The Sestina Form

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I work mainly in free verse these days, a style of poetry that has its own subtle structure, but after finishing up my last collection When I Think of My Body as a Horse, I find myself returning to traditional structured forms for the next collection. Why am I returning to structured forms? Because the topics that I am dealing with are difficult to pin down. I’m trying to bring several points in time into the same poem, for example. Working within a structure is almost like using an extra layer of figurative language, it allows me to communicate that concept without being too obvious about it. The structure is able to convey something extra about the content. I find that the people I work with are often afraid of structured forms, but structured forms are just another tool in the poet’s tool box. What do I mean by that? I mean that they are more than a way of showing off your poetry puzzle solving skills. Apart from the fact that working within a structured form helps you to distill a poem, helps you to force it down to a point; to really, really think about the words you use, using a structure as a skeleton under the skin of your poem is a way of communicating something else to the reader. It is challenging to work within a structure, but it can absolutely lift the poem off the page.

A good example is Marvin Thompson’s 2020 National Poetry competition winning poem ‘The Fruit of the Spirit is Love (Galatians 5:22)’ which is a take on the villanelle form. The poet uses that repetition to layer up ideas around race, acceptance, the way we speak as children, the osmosis of viewpoint from parents, Marvin Thompson uses that repetition to emphasise that layering, asking the reader to turn the poem around in their hands and look at the same thing from different angles.

You can find the poem on the Poetry Society website: The Fruit of the Spirit of Love

I am particularly fond of repeating forms. I like the way they build narrative. I can get lost in a repeating form, sestinas in particular, like this one from my 2015 Flarestack Poets pamphlet, Lapstrake:

Dead Whale Dreams of God


A post-mortem examination 
was being carried out, yesterday,
on an eight metre Minke whale,
believed to be a female, washed
ashore on Holbeck bay, first spotted
by the crew of a pleasure cruiser, early

Wednesday afternoon. Say it is early,
for me, say, it is an examination
of my soul, the fin-back, side-slapped, spotted
light diminishing my life. And yesterday
I swam in the black depths and was washed
away in the ocean, speaking in whale,


speaking in whale echo.  The whale
had died before it came ashore, and early
disposal of the corpse was expected. It washed
up whole, with no tissue missing, an examination
and post mortem concluded. By yesterday
it was partially destroyed; people were spotted

climbing the corpse for photographs. Spotted
fish-spindled-wings came near and whispered whale
in the lost hollow of my ear, and yesterday
and yesterday the light became like early
morning, misting the surface, this examination
of the light drew me in, I named it, washed


my body in it and cried. Minke whales being washed
up or stranded are not unusual, several pods are spotted
off this shore each year, RSPCA inspectors stated, examination
by post mortem on several other Minke whales
have been inconclusive, their seemingly early
deaths attributed to confusion. And yesterday


and yesterday is tomorrow and tomorrow is today, yesterday
is now and past and future. I am called, I am washed
in sound and light and make my way towards my early
time,  closer to the light, the dapples, the spotted
deep becomes wider, a great eye opening, a whale’s
sigh breathing me up  to meet God’s examination,


and I belly onto the gravel. The examination, completed yesterday
and tomorrow, I dreamed in Whale and washed myself

in deep air, spotted sky, sunk, I was completed early, the corpse disposed of.

For this one I wanted to bring in two voices, two points of view looking at the same thing, and I wanted to cement the connection between those two voices whilst building a narrative. Sestinas are a tricky form to get right. The dead whale poem now feels old to me and I would edit it a bit if I was to use it again in anything else, but I stand by my choices and my use of this particular structure for what it does to lift the poem.

Like I say, sestinas are a tricky form, but they are also an intensely rewarding form. What are the difficulties with the form? It’s length, for starters, it’s a long poem, which means that you risk losing the reader unless you can find a way to hold their attention. Word choice is key, and the manipulation of the words over and over to create a poem in which the structure doesn’t crush the life out of the poem and make it a nonsense that the reader can’t follow is also a challenge.

I like a sestina that surprises me, where the poet works with the form and pushes it to enhance the content, like this one, on the Poetry Foundation website, where the poet makes each line a statement: of defiance, of instruction, of rebellion, of acknowledgement: A sestina for a black girl who doesn’t know how to braid hair.

I love the way that the sestina feels loose, but at the same time the foundations of the form are clear, it feels like building a poem with blocks. It’s thrilling to discover new sestinas. And it’s thrilling to write them too.

I am finding working on the new collection liberating. For some reason I thought I’d not be able to write poetry again after Horse. I was a bit worried that my dead daughter was my only muse. Turns out she wasn’t, that life itself, the landscape, time, history, connection are all my muses. I’m enjoying the journey into these new poems.

If you’d like to work with me on building your skills in the sestina form, I’m running this small group two week course (also available as a private course) in January. I have five places left. Details here: Sestina

Until next time

x

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