Calliope Music: Notes on the Sestina

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The sestina, as the comedian might put it, don't get no respect. Or perhaps a paraphrase of Frank O'Hara's comment on opera is more to the point: the sestina is obvious as an ear. The sestina is ungainly somehow, to our sight as well as to our obvious ears. Bad poems importune, but any sestina seems to ask for too much: it's too tricked out, either over- or under-dressed, Baby Huey lumbering up, giggling too loudly, or suddenly too earnest. Our comment about the sestina often has an edgy quality to it, too, as if the speaker not only is impatient to move on to more serious things, but also understands something important, even essential, about the form that the reader doesn't quite get; usually, the speaker doesn't feel required to put this knowledge into words. I wonder if maybe the sestina isn't secretly an embarrassment to formalists; it seems to mock their endeavor by its obviousness and lack of subtlety.

It intrigues me that of all the received forms that get talked about in our journals, only the sestina never gets anything interesting said about it. Or rarely. Often it's used as a whipping post to flay writers somehow less advanced than the writer making the comments. In a recent issue of Poetry Pilot, the Academy of American Poets' newsletter, Marilyn Hacker made some dismissive comments about those who write "unmetrical" sestinas. In the current issue of Black Warrior Review, Richard Wilbur made a number of comments about formal issues, including a few about the sestina. Again, though Wilbur's remarks were more substantive, he used the sestina to target bad writers - the phrase "creative writing" reared its ugly head - and showed little sympathy for and much condescension to the form. Here is an excerpt:

One thing that some people don't understand at present is that each form has a sort of implicit logic. I wouldn't dream of sitting down to "write a sonnet." Disgusting idea that someone should sit down with a determination to write in some form or other before he conceives of what the hell he's going to say. It' s what you' re going to say that tells you what formal means might further the utterance. ...

It's one of the horrors of creative writing in America that people who have never written anything in form are often asked to write sestinas. They are often indulged in writing non-metrical sestinas, which is about as bad as you can get. But to sit down with the dire intent to write a sestina seems to me the worst thing you can do unless there is something happening in your imagination that necessitated the form. And I do think, having thought about it a little, that there are some subjects that are suitable to the sestina - suitable to the taking of six key words and emphasizing them seven times each; I guess that's what happens. If you're writing out of obsession, I think the sestina might very well serve you very well. An inability to stay away from certain words and situations and [the need to] emphasize those things could be expressed by the sestina. The sort of experience which you just can't believe could be described very well in a sestina, you could say it first in one stanza and then say I knew, really, it happened that way and then go through the reshuffled key words once again. Alas, not all sestinas have that kind of logic.

Or, one might say, Thank goodness. Now the rest of the interview from which this quote is taken contains some insights; however, it seems to me that in this passage Wilbur patronizes the sestina. This attitude has its roots in unspoken assumptions about received forms, I think, and helps account for the edginess of his remarks. Besides the desire for permanence - which is itself, of course, another way of stating the fear of impermanence - formalists want sport, play, not unlike Hemingway's ideas on the subject: an abstract field with clearly-delineated rules, wherein the cleanly-played game, the artifice, stands clear of the messiness of life, and comments on it. …