Sestina Workshop

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Sestina Workshop

Post by brianedwards » Sun Nov 14, 2010 6:26 am

First off, apologies for taking so long to get this going. I've already tried to blame it on my broken foot and that didn't wash with Sharra and Ros, Florence Nightingales that they are, so I won't try again. Let's just crack on eh? :wink:

So, a workshop? What's that all about Brian? Well, I had this idea about 6 months ago that it might be fun to start some threads dedicated to a particular form or poetic device. My idea was that anyone (mod or member, Beg or Exp) with a particular interest in, or knowledge of, a specific area of poetics might like to share that interest/knowledge and encourage/inspire others to explore, maybe learn a bit, and most definitely enjoy writing in that vein. For example, maybe David could do a workshop on sonnets, Aru on Japanese forms, Ray on rhyme, Elph on meter, Ros on weird sciency stuff with obscure nerdy words etc . . . :roll: As it was my idea, it seemed natural that I would go first, taking on a form that I have often championed.

The sestina

Spectacular, breathtaking, challenging. Contrived, leaden, frustrating. Countless adjectives have been spent on the form, but there's one that's certainly undeniable: divisive. I think that' s probably as good a place to start this little workshop as any, but more of that later. First, I should probably not assume that all of you reading this know what a sestina is (whilst at the same time apologising to those of you who know exactly what a sestina is thank you very much Edwards) and offer a bit of background. And by that I mean, here's a couple of links for you to click or skip at leisure:

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5792

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sestina

Each of those links contain several more links, which hopefully you may have explored a bit further. If you do a search for sestina on Google you'll get about 157,000 results of undoubtedly varying usefulness, but over the course of this workshop I'll try to point you towards some of the more interesting and/or useful sites and hopefully some of you will do likewise. Sharing our external reading is what, in my opinion, will make these workshops a success.

This workshop

I should probably make something clear: I have no idea how long this thing will last or what any of you will get out of it. Roughly, I imagine we will read a lot of sestinas, read quite a bit about sestinas, try to write some sestinas, do a couple of exercises related to sestinas, comment and critique each others' attempts at writing sestinas, and maybe, maybe, get a couple of 39 line poems down on paper that can lay claim to being a sestina. There might possibly be some judging too, but that all depends on participation etc . . . After all, sestinas are not the most popular form . . .

Sestinas are divisive

Yes they are. So why not start there? Let's throw our cards down on the table and declare Love or Hate. My hope is that some of you who hate the form will not shy away, but look in here anyway in the spirit of adventure that should surely drive all writing. I have no interest in trying to persuade anyone towards my own way of thinking, but I am very interested to know why others think contrarily if they do. In terms of developing your own craft, I am a firm believer that trying to understand why you dislike something is at least as useful as describing why you do like something. So, our first task.

Task

Find a sestina you either love or hate and post it (or a link) on this thread. Try to write at least a few sentences about why you feel the way you do. Maybe you think your like or dislike is simply instinctive, but try to pin it down in linguistic or poetic terms: what aesthetic features of the poem work/don't work for you? If it was posted on a crit board here, what comments would you offer to the author?

I am reluctant to post my own response to this task just yet, but if enough of you think I am copping out I will gladly relent . . .

I will, however, acknowledge that the form of the sestina is complex enough to require the help of a template. Here's one suggested by the poet Daniel Ari.

Let's say 3-4 days for responding to this? Happy reading.

B.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by Mic » Sun Nov 14, 2010 3:18 pm

This looks great Brian. I'm in.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by Sharra » Sun Nov 14, 2010 5:57 pm

I'm in - I love sestina's even though they're pretty near impossible to write - they're like doing jigsaw puzzles. I can't think of many off the top of my head - but do remember this one by Elizabeth Bishop http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/03 ... stina.html. I think it shows the secret of writing any form really, the form is almost a layer beneath the content of the poem rather than dominating it.
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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by bodkin » Sun Nov 14, 2010 10:00 pm

Hi,

I'm in but I don't like them. "Hate" might be going a bit far...

I think my problem is not so much that I can't write them, I sometimes really like piecing together a intricate form.

It's more that I can't read them. Most sestinas just don't do anything for me. All form and no content, or so bent to fit the form that there's no enjoyment...

For an example I just followed the links from Brian's introduction: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16189 -- I mean that is rubbish... I had to force myself several times just to read right to the end. It's arbitrary, it's pointless, and it's got that damn repetition of insignificant words hitting you on the side of the head over and over without underlining any sort of point...

And that's (presumably) regarded as a good one.

Actually, maybe "hate" isn't going too far. I really dislike these. Occasionally there's a readable one, I've seen some posted here, but it always succeeds in-spite of being a sestina, not because of being one...

