray Thoughts on Writing a Sestina

  1. While writing in a metered line isn't required of a sestina (not anymore, anyway), clearly Dressler's found a home in iambic tetrameter. And mine tends toward syllabic uniformity—typically ten syllables in each line. It might seem like an added restriction, with the teleutons, to work around, but consider how a metered line complements the form—the patterned repetition, the echoing progression of each stanza. It felt, to me, natural to the sestina.
  2. I think one of the challenges of a successful sestina is to proceed as if the teleutons aren't actually repeating themselves each stanza, such that by using them in all their parts of speech or embedding them in compound words, etc., their brow-beating effect is quieted. This is especially the case as a stanza's last end-word immediately becomes the next stanza's first end-word.
  3. Just about anything can spark the start of a poem, but there's a good chance that one or more of your six teleutons will begin to guide what it is you're trying to say in the sestina, to be the thematic driver(s). The rest of the end-words: mere accomplices!
  4. And you may find, as I did, the sixth stanza incredibly difficult to write—if not the whole poem increasingly difficult. After five stanzas pounding out every variation on battle, angel, stone, sleep...you may wonder what the hell there is left to say. Which of course is followed by that action-packed, buzzer-beating, three-line envoi. The kind-of irony is that, as those six fixed coordinates are compressed at the poem's close, you're expected to send it toward that unseen horizon—to liberate the sestina from itself! Good luck with that.


The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, by Lewis Turco

The Book of Literary Terms, by Lewis Turco



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