Anna McLoud Gibbs

On sestinas

Sestinas are one of my favorite types of poems because they are absolutely wacky and have an absurd number of strict rules. These include: 1) six stanzas, six lines each, with one final triplet, 2) each stanza has the same six words at the end of their six lines, 3) the order of these end words varies in a fixed pattern, and 4) in the final triplet, each line contains one of the six words and ends with another one, so that all six words are in the last three lines.

My own two cents about form and poetry: introducing rules can be game-changing while writing poetry. Rules narrow down the endless possibilities presented by a blank page. Once you choose six words and a subject, you suddenly have responsibilities that you have to fulfill. Can’t slack on cleaning the dirty dishes. And can’t slack on using the word “ketchup” 7 times in one poem. It’s hard, and fun, and results in some neat poems. Sometimes it can help you write something that you didn’t realize you were having trouble writing. I had never written a poem about my changing relationship with my grandmother after she developed dementia. It was too raw; I couldn’t find the words. But during a sestina exercise, I found myself writing a poem about her, using the words “orange,” “horse,” and “steam.”

Give it a try. Put some words in a hat and pull them at random. Choose a subject before or after the word selection; either way works. Feel free to change a word to help it fit, but the idiosyncratic words that seem like they can’t fit can actually make a poem more original and interesting. The best words are words that have different meaning depending on how you use them – for instance, a word that can be used as both a verb and a noun. You can also break the strictness slightly by being flexible with the word – e.g. “original” becomes “origin” and “originally.”

Have you heard of any funky forms of poetry? What’s your favorite? What methods do you use to help you get started on a poem?

Below is an old original poem (reviewed here!). “Wool” only has five stanzas composed of five lines, with no final triplet, and no fixed pattern to the end lines, so it’s not really a sestina – but the process was inspired.


In the woolen twilight, we walk home

the short way, through yards of dead grass,

careless stubble. we pass

peeling birch trees, their hollow sketch

draped with cliché leaves and dried originality.

I drop back as you continue onwards, wet grass

framing your feet like pictures. you pass

into shadow and hesitate, double-back (for home?)

for me. your pace oscillates and I sketch

my importance to you by it. how original.

the sun has set and the lamplights sketch

mindless circles upon the sidewalk, points of origin.

if I could paint, it would be with the colors of the dead grass;

even the stars are blindfolded by hazed ribbons, past

help. we are pollution, we are almost home.

the birches lean over us and shake out original

leaves. the lamplights’ spotlights spark me as we pass

through and electricity touches even the weary grass.

I cover my eyes and pretend I’m a star, home

grows closer and my assent is merely a breath, or a sketch –

which is to say, I never agreed to this pain; originally

we spoke only of sorbet sunsets and a comfortable home,

but you point out that buds come before and after the passing

leaves, new things kill old things, brown grass

begins green, dead is preceded by born, and your feet started off