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Sestinas – your opinion please!


So what do we think of sestinas? A fun exercise? A thankless exercise? A beautiful form best used sparingly? Hackneyed tell-tale sign of creative writing workshop-itis? Should have left it to Dante?

I expect I’m not alone in loving word puzzles so I’m tempted to attempt my first sestina. Yes! A sestina virgin! I confess I read Seamus Heaney’s ‘Two Lorries’ and loved it, not realising it was a sestina (read it here and hear Heaney reading it). I’d like to play with this form, but want to know what you think of it. Have you written some fab sestinas? Would you rather not touch them with a barge pole? Care to point me to a lovely example/exponent? Any tips? Thanks!

(diagram from Wikipedia)


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  1. I’ve done one, not bad, just for the doing of it. Sinead Morrisey has written a very good one ‘Telegraph’ in Through the Square Window. But I don’t see that any sestina is a better poem for being a sestina. But go ahead and have a go – it’s like that novel, everybody has one in them!

    • Thanks Meg – and I will seek out the Morrisey one. Yes I suppose as with any form there needs to be a rationale for it.

  2. I wrote one all about bondage. It’s not entirely serious. Hasn’t been published anywhere though, so can’t point you to it – but if you DM me your email address I can send it through! Some people have laughed a lot at it.

    • Ooh! ha ha! – that’s sounds like fun, do send it! rh at will reach me…thanks!

  3. I am loathe to start with form, if I’m honest this is because I am largely ignorant about it. I recognise that it is another way of working and I am limiting myself by not experimenting more. I’m going to a George Szirtes workshop soon which is all about form so I wonder if we will cover sestinas. I love the diagram – that alone makes me want to have a go. Sorry not to be more useful. Quite excited by the thought of Isabel’s bondage sestina but that probably is giving away too much information.(!)

  4. Ah – where is the GS workshop? I’d love to go to one of his. Mimi Khalvati is supportive of attempts at form and the next workshop with her in Lewes is end of March, so maybe I should have a go and take it along (if it’s not too awful). Yes, I think we all need to read Isabel’s sestina. Funny how people seem to be admitting to having done ONE… perhaps it’s an experience not to be repeated.

  5. I like them when they work – love that repetition. But sometimes they seem too contrived. You can say that about any choice of form though. I’ve tried a few times with differingly terrible results!

    • Oh dear! Well I sat down this afternoon and didn’t get much further in an hour than some pen-chewing and wondering whether to start at the end. Ugh!

  6. I LOVE writing sestinas… it takes me deeper and deeper into the experience. I chose to write one for an event in the Ashmolean museum, a poem about a Leonardo sketch; it seemed the appropriate form, What a delight! Just completed another…

  7. Oh, would you like me to mail you one?

    • Thanks Louise. Why not post a link to it here so others can see too?

  8. Oh, I would but I haven’t put it on line. I’ll try pasting it. It’s about a picture attributed to Michelangelo; now I can’t find that on line. It is ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Joseph and the young Saint John the Baptist attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti, brush drawing in a thin wash of brown oil paint (probably bistre), on a ground prepared with a green earth colour.’ Can’t paste it here either; but here is the poem (incidentally, I am not a Christian, nor an atheist).

    Earthwash (sestina)

    The family is coming through this green,
    light from a copper moon, it bathes the woman,
    who bends a little, watchful of the boy,
    her face attentive, sensuous; she knows him
    already. He’s still small, but won’t be held,
    even by her, in earthy ways his maker.

    This comes so beautifully from its maker
    to me; I notice firstly all that green,
    for which a poplar fell. Buonarroti held
    a brush freighted with soot, to trace this woman
    whose youth, intelligence, leap to us from him.
    The man, much fainter, bends to restrain the boy.

    But she has him, and John, the elder boy,
    gripped by the wrist, watching the troublemaker,
    perhaps a bit jealous – “I can’t be like him.”
    He too, though, growing fast – not really “green”
    in any sense – he shares with the young woman
    care, pride – responsibility dearly held.

    What sense in this quick sketch is so well held?
    Must we all surrender to this tiny boy?
    I keep returning to the tall sweet woman
    who holds it all, no everyday homemaker,
    dressed as in smoke, in Venus’s colour, green –
    she is the key, through her people pour to him.

    Is that what the painter meant, that we reach him
    through looking at these marks, an illusion held?
    Was there a reason why you selected green,
    this earth wash, emphasizing the brand new boy
    whose energy promised a new kind of maker?
    Yet whose earth pattern came straight from a woman?

    I look at her and love her, sexy woman
    and serious, funny too, firm holding him.
    He must have known her well, this picture’s maker,
    to make her so radically, dearly held
    as human, powerful, strong enough for this boy,
    painted with woodsmoke on poplar wood all green.

    The family group in green, around this woman
    follows the straining boy, all focused on him,
    because he held the world, really its maker.

  9. The form I observe is slightly different – as well as taking the ‘nesting pairs’ of end-words from one stanza to the next, I swing them so it is: 612543 (not 615243). That’s how I learned it and I like the extra spin. Also 10 syllables….

  10. Wow! no I didn’t did I? Misrememembered – but the second one is like that! made it up – typical of me to make something more difficult than it need be.

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Robin Houghton 2021