I thought we might do something a little different on my blog today, something interactive, a project, something for us to do together. This stemmed from me feeling convicted by the words of Oscar Wilde in my most recent podcast (which you can download here) about making art versus merely talking about art. Also about histories of art. So, we're going to loosen up the poets within on my blog today and we are going to write a Sestina.
First, I think I should probably address those of you in the audience who don't want to write a poem by answering two questions: Why should we write poetry and what does it accomplish? Life is not about how many credits you can earn and what you do with the limited options of goods and services to obtain with those credits. That's called survival. Any poet can tell you how little money poetry yields. So, already there's a bit of a wild and dangerous side because the value of poetry is something not monetary. We're closing in on it. Poetry is, in fact, the opposite of money. Money is the root of all kinds of evil, so, the opposite would be...
Good. Okay, I'm overstating slightly. So, let's get into the more practical side. Aside from depth of spirit (which in and of its self should be convincing enough. Which is better: "Oh, splendour of sunburst breaking forth this day when I lay my hands once more on Helen, my wife" or "Hey, Sweetcheeks, wake up and lookit dat sunrise. Ain't that something, huh?") here are
Three Good Reasons Why You Should Write A Sestina:
1. It is a mental exercise. It will require you to think in ways you don't normally think, similar to solving a puzzle or playing a game of chess, but with an original product from your own creativity to show for it at the end. It is an exercise in discipline, structure, planning, perception, vocabulary, and will require you to look at the world in ways you don't usually. Form poetry is a wonderful thing. If you're anything like me, I think you will also find that the form walks you through the process and, in the end, makes you look good. Thanks, Form Poetry!
2. You are going to die. Sorry for the spoiler and even more sorry if you're hearing it here first. So, now you stand at a crossroad. Either you can take the path where one day you will die never having written a Sestina or you can take the path where you will die but once you wrote a Sestina. I believe we should try to experience that which does not do us or others harm. Which is why I once ate squid ink pasta.
3. Laurie and I were pulling weeds earlier (actually, she was pulling weeds and I was standing in the shade telling her about New Journalism) and Laurie mentioned how keeping the yard lovely is like keeping one's hair clean to discourage lice. Or, as a youth pastor I knew used to say, there are two kinds of people: moths and cockroaches. One is attracted to light and the other to darkness. If you take steps to make your little corner of the world beautiful, even if you're just attempting to, it is a small vote against the tide of ugliness pouring in. Which is a nice way of saying that people who don't care tend to hang out in places where it looks like people don't care. Will planting zinnias keep you from being burglarized? Well... maybe and I'm only half joking about that. It may be a drop in the ocean, but remember, the ocean is made up of many many many many single drops. Within a lifetime ones actions could add up to equal an ocean.
So it is with art. You are making something beautiful in the world that wasn't there before.
I would also point out that none of those three things require you to actually show your Sestina to anyone if you don't want to. You are more than welcome to post your results here or keep them to yourself if you prefer. If you're shy, we're all friends here and promise to be kind. But I do urge all of you who could possibly be reading this to do this exercise. I promise you it will be more fun than you expect and most likely more fun than whatever else you were going to do this weekend.
How To Write A Sestina:
As you may well expect, I do have two book recommendations before we get started. The first is Handbook of Poetic Forms by Ron Padgett. It's a simply technical guide for poets, written by a poet. It goes through poetic forms, tells you how to write them and then gives an example. Once, about a decade ago, I went through and wrote one of each to learn more about as many poetic forms as I could. It's a great tool for people who want to write poetry and I think everyone should own it. The second book is The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry (Yes, that Stephen Fry. One of my living heroes and one of the several people in this world whose jobs I wish I had.) His book is similar to the Padgett text although is a bit more focused on, in his words, "unlocking the poet within." Simply put, if I were giving gifts I would give the Padgett text to someone like my friend New York Rob (were it not for the fact that he originally gave it to me) because he wants to write poetry and I would give the Fry text to Laurie who thinks she doesn't like poetry. This is meant to be encouraging, not condescending, but it is my belief that there are two kinds of people: people who love poetry and people who don't know that they love poetry yet.
The Sestina, as Fry points out, is complicated to explain, but great fun to write. In my experience, it is way more fun to write a Sestina than you will expect. We have six stanzas with a tercet at the end. That will make sense in a moment. First, pick six words. They can be whatever you want, but make sure they are words you want to work with in a poem because you're going to get a lot of use out of your six words here. They don't have to be related, they can be any words you like, but you may want to avoid conjunctions. Or do whatever you want. I'm just giving out advice here. Now, for the sake of this description, assign to each of your words a letter (A,B,C,D,E,F) and the chart below is meant to show which word is at the end of each line (you will also be providing the lines that lead up to the word. It's not just putting single words in different orders.)
In the Tercet, you are putting the first word around the middle of the line and the second at the end. Don't panic. Stick with me here. I'll give you an example in a moment which should clarify your questions. As for how long the lines should be, Fry states "There is no set metre to the modern English sestina, but traditionally it has been cast in iambics." So, know that and do what thou wilt.
Word Processors are a great help here. Take the chart I've provided above, substitute your words for the letters and fill in the lines of the poem in front of them. Piece of cake.
I'll go first. Below is my own and extremely modest effort. My iambics will be very loose and I have doubts that this will one day end up in the Norton Anthology, but again, one does not write poetry to be a rock star. I would also say before jumping off the diving board that I have no idea if this is going to be any good or not. But I'm going to do it anyway so that I will have done it. Also, we're not doing this for praise. We're doing this because we must.
I went to Twitter to give someone the opportunity to give me my six words for this piece. These six words come from Renee Gallo, an old friend for whom I was actually the minister at her wedding.
My words are: iron, shoe, wave, screen, reflect, exit. Get your six words and a poem should emerge from it.
by Paul Mathers
I'm left at the maw of the maze in iron.
A solitary roach skitters over my shoe
and the fear of the beast grips me in a wave.
Before me a marble wall screen
Swallowing the meager light reflect
And many miles to go until an exit
Pah! Nothing further from my mind than an exit
With these chains I'll choke the bogey with iron
The last thing I need now is to reflect
how I got here. Four pebbles in my shoe...
I pass through the archway like a rood screen
and cross myself that courage may not wave.
Slightest scuff of my feet travels in wave
so far I'm sure it reaches the remote exit.
And I know there is nothing to screen
my presence from the other. My heart iron,
The command is forward. I kick off shoes.
Heel to toe, down Eastern passage I reflect.
Oh, but vain assurance on myself reflects
As Minotaur's musk wafts from behind in a wave
I turn and the sight to make my heart shoe
Steaming demon beast intent upon my exit
by another means. My wrist armored in iron.
My faculty fooling neither, a smoke screen.
Yet my only hope is that smoke screen.
I howl and all the walls my voice reflects.
I fly at the beast with wrists webbed in iron
And throttle his throat while great head waves
Horns ripping flesh. I effect the slow exit
As the bull-head comes to rest at my shoe.
Chains sloppily saw the head off by my shoe,
Back and forth. A fine mist of blood screens
Over me. I rise to seek my exit.
Decapitated head in tow. I reflect
the shadow of a gross monster and the wave
of the man I've become like a hot iron.
Burdened and wounded, like a fiery iron for my shoe,
I waver in my confidence, that useless paper screen,
as I reflect what I'll be in world beyond this exit.