Friday, April 25, 2008

Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop


I've been hearing a lot about sestinas lately, a form I was oblivious to just a few months ago. The other marvelous poets that worked on the Sonnet Crown with me are beginning to talk of writing sestinas together. I am studying the form. It's intimidating to say the least. Wikipedia says,
"A sestina is a highly structured Poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet envoy or tornada, for a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time."

The order of the end words is woven in a complex patterned further described as "kneading bread", where the first and middle end words of each stanza fold over and under repeatedly in a braid. I can not visualize this or keep it in my head even with an ABC diagram, so I was happy to find this site that is an end word generator for sestinas. You chose your six end words carefully, making them flexible and broadly definable, and then you go to town.

I playing with it. I don't have anything pounded out yet, but we'll see what happens. Today I want to share this sestina written by Elizabeth Bishop. Here is just the first 14 lines:

Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears

you can read the rest here.

Friday Poetry is at Trisha's Miss Rumphius Effect today. Enjoy!

8 comments:

writer2b said...

I confess I can't quite get my mind around this form either. I'm aware of the repetition in the Bishop poem, but can't seem to "map it out." I guess that means it's successful; the form doesn't call attention to itself. (From dense folk like me, it's in deep hiding.)

I like your photo and haiku for today, too. I love dandelions, despite being told for so many years that they're weeds.

eisha said...

Holy crap, that really is complicated - but effective. Good luck to you!

TadMack said...

Oy, good luck to all of us, eh?
I think it will take us until NEXT winter to even start this one...

Liz in Ink said...

Can you imagine choosing "almanac" as a word to repeat seven times???? Sestinas are for the bold and crazy, to be sure...

Kelly Fineman said...

About the kneading bread description (which I think apt, but only because I've worked out the pattern):

Don't think of all the words in reference to the first stanza; think of them in relation to the stanza before. The stanza folds in on itself, again and again. Rather like folding a business letter: first you fold up from the bottom, then down from the top. The last word therefore moves to the first spot in the next stanza, and the first word moves into second place. Fold up again (what was fifth goes into third), and down again (what was second in the prior is now fourth). Repeat the bottom up, top down again and you're finished (what was fourth is now fifth; what was third is now sixth). Lather, rinse and repeat.

Or, if you'd prefer, think of it as looking down on a set of dancers. They take turns filing off the ends to form a new lineup (bottom-top-bottom-top-bottom-top).

Cloudscome said...

What absolutely amazes me about this poem is the way Bishop uses this pattern to talk about the grandmother and young child and their tears, fears, laughter. The woman doing kitchen work, child drawing, the tea, the almanac... it's all there. The braided pattern perfectly fits the feelings jumbled up in child and grandmother. Hidden, wordless, but mucking around into a suddenly beautiful weaving. Language can do that!

Sara said...

How can she write a poem so full of repetition, so tightly structured, and yet, have it sound fresher and more natural each time I read it???

It's like the poem picks me up as a thread and weaves ME right in, with that grandmother and child.

Karen E. said...

Kelly, that's a great explanation. I can actually see it now, and was predicting the order of lines as I read the Bishop poem (which is so lovely, by the way.)

That sestina generator is great!