Let’s get serious about the Sestina

Let’s get serious about the Sestina

Cartoon by Tom Gauld

I wrote a Sestina

In honor of National Poetry Month, I wrote a poem. Specifically, I wrote a sestina. A what?

A Fun Challenge

A sestina is probably not something I would choose to encourage a reluctant poet to write. It is known as one of the more difficult forms of traditional or formal poetry. However, I must admit I accepted the challenge for myself and found it … fun?

Are you ready to learn more?

Bugeja’s The Art and Craft of Poetry

Although I was provided a simplistic template for a sestina via a writer’s group, I found Micheal J. Bugeja’s explanation made much more sense. And for all your beginning poetry craft needs, I highly encourage his book, The Art and Craft of Poetry (1994, Writer’s Digest Books).

Six Stanzas, Six Lines, Six End-Words

The sestina comprises six stanzas, made up of six lines each, and ends with an envoy, or extra stanza, made up of three lines.

Here comes the challenging part: six words (or their homonyms, e.g. words that either sound alike or are spelled the same) are used at the end of each line, and those same six words end each line of all six stanzas. Wait, wait, it gets better. The six words used must be used in a specific order, which differs in each stanza.


So, the structure is like this, where A, B, C, D, E, and F represent each of the six line-ending words (or homonyms—repeated because very important and useful):

  • First stanza ABCDEF
  • Second stanza FAEBDC
    • Third stanza CFDABE
    • Fourth stanza ECBFAD
      • Fifth stanza DEAFCB
        • Sixth stanza BDFECA
          • Envoy (or envoi)* B/E, D/C, F/A

            *Note that in the envoy, the B, D, F words are also included in each of the three lines. Alternatively, the envoy lines can end in A, C, E, while also including the B, D, F words.

            Crazy fun, right?

            Well, the fun part is that you get to choose the six words, but the challenge comes in choosing those six words wisely. Because your goal, of course, is to remain thematic throughout all six stanzas and the final envoy of the poem.

            Choose Your Words Wisely

            I found choosing the words most enjoyable as it tested my wits in a way writing has never tested me. However, I’m not sure I would have survived the process without Bugeja’s insight. Consider his advice:

            • “… the end words should be common enough to serve different sentences.”
            • “… the words should have different meanings or work in different ways (as a noun, verb, and adjective …)”

            These two observations are vital when you consider the frequency each word will be used across the entire poem.

            Further advice from Bugeja, which I found extremely helpful:

            • use your dictionary and review definitions of the end words you have chosen and chart their uses;
            • write the envoy first—it will give you direction and the scheme of the poem.

            This form requires forethought, particularly in choosing the subject. And as Bugeja points out, the subject you choose must lend itself to repetition, otherwise you’re probably in for a failed experiment.

            Poetically French

            Keep in mind, I didn’t invent the sestina. For that you can thank the French lyricists, or troubadours, of the 11th through 13th centuries. I’m just the messenger, but I have to say, although it was a serious challenge, it was a fantastic learning experience, and I encourage you to try it sometime … some place … with lots of quiet.

            JL Tooker’ Six Words

            Now, just to tease, since I cannot share the full poem until I hear about its potential publication elsewhere, here are my six words (and homonyms) used, followed by the envoy:

            • blue, blew
            • B lion, lying, (re)lied on
            • hunting
            • earnest, Ernest
            • wound
            • manslaughter, man’s laughter, man’s slaughter, man’s after

            Envoy to Hidden in Blue:

            The lion claws to widen the wound.

            Ernest once more has gone hunting.

            She steals man’s laughter and hides it in blue.

            JL Tooker © 2024

            Rewards of Writing Poetry

            Poetry is so much more than a sestina, but I think the sestina offers a classic challenge in writing formal poetry. Free-form poetry, however, can be just as challenging. And in my mind, all poetry is rewarding.

            To learn more about sestinas, check out this video: How to Write a Sestina – Katie Ailes || Return to Form

            Your Turn

            I would love to hear from you. What do you think about the sestina? Have you written one before? Would you consider writing one? How might you use my six words to create your own sestina? Let me know in the comments below.


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