Interested to see other people's examples, however.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by BenJohnson » Sun Nov 14, 2010 10:01 pm

Damn Sharra grabbed my sestina :lol:

I love the lines
but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
She is not just concentrating on getting the end words in the right place, she is also paying attention to the way things are, the poetic truth of the scene. Another I like is 'The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina by Miller Williams. For this one he has worked with the form, but the shortening lines reflects the subject and as such adds an extra dimension to the form. By the time he reaches single words they still work and that in its indicates a good deal of effort. So my verdict, sestina I love them when done well, when they fail they fail big time and reach the hate scale.

@Ian I agree with your comments on that link, I love some of Ashbury, but other pieces :roll: The sestina is fantastic when done well. but that is very rare.
Last edited by BenJohnson on Sun Nov 14, 2010 10:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by David » Sun Nov 14, 2010 10:14 pm

BenJohnson wrote:Damn Sharra grabbed my sestina :lol:
That's what I thought when I saw the reference to Lizzie B, but no - the one by her I like is this one: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-miracle-for-breakfast/

I must say I'm largely with Ian, though. The relentless return of the same words just drives me to a bored distraction - most of the time.

According to James Fenton, the way to write a successful sestina is either to choose six very ordinary words, so that you can return to them unobtrusively, or choose six more interesting words, so that the whole thing becomes a much more artful exercise. The latter is what Bishop does here, with coffee, crumb, balcony, miracle, sun and river, with very interesting results.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by bodkin » Sun Nov 14, 2010 10:45 pm

David wrote:According to James Fenton, the way to write a successful sestina is either to choose six very ordinary words, so that you can return to them unobtrusively, or choose six more interesting words, so that the whole thing becomes a much more artful exercise. The latter is what Bishop does here, with coffee, crumb, balcony, miracle, sun and river, with very interesting results.
Isn't the first case like saying "make your sestina work by disguising the fact it is a sestina"? Which surely would be better done just dropping the sestina part?

The latter case is, surely, more true to the idea of a sestina, but it is exactly what often leads to the most contrived and contorted examples.

Another way I have heard explained is to pick words which have plenty of alternative meanings / senses / homonyms etc... but again that's very contrived.

I like that example you posted. A bit. It doesn't manage to get all the repetitions in before it becomes overly drawn out and repetitive, however...

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by brianedwards » Mon Nov 15, 2010 4:19 am

Well, I was going to leave it a few days, but I should probably comment briefly now before the debate rages too far . . .

Rob,
you hate them cuz you can't write 'em? That's a very common complaint! So, have you tried to write one then? If so, why? What inspired you to try? One you read and enjoyed? Writer's curiosity? If you have an unfinished attempt, maybe you'd like to share it later.

Michaela,
glad you're in! Looking forward to seeing your choice(s).

Nicky,
fabulous choice! That turn from the 5th into the 6th stanza is one of my favourite sections in all of 20th century poetry. Note how the repeated end words shift from describing profound sorrow to something magical and uplifting.

Ian,
I love that Ashbery poem! Bet you knew I'd say that eh? I'm glad you're on board, despite your objections. Hopefully you'll come to appreciate the form more over the next few weeks, but even if you don't I hope you have some fun reading and writing.

Ben,
another great choice. One of the few I know of that employs single lines. I'm not entirely convinced it works, but I have to admire the boldness of the attempt. As well as being an accomplished sestina, it's also a great example of how to express strong emotions without being maudlin.

David,
E.B. is wonderful isn't she? No other writer I know of can lay claim to 2 of the most accomplished contemporary sestinas. The end words here glide effortlessly into the poem's lyricism, and there is real narrative development in this sestina, something many often fail to achieve.

Ian (again) and David,
you've both expressed some strong and persuasive complaints about the form there and I will try to address them in due course. I'd like to wait for others to join in before moving discussions further. Obviously I won't dare to try to change your minds, but hopefully offer some alternative ideas that will give you something to think about.

B.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by David » Mon Nov 15, 2010 9:06 am

I meant to say, Bri, before diving right in - well done for taking this workshop on. It's a herculean and fairly selfless task, so three cheers for you.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by Sharra » Mon Nov 15, 2010 9:18 am

yes, I'll second that - Hip Hip Hooray! :)
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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by BenJohnson » Mon Nov 15, 2010 10:09 am

Are we allowed more than one choice? Just found the text to Sestina: Bob

Edit:

Since Brian says yes here is what I like about this one. The writer uses just one word to end the lines, after the first stanza I thought there is no way he can keep this up without getting exceedingly boring, but it works. The obsessive repetition indicating how much the subject has gotten under his skin and tone of the lines leads you alter the tone and strength of the word. He only alters the meaning of the word once and that is at the end of the sestina, but it works for me.
Last edited by BenJohnson on Mon Nov 15, 2010 2:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by brianedwards » Mon Nov 15, 2010 2:08 pm

David, Nicky, the pleasure is all mine. I should thank all of you for indulging me . . .

