January 20, 2009 9:52 PM   Subscribe

The sestina is an old poetic form invented by the troubadors; each of the thirty-nine lines ends with one of only six words, which gives the sestina a haunting, constricted feel. You might have read modern examples by Bishop or Auden, or the even more modern "WTF Sestina" by Meghann Marco. But you have probably never read a sestina which explains how to construct a sestina in the language of finite group theory. (.pdf link) Via excellent mathblog God Plays Dice.
posted by escabeche (24 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
More sestinas from McSweeney's: Daniel Ari's "How To Build a Sestina Template in Microsoft Excel" is a self-explicatory sestina similar in spirit to the Emmons sestina linked above, but possibly even nerdier. Among my favorites is Stephen Burt's "Six Kinds of Noodles," but the poet is a personal friend so I've kept him out of the post to avoid self-linky-linky.
posted by escabeche at 9:55 PM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

This a throwing-of-the-gauntlet re: past metafilter haiku threads, whether you meant it to be or not.
posted by cortex at 9:57 PM on January 20, 2009

I've written three sestinas in my life. I will not write a sestina specifically for this thread, since it takes about eight hours over two or three days, and I have too much goddamn stuff to do right now, but I will post one if someone asks nicely.
posted by Caduceus at 10:04 PM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

...since it takes [me] about eight hours...
posted by Caduceus at 10:05 PM on January 20, 2009

Oh, now that I've read them, the finite group theory sestina is fucking cool, as is the Sestina Template. Thanks for the post.
posted by Caduceus at 10:18 PM on January 20, 2009

...since it takes [me] about eight hours...

For the sestina, the ghazal, and the crown of sonnets, tag-teaming is allowed. They are the Wrestlemania of poetry.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:20 PM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Amazing. Sounds like it would be very hard to write. I didn't understand the way the OP put it, but the Wikipedia explanation is pretty thorough.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:47 PM on January 20, 2009

Matt Madden, cartoonist and founder of Oubapo-America, did a comics sestina, which he published in A Fine Mess #2. He describes his method at the bottom of this page, which contains some other thoughts on comics sestinas. The actual comic isn't available online, but it's worth searching out the issue if you're interested in that sort of thing.
posted by Awkward Philip at 10:49 PM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Because I have an ego which quickly gets out of control if I don't get people to cut it down to size for me on occasion, I'll interpret two favorites as asking nicely.

The Basilisk Can Hibernate Over a Century

Near where we grew up, there was a cave full of bones
Which, when walked on in the early autumn, would crackle
The way fallen leaves would when caught in the grip
Of a laughing child, or when scraped by the scales
Of a reptile, a snake or lizard, the kind my lover would shun
Whenever one was near, which often happened when we drove

Out into the country, near the cave. I always drove
Them away for her. No one knew why the cave was full of bones
Back then, but mothers always told their children to shun
It, fearing wild animals, even monsters, whose meals would crackle
As they chewed, whose bodies were covered in ridges and scales,
Who would catch lost, unwary children in their terrible grip.

When I was a child, and lived near it, my mother would grip
My arm whenever she saw me start that way, which drove
Me to circle great lengths, around the neighbor’s barn and the scales
He used to weigh his stock. For I loved to study the bones,
To try and figure out what had left them, to hear their crackle.
Thus when I grew, and moved further away, I did not shun

The cave, but took my lover there, though she would shun
The snakes found there, and catch my arm in a powerful grip
Whenever one was near. But she did not mind the crackle
Of the bones underfoot, nor the touch of my hand as we drove
Up into those hills, and was as entranced by the mystery of the bones
As I was. One day, our last visit there, we found scales

In the cave, enormous. We hardly recognized them as scales
At first. When we did, we wondered if we would be better to shun
That place, for surely they belonged to a dinosaur, no longer bones
But walking flesh and blood. This time I caught her in a grip
As I turned to leave. Before we could, a noise outside drove
Us deeper into the cave: the suddenly horrible crackle

Of bones at the entrance. We fled deeper, trying not to crackle
As we ran, telling ourselves we hadn’t seen a flash of sun on scales
From the entrance. Then my lover tripped. The thing that drove
Us shrieked, chilling my blood. I had a choice: shun
My lover and the thing, fleeing to safety, or pull her up with my grip
And risk dying as well. I hesitated, frozen among the bones.

