tagHow ToHow to Write a Sestina

How to Write a Sestina


The sestina, a relatively older form, was invented by Arnaut Daniel a member of a group of twelfth century poets known as troubadours. These were basically court poets who would perform for French nobles basically composing the poems and singing to the noblemen. Their poems were always presented with musical accompaniment. Often the troubadours would compete with each other to see who could produce the wittiest, most complex styles of poetry. The sestina was considered extremely complex and was attempted only by the master troubadours.

While the sestina was a popular form used in France, it also gained some popularity among Italian poets of the era including Petrarch and Dante. Oddly enough its greatest popularity in English occurred in the twentieth century, primarily in the United States. Some theorize that the popularity of the form with modern American poets may have to do with the ease the form fits into ordinary conversation. Modern discourse tends to repeat certain words, often to highlight a point other times just to keep it fixed in the conversation.

In English, the sestina is often written in iambic pentameter. This thirty-nine lined poem is broken into six sestets (six lined stanzas) and one triplet (three lined stanza) and is typically written without rhyme. Instead of the rhyme, the last word of each line in stanza one is repeated as the last work in each line of subsequent stanzas, in a particular order. In the final three stanzas, called an envoi, these words are used two to a line, with one falling in the middle of each line and one coming at the end of the line.

For the diagram of the form I will not try to show the meter, instead I will only diagram the end word pattern. The basic scheme is for each subsequent stanza end word to be the same as the previous stanza's in the following pattern 6-1-5-2-4-3, or more graphically represented as follows:

Lines       end word
1             A
2             B
3             C
4             D
5             E
6             F

7             F
8             A
9             E
10           B
11           D
12           C

13           C
14           F
15           D
16           A
17           B
18           E

19           E
20           C
21           B
22           F
23           A
24           D

25           D
26           E
27           A
28           C
29           F
30           B

31           B
32           D
33           F
34           E
35           C
36           A

37           B    E
38           D    C
39           F    A

While many poets will use an iambic pentameter meter (xX xX xX xX xX) for the lines of a sestina, I include a free form example to exhibit the end word pattern. While this is a variation of the normal sestina form, the end word pattern meets the pattern described above (poem used with permission of author):

blue sestina

in the night
        a lonely moon
      and slow horn song,
                played so slow
        a trumpet moan
from long ago

so, so long ago
        remember night
      the slow horn moan
            and midnight moon
      we danced so slow
to every song

and one sad song
      sang long ago
    we sang it slow
            that sad, sad night
      and from the moon
a soft brass moan

I felt that moan
      deep in our song
    beneath the moon
            those years ago
      the very night
that went so slow

but fast or slow
      that bluesy moan
    in the teardrop night
            heard a crying song
      of a time ago
and a far off moon

we searched the moon
      so soft and slow
    a melody ago
            with an almost moan
      a slow, slow song
that final night

below the moon on her final night
      we sang a slow forever song
    from lives ago to a trumpet moan.

                       James M. Thompson

For more formal examples Literotica members can look at the poetry of Literotica Poet Angeline who has a number of powerful sestinas as good as I have found in any in print anthologies.



1. Turco, Lewis The New Book of Forms, A Handbook of Poetics University Press of New England 1986.

2. Finch, Annie ed. & Varnes, Katherine ed. An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2002.

3. Strand, Mark & Boland, Eavan The Making of a Poem, A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2000.

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