When it comes to the "extreme challenge of six words," I'm not talking about the craze that swept at least some parts of the nation nine years ago, where writers spent time trying tell a complete story using only six words. I'm talking about using the same six words over and over again in a poem, using a fixed pattern. That's right, poetry fans, I'm talking sestina.
The sestina consists of six stanzas of six lines each, plus a three-line stanza of summation at the end (called an envoi because it sends you on your way (also called a tornada because it puts you in such a whirl)). But wait! There's more!
This is one of the most difficult closed forms to write. If you read the last word of each of the six stanzas, you will see that while each line in each stanza ends in a word different from the other lines in the stanza, all six words at the end of each line in all stanzas are the same six words, repeated in a different order. Think of it as a word puzzle in which those six words get woven around and shifted into different orders. What's that, you say, it sounds random? Nope. It's strictly fixed. The first stanza we call 1-2-3-4-5-6. The next stanza starts with the words moving from the bottom up, interspersed with the words from the top down, until they meet in the middle. So the second stanza would be 6-1-5-2-4-3. Yes, that means that the last word at the end of one stanza is the last word at the end of the first line of the next stanza. The repetition is clear, but the trick is to keep it from seeming too repetitive.
Here's a numerical depiction of the stanzas for you
Stanza 1: 1-2-3-4-5-6
Stanza 2: 6-1-5-2-4-3
Stanza 3: 3-6-4-1-2-5
Stanza 4: 5-3-2-6-1-4
Stanza 5: 4-5-1-3-6-2
Stanza 6: 2-4-6-5-3-1
Envoi: 3 of the words are used in the middle of the lines in an emphasized spot, 3 at the ends. Traditionally, it used the formula 6-2, 1-4, 5-3, but these days it's dealer's choice. Er, make that, poet's choice.
There are a few tricks to working with this tricky closed form.
First, know that over the years, a lot of poets have chosen to write their sestinas in iambic pentameter, but that is not a requirement of the form. Don't believe me? Check out Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop.
Second, for your first effort, go with concrete nouns and active verbs as choices for those all-important end-words. A further suggestion? Use one or more words that could go either way. "Winds," for example, or even "books," could be a verb or a noun. And you can then alter the meaning of the word as you go tripping merrily along to suit the particular stanza.
Third? Don't panic. Expect to be challenged and even frustrated at times. Expect that midway through the fourth stanza, you will hate one or more of your words and wish to start over. And know that you have the freedom to go on, the freedom to go back, and the freedom to jettison the entire thing and start again.
Fourth, go forth and write. But before you do, here's a sestina to send you on your way. And yes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, this one's for you:
The Buffy Sestina
The First Episode of the New Season, Before the Opening Credits.)
BY JASON SCHNEIDERMAN
Buffy is upstairs sharpening her large collection of stakes
when her mother comes upstairs and says, "Would it be bad,
just this once, not to go out staking vampires again tonight?"
After all—she had just defeated an apocalyptic force! Time
for a break? Buffy never has time for a break. Angel gone,
her stakes sharp, she kisses her mom and hops out the window
into the backyard. Buffy is familiar with this small window
at the beginning of every season (school year), when her stakes
are enough to fight her battles, and whatever the big coming
evil will be—it hasn't started to build yet. What big bad
will it be this season? She pulls her coat against the night
and there's Willow! Her best friend! She certainly has time
for Willow! They walk, explicate the summer, say, "Time
to go back to school." Suddenly, a vampire seizes this window
of relaxed defenses, and grabs off-guard Willow. Oh this night-
ly threat! Willow screams and resists. Buffy turns, her stake
at the ready. "Meet my friend, Mr. Pointy!" she says. Bad
bloodsucker, he lets Willow go. He wants to fight. He goes
at Buffy with everything, and Buffy (blue coat, boots) comes
back at him hard. The fight is oddly even. For a long time
(40 seconds, say), he gets in good blows. He hurts her bad,
she looks finished. She isn't getting back up again. A doe
leaps into the cemetery. All are distracted. Willow makes a stake
from a broken bench piece and the vampire tries to run into the night.
But Xander arrives, blocks the exit with his own stake. This night
is going terribly now (for the vampire)! The vampire goes
around to a crypt and tries to run inside, but it takes time
to pry open the gates. Too much time; Xander almost stakes
the vamp, but he stops to quip, and the effort goes bad.
The vampire throws him hard into the boarded-up window
of the crypt. Willow runs over, pulls a board from the window
for a new stake. Buffy's back up. Oh, what a luxury this night
is! Forever to fight just one, lone vampire. Xander's bad-
inage soundtracks the fight. Willow lunges and misses, coming
close, but too far left. Buffy kicks the vampire in face, stake
brandished. He goes down, and she's on top of him this time.
Buffy stakes the vampire. He's dust. Whew! Wait. Bad. Crypts
don't have windows. The night is heavy and dark. That took a long time!
What's coming begins to come. Let's unboard that window.
When this post first appeared, I sent Mr. Schneiderman an email to be sure that he's okay with this being posted here (it's ganked from McSweeney's), and he very kindly emailed me back to say this:
"Thank you so much for choosing me as your illustration of the sestina— I’m honored to be included on your blog. And thank you so much for asking whether or not you could use it, the answer is a resounding yes."
Let me just say this about that: I heart Jason Schneiderman. Oh, and don't forget to check out his Sublimation Point, which is available for you to buy, which received favorable reviews from folks like Robert Pinsky at the Washington Post.