Ben, post as many as you like. Just remember to tell us what you like/dislike about your choices ;)

B.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by brianedwards » Wed Nov 17, 2010 7:29 am

I'm hoping we'll get a few more people on board before we move on . . . Ros? Megan? Claire? I seem to remember you all expressing an interest in this . . . would be good to get a few regular posters from the Beginner's board to participate too . . .

In the meantime, here are a few more examples of the form:

The Misfits

I really love the way Muldoon mixes a personal and quite frightening experience with humour and lyricism. The final three lines, in which the repeated words come together, is truly startling and quite unexpected.

The Painter

An earlier sestina from Ashbery, quite different from the one Ian posted, being far more conventional. Unlike the Muldoon poem above, Ashbery doesn't play with the end words so much, preferring to stick to the same 6 bold nouns throughout. This is a real strength of the poem for me, the words pounding away at that idea of artistic creation, and frustration. The poem is also a great allegory.

Home Alone

Maybe it's just me, but I find this hilarious. Who says you should never use the F-word in a poem?

More later, but as I said, I'd like to get a few more bodies on board . . .

B.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by Ros » Wed Nov 17, 2010 9:11 am

I'm on board, time permitting - things are a bit busy at the moment. As for sestinas, I dunno - I often like the first half of them, but then find the repetition gets annoying rather than adding anything to the work. And when I've tried it, same thing - interesting three verses, cobbled-together shoe-horned effort for the rest. Best sestina? that one Mic wrote earlier in the year. But I'm certainly keeping a keen eye on all this, and will try any exercises you suggest!

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by bodkin » Wed Nov 17, 2010 10:52 am

I just read "Home Alone" and for me it is another for the "rubbish" category.

It just occurred to me, maybe we're looking for completely different things in these poems?

Is it that the only appeal is to see how the author twists and turns in order to keep coming back to the words? e.g. it's more a sort of word-play or joke than a poem in its own right?

Because that might account for how some people love them an others just don't get it... those of us who aren't really interested in seeing _how_ the author manages to meet the restrictions don't really have anything else to get from the poems?

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by BenJohnson » Wed Nov 17, 2010 10:58 am

Misfits didn't work for me, he tries so hard to hide the end words by alterations that it draws attention to them 'RICH', 'ostrich-sized', etc. The Painter is a good and the end words don't stick out too much, but the one that really works for me is Home Alone the language and subject are not such that would appeal to me, but regardless I read from one end to the other and didn't notice the end words at all which is quite amazing.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by Raincoat » Wed Nov 17, 2010 12:53 pm

I haven't written a sestina before, probably because I wouldn't know where to start. I've only read them on this forum before and the following poem, Sestina for the Ladies of Tehuántepec:
http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoet ... /poem3.htm

I liked that poem because I like how he includes details I wouldn't have even thought about for example the (d. 1911), i like the imagination of it.
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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by BenJohnson » Thu Nov 18, 2010 6:41 pm

bodkin wrote:Because that might account for how some people love them an others just don't get it... those of us who aren't really interested in seeing _how_ the author manages to meet the restrictions don't really have anything else to get from the poems?
For me it is not so much how they managed to meet the restrictions, but beat the restriction, that is create something worthwhile. I see it as a join the dots exercise, the end words laid out in order are the dots and the poet is responsible to adding the lines between them, depending how well they succeed you might get a scribbled mess, a stick man or a fantastic picture. It is the last of these that make Sestinas worthwhile, all too often they head somewhere between the first two slots.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by nar » Thu Nov 18, 2010 7:27 pm

brianedwards wrote:I'm hoping we'll get a few more people on board before we move on . . .<snip> . . . would be good to get a few regular posters from the Beginner's board to participate too . . .
<snip>
B.
I'd love to, Brian. However, I'm also rather busy at the moment. I'll do my best to jump in if I can find time.

FWIW: I think I'd enjoy trying to write this form - it's constraints are a little like my anagramming.

Best,

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by David » Thu Nov 18, 2010 8:20 pm

I think The Misfits is brilliant. The sestina is (he pontificated) a totally artifical construct anyway. Muldoon seems to be saying, "You know, lads, and I know that is is a bit of a game, so let's just have some fun with it."

Works for me. (As did reading it through without looking out for the repeating words, just to see how they struck me.)

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by brianedwards » Wed Nov 24, 2010 2:25 am

I wasn't expecting anyone to produce a sestina so soon Rob, but that's an interesting effort. I'll feedback in detail later.

