A formula for poetry writing

 At my writing group this week, I was introduced (or maybe re-introduced) to a form of writing known as a ‘Sestina’.

I don’t remember ever talking about this at college although, as I am not a fan of formulaic poetry in general, I may simply have dismissed it.

However, it was the subject for discussion at the group and I was fascinated by the discipline required to write this.

Check out the following links – Elizabeth Bishop’s poem http://www.poetryconnection.net/poets/Elizabeth_Bishop/2957

and also the rules (for there are many!)http://www2.hawaii.edu/~gharada/exercisespoetry/howtosestina.htm

The Rules

This is a simple guide to sestinas!

It is a form of poetry that repeats words at the end of each line.  It has six verses of 6 lines each with a 7th verse of three lines to conclude the poem.

The final word of each line is repeated on a different line in each verse:

Verse 1 Verse 2 Verse 3 Verse 4 Verse 5 Verse 6
1 6 3 5 4 2
2 1 6 3 5 4
3 5 4 2 1 6
4 2 1 6 3 5
5 4 2 1 6 3
6 3 5 4 2 1


Useful hints and tips:

1. Start by choosing a topic for the sestina so that you know where you are going and what you want to say – this helps a lot when you come to choosing your words!

2.  Choose words that have several meanings – eg mean

3.  Choose words that can be used as nouns, verbs or adjectives – eg swell

4.  Choose a word that can be used anywhere – eg down

5.  Choose words that rhyme or alliterate

6.  Choose a strong, hard hitting word which will be your end word.

Below is the table that I have started (it helps to fill it in first as I found it was easy to forget the order!)


Verse 1 Verse 2 Verse 3 Verse 4 Verse 5 Verse 6
1 catalogue 6 lead 3 5 4 2
2 life 1 catalogue 6 3 5 4
3 waves 5 tears 4 2 1 6
4 seed 2 life 1 6 3 5
5 tears 4 seed 2 1 6 3
6 lead 3 waves 5 4 2 1

Choice of words is very important with this form!  And the tips are really helpful – a guide worth following.  But as you can see from mine, I didn’t really follow the hints and tips because I enjoy a challenge (!!!!)  I mean, how useful is the word catalogue and how can I slip that in without it jarring?

Why write to a formula?

As I said earlier, I am not a fan of formulas when writing and yet, I also think that it can be a useful writing tool.    It requires discipline and control that tightens the writing, sharpens up the images and can lead to a vivid, powerful work.

I urge you to have a go at it.  I am currently working on mine and hope to be able to publish it soon!

I would love to hear your choice of words and how you chose them!  I would love to see the finished versions too so feel free to send me your link!

Finally, many thanks to Eileen who introduced this to me!