Notes on the Sestina form, by Oonagh Lahr, Poet

The horizon in Dürer's Apollo and Diana drawing

The SESTINA is a form said to have been invented by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel circa 1200 that gives the maker of verse an alternative to rhyme.

Instead, six specially chosen words are organized to occur at the ends of the lines in six-line stanzas in a regular pattern. After the sixth stanza come three lines which contain all six words – three at the ends of the lines and three in the middle of the lines, so that in the end each word has appeared at least seven times. The words chosen will always determine the mood if not the subject of the poem. Some canzones also use repeated chosen words at the ends of the lines in the same way: one may make up one’s own scheme, as I do in Canzone:  Minus You is Minus Me. Another example of the sestina is The Advance on the Retreat in part II of This Wooden O on this site.

Auden has a poem which is one of the profoundest and most beautiful love poems in the language, which I will put on this website as it should be better known. The first line, When shall we learn, what should be clear as day, has five twelve line stanzas having the same word ending six of the lines, two other words ending two lines each, while two remaining words end one line each.  I copied this form in my poem The Day They Rebuilt the Bastille that is in This Wooden O and is about the incompatibility of love and liberty.

The decision to avoid rhyme comes partly from a recognition that rhyme is not native to the English language, whereas alliteration is because in English we stress the first syllable of a word and not  the last. Rhyme in English is best in monosyllables.  Rhyme is also glib – it is not surprising that it is most common in light verse as used by humorists.

If you like sestinas you will find that Philip Sidney, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Anne Stevenson have written them. Do visit these websites for further examples.

Sir Philip Sidney

Rudyard Kipling

Ezra Pound

Anne Stevenson

Oonagh Lahr
London, August 2005

This Wooden O

Part I
Somewhat Bigger than Eros

Part II
Like a Meaning

This Wooden O includes forty-six poems by Oonagh Lahr.
The book was designed and published by Idea Fine Art, London,
in an edition of 100 copies signed by the author plus 10 printer's proofs.
A limited number of copies is available for purchase.

To buy, please email Idea Fine Art.

This Wooden O | Part I | Part II | Oonagh Lahr | Idea Fine Art
All works copyright © Oonagh Lahr 2000 - 2005 All Rights Reserved Access reproduction rights for this publication of the Apollo & Diana drawing by Dürer are courtesy of The British Museum, London, United Kingdom
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