The Sestina and You

Last week, we began to explore a rich riddle together: “How is a poem like a puzzle?” We discussed a couple of important answers, but overlooked the immediately obvious answer that both begin with “P” and have—at least, for a significant portion of English-speakers—two syllables. This may seem overly superficial, but those similarities are nothing to sneeze at! When we’re talking about puzzles and poems, letters and length are deeply important.

With regard to syllables, our post discussed the puzzly limitations of forms like haiku, which become increasingly challenging as you write. Even more challenging than the haiku is the sestina, a French form that requires expert-level problem-solving skills.

Typically unrhymed (though rhyming would only add an extra fun brain-bending element), a sestina is a thirty-nine-line poem made up of six six-line stanzas plus a final three-line stanza known as an “envoi.” The same six line-ending words appear in each stanza, though mixed up like a Boggle cube into a different, strict order in each stanza. If we label the last word of each of the first six lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, then the last word of each of the stanzas afterward follows this pattern:

Stanza two: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3

Stanza three: 3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5
Stanza four: 5, 3, 2, 6, 1, 4
Stanza five: 4, 5, 1, 3, 6, 2
Stanza six: 2, 4, 6, 5, 3, 1

The final envoi of three lines must contain all six of the ending words. Three of the words will come at the end of the lines, and the other three words will be contained within.

Thus, once the six ending words are established in the first stanza, the ending words of the following stanzas are set in stone, turning the exercise of writing poetry into an elaborate game of fill-in-the-blank. The more wedded you are to having your poem make a lick of sense, the more crucial it becomes to tap into your puzzle brain to determine what jigsaw pieces of language could possibly go inside the parameters established by the “corner pieces” that are these ending words.

Sestina diagram via What other brainteasery poetic limits might we invent if we start placing numbers on different labyrinthine shapes?

Sestina examples that follow the rules of the puzzle:

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape by John Ashbery

A Miracle for Breakfast by Elizabeth Bishop

Forage Sestina by Marilyn Hacker

And one sestina example that breaks them:

Deleting Names (A Decaying Sestina) by Lawrence Schimel

Even if you don’t consider yourself a poet, if word puzzles are your jam, we invite you to try your hand at a sestina, and watch as it unlocks the puzzler inside!

First—consider warming up your verbal, puzzling centers by taking our crosswords or word searches for a spin!

You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search. Check them out!

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