Later, far from that cave of bones, the flash of scales
Would haunt me, as would the crackle, and I knew I would shun
That cave from which I drove forevermore, my arm missing her grip.
posted by Caduceus at 11:14 PM on January 20, 2009 [11 favorites]

I've started a Mortal Kombat sestina I'll never finish in time to post. It will probably kill me like Mozart's Requiem. Thanks Metafilter.
posted by kid ichorous at 12:05 AM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cire Perdue

It might take eight hours
to cast the words in the mold of air.
What of it? Was never a poem
(a decent poem) as didn't need
to harden. But when it's to the tooth-
then lose the wax. Expose the form!

Then form, and again, reform...
(Forgive me. At these later hours
the metaphor slips from the tooth
and dissipates in busy air.)
What was I nearing? A need
for patience? The molecule-perfect poem?

But I've known too the joyous quick poem,
stretched out of the strictures of form;
that modern style that respects a need
for time. You need eight hours
now: flirting, lazing, taking the air,
consulting the dentist on your impacted tooth.

Though when he comes through the jaw at the tooth
that thirded day elongates. A poem:
if you but had one between you and the bitter air
of the office, between the foam form
chair and your neck, between the hours
of gauze in the mouth and the forgetting. We need,

(as Œdipus knew, but did not know), we need
the staff when long in shadow and tooth.
When image slips in our darker hours
we retain the word; we keep the poem
or let it dissipate, finding a form
more permanent as it melts at air.

As all melts at touch of air,
after all; if that's the need,
then let's set our wax to a form.
Even as the smile employs the tooth,
we'll make of ourselves a poem
as will ever justify our hours.

And so, after hours, I've cast my air:
a poem of wax lost to need.
See! Perfect like a tooth, the solid form.

posted by Iridic at 1:13 AM on January 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

Would it be inappropriate to write a sestina where the word poop is the last word in every line?
posted by cthuljew at 5:17 AM on January 21, 2009

I have a mathgeek friend at a bar who teaches set theory and writes complex muck in excel since it is purely modal and he seems to like that. One day I was in there reading a book on the Oulipo group, and I ended up trying to describe certain literary ludic forms to him, among them the sestina. He didn't get the point of it and maybe the only thing worse was a lipogram. Suddenly I have a couple things that might speak to him. Or not. Probably not. But thanks.
It's a good bar, come by.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 5:45 AM on January 21, 2009

cthuljew: I'd like to see that.

I wrote a science fiction domestic abuse sestina once. It took me considerably longer than eight hours, so I must bow to Caduceus's superior skill.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:07 AM on January 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

The existence of the sestina proves, I think, that OCD dates back at least as far as the twelfth century.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:56 AM on January 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Wow, great post. I'll provide the obligatory link to Pound's "Sestina: Altaforte." And you must hear him reading it.
posted by cobra libre at 8:25 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like restrictive forms to the extent they provide a lovely lattice on which creativity can climb and flower, but I've honestly never seen an example of a sestina that I really liked and which didn't seem tortured rather than nurtured by its form.

I think the S6 one is pretty clever, though.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:28 AM on January 21, 2009

Actually, watch the Pound video, too. It's from a documentary series on American poets called Voices and Visions, and the animation that accompanies Pound's reading illustrates well the shifting of end words from one stanza to the next.
posted by cobra libre at 8:34 AM on January 21, 2009

To be fair, joannemerriam, I've never written a sestina where I didn't have the words provided for me by someone else. I seem to have a block where I can't pick my own words and make a coherent. My method of sestina writing is to get someone else to give me six words, which then define the subject of the poem in my mind, and I just... spit the poem out. So yeah, I guess it's a little OCD. Also, yours is excellent.

Wolfdog: You must really not like villanelles, then, because (at least in my opinion) they're much hard to write without the poem seeming tortured by the form. I've written one of those, once, but it was mediocre if you were generous to it.
posted by Caduceus at 9:48 AM on January 21, 2009

I once wrote a sestina that rhymed and had meter and it took longer than anything anyone has ever wrote, including the bible. I only will post it if Caduceus favorites this comment twice.

