The sestina is both a deeply modern form and a very old one. First invented by French troubadours 700 years ago and made modern by Ezra Pound with his explosive sestina “Altaforte,” poets from W. H. Auden to Denise Duhamel have written sestinas. Part of its allure is the challenge. Each end word in the six lines in the first stanza must be repeated in a prescribed order in the following five stanzas, with a victory lap at the end called the envoi that includes all the end words once again.. It’s the obsessive math genius’ attention to form combined with a total freedom within that structure that perhaps has attracted such a wide assortment of “different teams and badges from poetryland,” as Daniel Nester told David Lehman at the New School Poetry Forum last Tuesday, February 4.
Nester is the editor of the world’s first all-sestina anthology, The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing, 2013), a project ten years in the making. He was the former assistant editor for Sestinas at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency where he first encountered many of the poems in the book. (He is as well an accomplished poet himself and teaches at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.) One telltale sign of the appeal of the sestina is that three of the poets employed by the School of Writing are included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology: Sharon Mesmer, Laura Cronk, and Best American Poetry’s own series editor, David Lehman. All three attended last week’s forum (David Lehman moderated) and like a good preacher who knows how to build up the congregation, Nester brought them up one at a time to read their contribution to the crowd. “This is like church or something,” he quipped, “Come on up!”
Although the form is the same, there were marked differences in execution among these three poets: David Lehman’s gripping “Operation Memory” builds an amorphous tension around a loaded gun that ends up on the speaker’s lap at the end, the gun taking on a new layer of meaning with each repetition. By the concluding envoi, it is not clear who the gun is meant for, while memories evoked of rotating through different jobs and beds and marriages have taken on their own ominousness.
Laura Cronk’s smooth “Sestina for a Sister” was “seamless. "You almost forget it’s a sestina,” Nester noted about this meditation on a fictional sister figure. There’s an intense quiet to Cronk’s portrayal of a woman stopping to smoke a cigarette after each act of perfect housekeeping.
“It’s such an honor to be in this book," said Cronk. "It’s such a wild book.” And wild it is, if only partly because of the exuberant array of subject matter. It’s also the exuberant array of literary philosophy and technique that lends itself to the sestina form that makes this book so gripping. Sharon Mesmer, a flarf poet, read an arresting number titled “Super Rooster Killer Assault Kit” that uses the flarf strategy of generating language with an internet search engine that is then recombined by the poet, not unlike the action of a sestina, if less orderly. The sestina is after all essentially the art of recombining. Mesmer in this case used the Urban Dictionary to find most of her end words: crapsauce, nacho,gangsta fag, smashed, shitler, and Orville Redenbacher
Many of Mesmer’s lines spread out and continue down the page, which illustrates one of the liberating qualities of the sestinas. There’s no requirement about the length of the line, or that anything rhymes. There’s a curious freedom within the iron tether of the sestina, some real room to move about. Mesmer commented that for her poem, reading it takes this “long, bardic breath.” Compare with Geoff Bouvier’s “Refining Sestina,” which is reduced into a Bach fugue of a poem.
Nester commented that “what these poets do with the constraints and exigencies [of the sestina form] is truly remarkable.” Some writers impose further constraints on themselves, like imbedding an “ex”within every end word (see Catherine Bowman’s “Mr. X”), or using only one end word, like the sublime “Sestina: Bob” by Jonah Winter in which each line—tahdah—ends in the name Bob, all while telling the story of one man stealing another man’s girlfriend. “It was a lot harder than it sounds,” Winter told Nester. No surprise there.
Not all the sestinas draw their tension from technical constraints. Auden’s “Paysage Moralise” is a lyric portrayal of an allegorical city that like much of Auden’s work draws attention to an underlying moral vision, the building concern we develop as readers for the inhabitants of these starving, unhappy people leaving for the islands.
What’s appealing ultimately about the modern sestina is the mash-up of formalism with popular or general culture. An example of this in a postmodern send-up kind of way is Harry Mathew’s “Histoire” that uses a spread of political ideologies – militarism, Marxism-Leninism, fascism, Maoism, Racism, sexism-- for end words that end up in highly compromising positions: “It’s probably the dirtiest poem in the book, but it gets past the censors,” Nester remarked. It’s a kind of dirty semiotics, the way the words keep changing meaning each stanza, the references unmoored from the words as they swing towards the climax of a successful date night.
Nester also read to us one of his own sestinas, a memoir sestina that tells a deeply hilarious story of drinking beer as a boy in New Jersey that will be part of a book in progress.
During the Q & A with Lehman, Nester explained that he first fell under the spell of the sestina while an undergraduate at Rutgers. Assigned to read John Ashbery’s sestinas, he made his first attempt, though he remembers it as “over the top,” with end words like ketchup and Freddie Mercury. Now he uses a couple of methods he would recommend to writers attempting their first sestina: either lay out the pattern of the end words first and fill in the poem, or write the first six line stanza and continue from there. “Both work,” he said.
Some of Nester’s favorites among great sestinas of the past, besides those by Auden and Ashbery, include T.S. Eliot’s from The Four Quartets, which Nester was unable to include because of prohibitive permissions fees. Many publishers were happy to support Write Bloody, a press run on a shoestring by touring performance poets, by waving or lowering permissions fees. On the other hand, some big publishing houses, would, said Lehman, “rather see the poem not get published than lower its $1200 fee to $500.” It’s a dilemma with which Lehman is quite familiar and that he observes has gotten worse over the years: “it’s much harder today.”
Towards the end of the evening, Lehman and Nester attempted to parse the mathematics of the end words, why the sestina is really a spiral, something Nester illustrates in his introduction. It’s hard to describe, like talking about dancing. It’s possible, but remains a bit abstract. “If you didn’t follow what I just said, believe me, it’s a spiral,” Lehman remarked, and then Nester held up a schematic of the words unfurling in a slow numbered spiral. It looks like fractals. It’s the secret engine of the sestina that generates this panoply of plain-spoken verse of all kinds of subject matter in all different genres—the structure that creates these constraints to push up against. The sestina is half mathematics and half wild wordplay. There are prose sestinas with no line breaks, double sestinas and comics sestinas. There is a sestina about the Brady Bunch, and fancydancing on a PNW reservation, and S & M. As Nester remarked, the sestina “represents a dream of a common poetry,” a truly egalitarian playground for poets of every banner and team of the literary landscape.