What follows is the introduction I wrote for The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which is about to be released by Write Bloody Publishing. It's a culmination of about ten years of off-and-on work, which began when I edited the sestinas section of the McSweeney's website from 2003-2007. I wrote about that experience in Poets & Writers magazine; check out that piece here.
It was around this time that I dove into the sestina underground, where poets hid their single-sestina efforts deep in their hard drives, and others flaunted and fluttered their sheer love of sestinas, whole manuscripts of sestinas, double sestinas, sestina variants. I started to imagine what a whole collection, an anthology of sestinas, might look like: what would comprise a greatest-hits sestina book? What would the cumulative effect of reading 100 or more sestinas, all in one book, have upon the reader?
I started to collect sestinas. Hoard them, really. Folders filled with Xeroxes of inter-library-loaned sestinas, out-of-print sestinas, world-famous sestinas. I met in darkened parking lots to meet sestina informants, where words like rimas dissolutas and cansos redonda were whispered.
Slowly, the manuscript took shape into a proper book. In a couple days, the result, the modestly named The Incredible Sestina Anthology--shortened from its original name, The North American Bible of Incredible Sestinas--will be brought into the world. Only a few days ago did I get my own grubby Bavarian hands on a copy--in my college bookstore of all places--and the result, I daresay, is incredible. You can check out the Table of Contents here.
What follows after the fold is a BAP Blog Exlusive, a reprint of the introduction I wrote for the book, I decided not to go in the wonky-scholarly direction, not only because that's just no me, as we say, but also because I think this book is for everyone, sestina nerds and nerds alike. Whoever you are, I hope you enjoy it.
First things first. You’re asking: Why in the world should I read a book of sestinas? I’m picturing you there after you plucked this book off a shelf. Maybe you’ve checked out its cover’s cool spiral pattern, or you’re previewing it online.
You’re asking: What in tarnation would compel anyone to collect a book of poems that use a form invented in medieval southern France, written in English 700 years later? Or maybe you’re asking: What the freak is a sestina anyway?
These are all reasonable questions.
Even those who’ve heard of this form or are inside the poetry world may ask what a sestina is. Believed to have been invented in the 12th century by Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour who influenced Dante, the sestina is a 39-line patterned form that has spiraled into a new life in English in the past 100 years or so.
Instead of a rhyme scheme (like the Shakespearean sonnet’s ABABCDCDEFEFGG) or a regular meter (like iambic pentameter’s da-DUM times five) or syllables (the 5-7-5 of English Haiku), a sestina uses a spiral, formed in a pattern of words that appear at the end of each line. Over the course of six stanzas of six lines (sestina translates as “six” or “sixer”) and a seventh three-line stanza, these end words, called teleutons or repitons, appear in a different order in each round, except for the final three-line stanza, called the envoi or tornada, which uses all six end words in a triumphant send-off. The last end word of each stanza is the first word of the next, which is why the sestina is called a linked form. Graphed-out in a word pattern, each number representing an end word, the sestina looks something like this:
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: 2/5 4/3 6/1
Why this pattern, you ask? The words spiral out to form the next stanza of the sestina. Like this crappy drawing I did just now:
This sestina pattern informs Matt Madden’s comic sestina, “The Six Treasures of the Spiral,” included here, and certainly is the reason why there are so many references to circles and spirals throughout this incredible anthology.
But isn’t this all ridiculous, you may ask? Sure! Also: insane, laughable, fun. Other guide-book descriptions are also ambivalent; they range from “elaborate” (Babette Deutsch) and “complicated” (Karl Beckson and Arthur Ganz) to “often maddening” (Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux) and a “minor form” (James Fenton). Sestinas require “the poet’s deepest love and conviction,” Karl Shapiro writes, “as these take on a rather obsessive quality—if the poem is to offer us more than the pleasures of contrivance.” Ron Padgett, in his Handbook of Poetic Forms, describes the sestina as “delightful” and its spiral numerology an “ideal experiment for the mathematical mind.”
More than 800 years since its invention, the sestina survives and thrives in the modern world. After the troubadours, the sestina went silent, revived only occasionally. Why? Because that pattern is pretty freaking complicated. You saw that spiral graph, right?
After Sir Philip Sidney’s three sestinas in the 1570s, including his double sestina “You Goat-herd Gods” (78 lines!), there was a 200- year gap in English-language sestinas. Then, toward the end of the 19th century, there was a mini-comeback with Algernon Charles Swinburne, Edmund Gosse, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and others. Rudyard Kipling’s “Sestina of the Tramp Royal” came in 1898, and ten years later came Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte,” included here, which sparked even more interest in the form.