Seriously--good stuff in this thread.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:51 AM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I favorited and flagged as fantastic, which I guess is about as good as you're going to get.
posted by Caduceus at 11:25 AM on January 21, 2009

MetaFilter: throwing-of-the-gauntlet
Don't blame me, blame cortex
Sestinas are the triple-dog-dare
Of the hard-core poetry fetishist
An elite squad of attention whores
39 lines, same as in town

And MetaFilter is my kind of town:
The verbal running of the gauntlet
The hunting of wild SEO whores
The total assimilation of the cerebral cortex
Rule 34b: Every AskMe subject has its fetishist
I couldn't give you up on a dare

But I fly where eagles dare
A cultured, sophisticated, man about town
A spy in the house of the MetaMeme fetishist
A fist of fury in a 24-carat shame gauntlet
Bane to mathowie, jessamyn, cortex
Knight of the low road on a high, high whores

But aren't we all pushers and whores?
Fencing our stories for a wink and a dare
Bite-sized samples of heart, spleen, and cortex
First hit is free, party down, go to town
Need more? You're looking a bit gaunt, let
Me set up you up on account with my best Twitter fetishist

But any spare tidbit can be elevated by some fetishist
Maybe sharing too much doesn't really make us whores
So much as hors d'oeuvres, a snack before the gauntlet
A taste of the hive-mind for any who dare
A drop of uptown honey on the way downtown
Esprit de corps sex before the cortex

Or do we just have the one MetaCortex,
Now? Each of us a bean for the plate-of-beans fetishist?
Is there only one beat left in all of Funkytown?
In the land without tricks, all the treats are whores,
But I digress: How dare
I suggest that the hand is the prisoner of the gauntlet?

Nice gauntlet, cortex.
Guess we're dare fetishists, too.
Cheapest whores in town.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:33 PM on January 21, 2009 [9 favorites]

Oh jeez twist my arm will you!



Abandoned cars are skirted with black icicles
Along the service road. In the covered street
The hobbled pigeons, wan and lackadaisical,
Hop clumsily from foot to foot for heat.
The air in his lungs so clean it's almost chemical,
The boy on the bike, in answer, kicks both feet.


When you're young, Being Good means only: move your feet.
Evil hangs around, pointed as an icicle—
But melts. In middle age sin is a chemical
Reaction: n to x and down that street
Again the engine moves extruding heat
And promises. The saint goes lackadaisical.


Der Wanderer of Schubert peels, lackadaisical
From the wooden speakers…The old man taps his feet
Then pauses at the phrase's end, dead heat
Against the huddled orchestra as icicles
Crash at the studio door…stink from the street
Of acetate and other, older chemicals.


When summer performs its myriad alchemical
Creations (Aaron's phrase "the Lazy-daze-ical
Days" makes the party wince) our friends mistreat
Their aging bods with wine til, slumped in defeat,
Or weaving the canyon-dance on foot or bicycle
They give in to whatever it is they've tried to cheat.


What does a molecule know about the heat
Of which it is a member, or the chemical
Compound it binds, as, shall we say, an icicle
Or hippie crystal—is it as lackadaisical
As brain cells stuck in concert with the feet…
Could consciousness suggest a two-way street?


The boy on the bike digs both heels down the street,
Stops at the service road. The last of his heat
Uncovers as he looks back. World at his feet:
Abandoned autos ooze their heart's black chemicals,
The pigeons stumble, lost, lackadaisical
The air's a prickle in his lungs like icicles.


I saw your icicle-white cat, its black feet
As pure as chemicals, slip under the heat-
Dead hedges, lackadaisical into the street.

Never been published, so ⓒ2009 MC IllipTical

posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:13 PM on January 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

and for cthuljew:


Once when venturing into a stall to poop,
a man next door to me was heard to poop
as well, In listening to the stranger poop,
for strange his poop was, I remarked, "Your poop,
Good Sir, what is the deal? It's like the poop
of a starving warthog forced to eat its own poop!"

Replied the man, "You [poop] what is your [poop]-
ing deal [poop]face? Don't you know it's rude as [poop]
to speak to anyone who's straining to [poop]?"
"Not as rude as using horrible words like [poop]!"
I politely responded, and finished up my poop.

Now, Metafilter, I put it you— for your poop-
ular opinion rarely fails. Is poop-
posefully disturbing a fellow pooper's poop-
prietary rumination an impoop-
priety? Or am I saintly? Poop
John Paul was never called a nincompoop!

[insert 3 more brilliant stanzas here and poop]

Now, like a stoic seaman on the poop-
deck, I await your chime of wisdom RE: Poop.
Til then I poop and poop poop poopypoop..
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:16 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

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