Thursday, June 23, 2011

Elegy, An Italian Sestina...

One afternoon in college I was sitting in the library on the east side of campus mindlessly flicking through the tissue-thin pages of another Anthology of English Literature, Volume 400-and-something-or-other. Barely minutes before I fell asleep in a puddle of my own drool something caught my eye. It was a poem titled Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop. As I read the words I couldn’t quite understand why it called to me so strongly. When I finished reading the poem, I continued to the footnote positioned just below it near the bottom of the page. The footnote explained that the poem was something called an Italian Sestina. “The Italian Sestina,” it continued, “is regarded as one of, if not, the most difficult poetic form in the English language.” I was hooked; and immediately challenged to write my own Italian sestina.
What makes the Italian Sestina so very difficult (and therefore rare) is the poem’s unique and complicated structure. Called lexical repetition, the Italian Sestina consists of 6 stanzas of 6 lines each (sestet), and an envoy consisting of 3 lines (tercet or couplet). The final word in each line of the first sestet begins with the obvious order 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The next sestet rotates the final words from each line of the prior sestet according to a fixed pattern to end each line of the new sestet. The pattern is as follows:
                             (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)                      – End words of lines in first sestet.
                             (6) (1) (5) (2) (4) (3)                      – End words of lines in second sestet.
                             (3) (6) (4) (1) (2) (5)                      – End words of lines in third sestet.
                             (5) (3) (2) (6) (1) (4)                      – End words of lines in fourth sestet.
                             (4) (5) (1) (3) (6) (2)                      – End words of lines in fifth sestet.
                             (2) (4) (6) (5) (3) (1)                      – End words of lines in sixth sestet.

                             (2, 1) (4, 3) (6, 5)                           – Middle and end words of lines in tercet.
                             Or (1, 3, 5)                                      – Or End words as a couplet.

This is a vertical, graphical representation of the rotation of the final words in each sestet (numbered across the top) and the end words denoted vertically:

As you can see this style is very challenging. Since that day in college, I’ve written many poems in the style of the Italian Sestina… here is one that is close to my heart…

It was written in autumn after a visit to my great-grandfather’s grave on a crisp, blustery Ohio day. Leaves blew across the mounds of the graveyard grounds and the wind spoke in whispers…

Over the beauty of the grassy plain
And through the stain of swirled marble
There blows a wind so lovingly sweet
It summons my thoughts and memories
To a time when I thought I’d spend the rest
Of my secrets with you, sweet friend.

Upon these grounds trod many a friend
Whose love and friendship proved so plain
Though to a higher rank obtained, like all the rest
I see your name set down in stony marble.
Carved in grooves within which our memories
Are formed and etched and firmly set so sweet.

And Underneath that cold, lean, sweet
Earth that teams with life my friend
There grow such tailored memories
Of you and me that blow across this plain
They speak out boldly through that marble
Underneath whose voice you rest.

I need not see nor read the rest
Of styled, stony testaments. Not so sweet
As to match your sonant, chiseled words of marble.
Although I know they are, too, a friend
Of friends who stood upon this plain
And who also felt this wind that summons memories.

Now I can feel these memories
Becoming fears and forming seas that come to rest
Upon my cheeks and splash upon this plain.
I never knew that Death could be so bitter sweet
As now as he has thieved from me my friend
Now known to all the world as only sculpted marble

But rest you well, fond friend of stone, marble
Over your Earthly home and in my memories.
For in your grave you remain my friend;
A friendship that will never rest
Never break nor ever wane as long as sweet
I hear your voice upon this plotted plain.

So now repose unto this grassy, marble plain
Here through memories kept so fresh; caress the sweet
Call of old remembrance, and rest, my old friend, rest…

It’s undeniable that the mystique of the Italian Sestina lies in the fact that the same six words end every line of every stanza. I had a lot of fun writing this poem and hope you had the same enjoyment reading it.


  1. Wow. Your poem is enthralling. I like the diagrams you included because I don't think I could have truly appreciated the structure without them. I'm so happy I found you through Best Posts of the Week. -Lola at

  2. Wow! I'm impressed!! I've never heard of this poetic form - but now appreciate the extraordianarily complex task of writing a meaningful and lyrical poem within its constraints!

    Well done!!

  3. Awesome! I saw your link in the "Best Posts pf the Week" blog...

  4. @Lola - Thank you so much for reading my post - the diagrams worried me a bit because it isn't an easy style to explain... glad it worked, thanks for the kind words!

    @Red - Thank you. I am a regular reader and follower of @Krouth and @Lola and will be checking out your blog as well... I appreciate the recognition from you!!

    @Krouth - Thank you very much for your comment... I really appreciate that you enjoyed the poem!


  5. I really enjoyed this. It's quite detailed and very interesting. Good read.

  6. those diagrams made understanding the structure easy for a visually based, poetry illiterate like me...the more I read poems such as this one, the more I find I am loving poetry...and I thought I hated it...just shows what you can discover when you have the right motivation and enthusiasm for something.

    Wonderful sestina!
    @jonesbabie on Twitter

  7. @RIW - Thank you very much for reading and for your comment it always means a lot coming from you!

    @cath - Wow. Thank you so much for the comment! To think I might have played a small part in your journey into poetry validates the urging I've received from those around me to post my poems in the first place. Talk about motivation and enthusiasm... you said it!


  8. Hmmmm.....saw you stopped by my hood and said you couldn't follow. I'm sure Google is crapping out as usual, it appears to upright and vertical today.

  9. Nope. Wasn't me... I've been following your blog Working Woman's Guide... for quite a while now - and loving it cause it's awesome... and BTW only in Googleverse is upright, vertical, and running the prefered position... LOL