By the mid-20th century, the English sestina renaissance began in earnest. Now, poets of each generation—no matter which stripe, school, movement, team, or club—have climbed Mt. Sestina: from Sherman Alexie and Louis Zukofsky to Patricia Smith and Elizabeth Bishop, from Carl Philips and Mark Strand to Wendell Kees and Marilyn Nelson. Formalists love the sestina for its ornate, maddening word repetition; avant-gardists love the sestina for its ornate, maddening word repetition. W.H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralisé” uses many of the same end words as Sidney did in “You Goat-herd Gods.” John Ashbery mashes up the Popeye comic strip. James Merrill uses variations of one, two, three, four, five, and six as he moves through the poem.
But is the sestina just a novelty, a technical exercise? It can be—and there’s nothing wrong with that—but the sestina’s formal constraints and linguistic freedom also open up new possibilities. One true test of any form—situation comedy, coming-of-age story, threeminute pop song, basic black dress—is how well it holds up when its boundaries are tested, when an artist smashes and stretches it, kicks the tires and soups up the engine. The sestina offers something for every poet. Let’s break out the big words: postmodern artifice, numerological mystery, procedural wordplay, conceptualist or formalist reverie. All these terms apply when explaining the sestina’s appeal.
Writing a sestina is like long-distance running, where going the distance puts the mind into a kind of trance. The challenge of using each end word seven times leads to “cheating,” swapping out soundalikes (“four” and “for”) or end words that can be a verb and a noun. Sometimes poets use one or more super-flashy words that stand out (see Amanda Nadelberg’s “My New Pet Word Is Mozzarella” or Harry Mathews’s “Histoire,” both included here). A sestina forces the poet to give in to echo and chance, to repeat when it’s just wrong, to sprawl on a wrestling mat just to get through the first draft.
Sestinas fail. There are sestinas that, on the surface, may strike the reader as, well, bad. Or dull. Or trite. Or “workshoppy.” “Mediocre talents are irresistibly drawn to forms like the sestina,” John Frederick Nims writes in his excellent study of the sestina, “which offer easy satisfaction in that they seem only forms that need filling out, like an application for a library card.” These revelations, shocking to some, have led many poets to dismiss the sestina form altogether, as if no other bad poems have existed elsewhere. James Cummins, whose essay on the sestina is a must, has a different take. “The sound of a bad sestina might be the sound of life leaving the beast,” he writes, “but at least it’s life.”
In many ways, this incredible book is several anthologies in one. One comes from my time as a sestina editor. I’m not kidding; it was a thing. From 2003 to 2007, I held the job title of Assistant Web Editor for Sestinas at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. During that time, I read hundreds of sestinas a month, and published, on average, one sestina per week. My choices tended to coincide with the humorous, topical spirit of the website. Several poets from McSweeney’s are included here: Rick Moody, Denise Duhamel, David Lehman, Jenny Boully, Steve Almond, and Rachel Shukert.
Another comes from getting tips from fellow sestina nerds: Star Black’s “Hi Yo,” from Double Time, her collection of double sestinas; an excerpt from The Whole Truth, James Cummins’s collection based on the Perry Mason TV series; Jeffery Conway’s project based on the camp classic Showgirls; Sandra Beasley’s and Geoff Bouvier’s wicked innovations; and Quraysh Ali Lansana’s and Sarah Green’s modern fables.
Still another group of poets have to be included if an anthology of sestinas can call itself that with a straight face: Donald Justice, John Ashbery, Anthony Hecht, Marilyn Hacker, Florence Cassen Mayers.
After many of the poems included here, you will see excerpts from our “Behind the Sestina” interviews, which will, I hope, offer the 23 writers’ insights on the origins of their poems and the appeal of the sestina form. To read the full interviews, as well as more information about sestinas, visit the book’s website at incrediblesestinas.com. You won’t be disappointed.
And now is a good time to return to our first question: Why the freak should we read a book of sestinas?
Because a sestina is always full of life.
Because of its patterns.
Because of its spiral.
Because of its swagger.
Because we live in a world where something as ridiculous and beautiful as the sestina still exists.
Because poets honor their history by writing and reading sestinas.
Because a poet is always up for a challenge.
Because you’ve already read at least one sestina, hidden inside this introduction.
Because there is a particular kind of beauty and wisdom that can only be unlocked by writing a sestina.
So now you know. Let’s start the spiral.