Wrestling with Sestinas and Other Adventures in Form

sestinas twoI have a love/hate relationship with the sestina.  I love to read sestinas — I love the way poets experiment with the form, playing with the end words, while twisting meanings, tenses and even spellings.  I also love to teach the sestina.  The sestina has a fixed pattern  — much like other forms that I teach (the pantoum, the ghazal and the villanelle), so many of my nonmajors suddenly see patterns and organization that they didn’t see before.

But I hate writing sestinas.

I admit it — it’s probably lack of patience or lack of imagination when it comes to linguistics and/or language, but every time I start playing with the sestina, I throw my notebook down in a huff.  The only time I managed to actually finish a sestina, I showed my poem (rather proudly, I might add) to a colleague, who read my piece, frowned, and said, “It’s a sestina, all right.”

Not exactly comforting words.

Still, The Incredible Sestina Anthology edited by Daniel Nester makes me want to try the sestina again.  In this collection, Nester brings to together a wide range of poets who have succeeded with the sestina.  Included are works by poets Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, Marilyn Hacker, Sandra Beasley, Denise Duhamel and Patricia Smith.  It’s not the kind of book that you want to sit down and read in one sitting. Instead, it’s a collection you want to put by your nightstand, where you can read three or four sestinas before you go to sleep.  (This way, you can dream in sestinas — which has happened to me before — it’s a little funky.)

In the last week or so, we have been working with forms in my Writing About Literature classes.  Even though it’s not a creative writing course, I do take a class period to have students experiment with form.  For many, the sestina is the biggest challenge; however, many of my students do enjoy the pantoum and the ghazal.

Today, as I am finishing this post, we are under our first Lake Effect Snow Warning of the season.  The wind is blowing and snowflakes are flying.  It’s a good day to stay inside, bundle up, and try that sestina again.

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