Regards the form, as I said in the first post, it is certainly divisive for many reasons. Many of the typical complaints have been aired on this thread and though I won't try to change anyone's thinking, I will offer a some of my own thoughts that kind of respond to those complaints. I don't want to get too bogged down in the For/Against arguments but feel I should share some of my own thoughts. If others are interested in pursuing it perhaps a discussion thread would be worthwhile?

I have no more problem with the repetition of the end words than I do with regular rhymes and standard iambic pentameter. Ian mentions that feeling of being "beaten round the head" -- well that's exactly how I feel sometimes when reading I.P.! Basically, if it's done well, I have no problem with it. As I have said several times before, for me, poetry simply is contrived, and though it is arguably possible to produce a hierarchy of artifice regarding poetic devices, it would be largely objective (albeit probably a lot of fun!) Personally, I always try to hear a poem before paying attention to how it appears on the page, and so tend not to notice form on a first read through. (It would be good to hear some readings if anyone would like to post some) If the repetition of certain words or images only occur to me when I am paying close attention to the words as written then I often don't have a problem. That's not to say that would make a good sestina of course; often it is the treatment of the repetition that creates the magic . . .

Another good point raised is that idea that the best sestinas are those that manage to somehow conceal the form. I have a problem with this too, and it runs along the lines of What's The Point? I remember once reading (on another forum) praise for a sestina because the "choice of end words makes the form barely recognizable" --- that comment has always confounded me, especially as it came from a reader I respect.

There is a tendency with modern sestinas to exaggerate the repetition, and in this way I would argue that of all traditional forms the sestina has been most compatible with modernist and post-modernist aesthetics. The form lends itself nicely to parody, pastiche and allegory, as well as narrative. In some ways this has come full circle, with the question now of whether or not it is still possible to write a "straight" sestina. For those of you interested in some of the academic questions raised, there is an interesting article about the future of the form available online here.

Moving on, I wanted to suggest a couple of exercises before we start to draft our own attempts. We have seen several examples of the form already, with a variety of approaches used in handling those tricky repetitions. I personally prefer not to mix up the end words too much, and admire, for example, the likes of Bishop and Ashbery who use strong nouns without variation. However, word-play is a valid poetic approach and syntactical gymnastics are one of the great joys of the medium, so I do have much admiration for those authors who are able to push the boundaries of the form in this way. So why not let's try some gymnastics of our own?

Exercises

1.
Think of 3-4 words that can function as a different part of speech. For example "book" can be both a noun (This is a great book) and a verb (I'd like to book a session with Ms X). Use the words in each of their functions in a short piece of prose or poetry. About 10-12 lines of poetry (or equivalent in prose) ought to do it.

2.
Spend 10 minutes making two lists: homophones and homographs.
Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but have a different meaning, and may be spelled differently:

I read that book last week

My session with Ms X left me red and sore


Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have a different meaning and may be pronounced differently:

I wiped my feet at the entrance and Ms X promptly proceeded to entrance me

I'm sure you get the idea.
Once you have your lists, again try to use a few of them in a short piece of poetry or prose. Be as straight-laced or as outlandish as you wish. It's all just for fun.


Feel free to do either/or or both of these exercises and take as much time as you like.

In the meantime, here's a couple more sestinas.

Hecht

Plath

B.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by brianedwards » Thu Nov 25, 2010 3:36 am

No worries Rob, I'm sure there are others who are ploughing on with the sestina too.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by bodkin » Fri Nov 26, 2010 6:39 pm

For me these exercises are practising features used in sestinas that I really don't rate... and so wouldn't want to use...

If it's only ever going to be about using homophones and different tenses then I don't think I am ever going to rate them.

It is a pity, because I feel that the people who rate them really do rate them.

But so far I haven't managed to get any handle on why?

Is it entirely down to the poets desperate contortions as they try to escape the form?

If so, I think I might just have to agree to differ and drop out of the workshop.

Sorry, but I still don't get it :-(

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by BenJohnson » Fri Nov 26, 2010 7:48 pm

I'm not looking for publishers for these two :oops:

Exercise 1

Arriving home I bored the wife
recounting how I unlocked the locks
and shifted from park to drive
then took a drive to the park
where I shifted from drive to park
then got out and locked the locks
then took a walk along the drive
down by the canal with many locks

She silently packed a bag then took a drive
said she was heading for the lochs
last I ever saw of her.

Exercise 2

Sometimes it makes no sense
all week the kids tip-toed
as silent as a kitten's paws

but still his anger pours
like the five dollar ten cents
bottle he bought of Old Toad

for sure the car was towed
leaking oil from dirty pores
still police dogs caught the scents

towed since he had no sense to pause.

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Re: Sestina Workshop

Post by Mic » Sat Nov 27, 2010 9:09 am

Here's a Harvard university paper on the subject of sestinas titled "Sestina! or The Fate of the Idea".
It's quite long.

http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handl ... sequence=2

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