A Literary Series
Like me, my friend Jason hates sestinas. Here’s what he wrote in a poem of his recently:
I was at a party where
someone read a sestina,
and everyone jumped head-
first into the bushes
one floor down, the black
stocking legs of the women
waving in the crisp November air.
That cracked me up. I’ll take some well-timed humor over 39 lines of repetition any day.
And it’s not because I lack the discipline or have a gap in my aesthetic. I could use the form if I wanted to. In fact, I have—just once, and ages ago—in a poem called “Pharaoh’s Horse Trainer.” He’s haunted in his sleep by the same recurring nightmare: all those chariot horses drowning when the parted waters closed behind Moses. And each day he combs the Red Sea shoreline for their bones. For him, I figured, the sestina made sense. But that’s it. Most subjects aren’t so traumatized and obsessive, so why bolt them to form that is? I’d rather be a hawk, or a tide pool, or something. Those are forms too.
Still, if you can’t shake the feeling that sestinas are expected, that writing one is a measure of your skills, then you might like this. It’s a form I invented and kept secret up ’til now, and here are the rules: 1) You don’t get 39 lines, just 14; 2) yes, you still use iambic pentameter; 3) no, you don’t use end rhyme; 4) instead, your end words are recycled in set positions, like so—
The morning wakes up tired and more gray, 
just lifting the sun out of habit, like winding a watch. 
Why bother? Nothing can get warm is this wind, 
and the haze will go on blocking whatever light 
tries reaching here—the stars, the moon, daylight, 
all of it gone. Only the snow’s not gray, 
and it will be soon… grit sifting out of wind, 
snow plows dragging their loads of sand. I’ve watched 
it happen every day this week. I’ve watched 
and listened to them grind along, orange lights 
spinning a kind of spiral web as they wind 
from block to block. And of course the roads are gray— 
—and 5) in the last two lines, you return to the original order (1, 2, 3, 4) with 1 and 3 placed in the middle of the lines and 2 and 4 at the ends. How cool is that? As cool as a hawk or a tide pool, especially since now you can switch things up and use synonyms in place of repetition:
favorite non-color  of progress and watchbands. 
Meanwhile, the wind  keeps yelling that we’re not the sun. 
That’s it. I call it the sestonnet. It has the virtue of being shorter. Fewer guests (and that’s what your listeners are) will be working the latches on the exit windows.
Haiku, of course, are shorter still, and they can be nice sometimes, like someone seeing you and smiling. A haiku can be good like Hello can be good, or Good-bye:
You’ve heard sharks don’t sleep?
Your heart should be seven sharks.
Hunting what? More heart.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.
Header photo by Vladamir Hodac, courtesy Shutterstock.