See Dubs Stuffs, The Sestina–In Which You Get Six Words

Dear Lily June,

With my time as a former English teacher still haunting me, I intend to introduce another sporadic segment to this blog about Creative Writing, affectionately titled See Dubs Stuff. (This is in addition to your Lit Lessons as well as my imagined segment, someday, on Grammar and Argument from my days hocking Composition at kids who didn’t want it any more than they’d want a loogie hocked in their face for the cost of $10,000+ a year for tuition.)

I’ll give you some of the lessons, readings, and prompts I used to give my creative writing students so if, on the off chance, you ever decide to write, you’ll have a little background and a little terminology to toss around. If nothing else, you can sip a cocktail with your fellow business majors someday and scoff about how the poets “can’t wrap sestinas around themselves to keep them warm in winter.” Cue the adjustment of your monocle and a sarcastic tip of your top hat. And off we go!


The first poem I ever published was a sestina. It was kind of a fairy tale situation for me: I was in the first grad class of my life with my then poet-hero, Joel Brouwer, a class called Magazine Scene. He was talking to us about the future of small magazines and whether anyone would read obscure publications put out by university presses. That’s a pretty heated topic for another time (after all, it took us fifteen weeks to dissect it as a class, so I’m certainly not going to bastardize the subject by devoting fifteen seconds to it on a personal blog).

Part of the class, though, was to get practice in the publication process by sending out. And so, I sent out a poem I’d written as an undergrad that had won an award and had been read on the radio in Pittsburgh. It was called “Sweet Sixteen,” and it was a kind of love-hate tribute in sestina form to Marilyn Monroe and how her body set a tone for body ideals (even though her hourglass figure held much meatier curves than the current ideal, set by Hollywood actresses whose largest assets are their skulls, giving them a shape more like lollipops than cinched pears. But I digress.)

The poem got picked up by Quarterly West, the first literary magazine I’d ever even seen back in high school because they sold copies of it across from the coffee shop in a once-upon-a-business called Borders (R.I.P. my old bookstore. Twas the wot Amazon killed you.) I sent to that magazine because I had this dream of someone like me picking it up over a cup of coffee and actually thumbing across my work. (I was aiming much lower then than having my name across a spine.) And so it was that the first poem I ever sent out in a class taught by my first poet hero was picked up in the first magazine I’d ever admired. Like I said, Fairy. Tale.

In actuality, this NEVER happens, and it certainly didn’t happen to me again. For years. I collected enough rejection letters to decoupage an entire bathroom in the interim, and I learned a lot about the dogged art of persistence–of repeating a process and obsessing over the details and turning words over and over again until it produces new results. And that, darling dear, is the very lesson of the sestina.


A European form, the sestina is oft attributed to Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour from the twelfth century. Back in those ancient days (before we could text ourselves notes, email ourselves reminders, and blog ridiculously about our pasts), if you wanted to remember something, it helped to turn it into a song. You know, like Samuel L. Jackson does in The Long Kiss Goodnight when he sings to the blues: “Da da da da dunh / Turn off the downstairs light / Da da da da dunh / before I go to bed at night.” (Follow the logic: 12th Century Troubadour + Samuel L. = The Sestina.)

You’re welcome, Poets.

Like a grocery list of emotional obsessions, the sestina form takes six words and repeats them as the last word of each line across six six-line stanzas (known as sestets) and a final three-line stanza (called a tercet) in a specific pattern of variation. If you’re a simple list kind of person, that variation goes like this:

7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

If you’re a visual, diagram-type learner, here’s that pattern again as depicted by Wikipedia’s finest in graphic representations:

Hooray for images making words *more* complicated!

It’s not as confusing as it looks, and it helps to check out a poem that’s actually in the form.

If you’re into late 1990s popular culture (and what baby born in 2015 wouldn’t be?!), here’s a link to a sestina about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ll wait while you read it.

Buffy can see you NOT reading her sestina.

That poem’s a little tricky since it alternates variations on the words “coming” and “going” for one of its words, but essentially, the whole poem revolves around just six choices:

  1. stakes
  2. bad
  3. night
  4. time
  5. come/go
  6. window

And if you look, stanza by stanza, at that last word of each line, you can see how those words jumble around like socks in a dryer to create a pretty accurate summary of every season of Buffy Whedon ever penned with a blood-dripping quill.


The fun of a sestina, to me, comes in the playful ways that poets break from the form. (For instance, at one point, the author above, Jason Schneiderman, uses the image of a “doe” leaping instead of an actual window, which preserves the soundplay while changing the mental picture).

It’s a perfect poetic form for someone with OCPD: someone who obsessively overanalyzes problems until they compulsively list solutions. It is a form for the six-fingered piano player. It is also a form to be completely broken by the heartbroken Jonah Winter, whose famous poem, “Sestina: Bob,” is famous because he breaks every one of the rules by using only the word “Bob” to talk about the man an ex- left him for. Or A.E. Stallings who bites off Winter’s tactic with a poem called “Sestina: Like” (the perfect poem to link to on a blog).


And Lily June, maybe you’ll never get into writing, and so these blog posts alone will seem like the circular obsessive ramblings of an ex-teacher and semi-nobody poet. But if you do, I challenge you. I throw down the gauntlet and say Pick six words, Little Lovely. Sit down and try to find ways to flip and tangle those words like hair down a drain. And when you pull the lump back up, you’ll really have something, like a wet toupee for a bald cockroach. And that–dirt, grime, poverty, and pestilence–is what poetry’s all about.

[And to anyone who suffered through this elementary lesson on a poetic form, I offer to practice what I’ve preached. If anyone flings me six words, I’ll try to cobble together a meaningful poem from the exercise. If no one takes me up on that, I’ll just fling a lot of sweat from my brow.]


Picture Credits:

10 thoughts on “See Dubs Stuffs, The Sestina–In Which You Get Six Words

  1. Barbara CT says:

    An English teacher, huh? I will be even more interested in your posts now. I don’t remember being taught about sextains in high school and the examples I looked up made my head spin. However, it may be an exercise I need to try in order to get my creative juices flowing again, not that I’ve ever been much of a poet.

    I would be interested to see what you come up with for these six words (that really did just pop into my mind): thanks, penny, woe, joy, sister, and lake.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ally Bean says:

    First this week I learn about a villanelle and now a sestina. It’s been poetry week for me. I majored in English in undergrad but never took one course on poetry. Time to catch up on things I guess. Will there be a quiz later? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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