How To Write a Sestina

If you are a poet looking for a fun and challenging exercise, try writing a sestina. A sestina is a poem, French in origin, which has 7 stanzas. The first six stanzas are sestets (six line stanzas). The last is a triplet (a three line stanza) in the form of an envoi - a concluding stanza that is half the size of the preceding stanzas. Sounds simple enough, but the challenge comes by repeating the pattern of end words. Here is how to write a sestina.
 

  1. In a sestina, the six words that come at the end of each line in the first sestet are repeated in a particular pattern in each of the remaining sestets. The pattern in the first sestet will be 123456. The pattern in the second sestet will be 615243. Each of the remaining sestets will continue to work off of the stanza above it with the pattern of 615243.

  • For instance if you had a poem where the ending words of each line of the first sestet were: sun (1), basking (2), alone (3), memory (4), distance (5), and joy (6) the same six words would end the second sestet in the following order joy (6), sun (1), distance (5), basking (2), memory (4), and alone (3).
  • The third stanza would work off of the second stanza, repeating the same pattern of 615243 so it would look like this: alone (6), joy (1), memory (5), sun (2), basking (4),  distance (3).
  • The remaining sestets would repeat the same pattern working off of the one above.
  • The last stanza, the envoi, is only three lines long. Three of the repeated end words are used as the end words of each line. The unused end words must be used somewhere else within those lines, one in each line.
  • Sometimes the best way to understand the form of a poem is to look at an example. You can view an example of Rudyard Kipling's Sestina of the Tramp-Royal here.
  • There are two methods you can use to come up with your end words if you are attempting to write a sestina. The first is to choose six words before you begin writing and let them dictate the poem. The other is to write a six line stanza without any particular words in mind. Let the words that naturally end your stanza become the words that will be used in the pattern.
  • Sestinas generally do not rhyme.
  • There is no set number of syllables per line in a sestina. However, it is helpful to the rhythm of a poem to try to keep the number of syllables per line similar in length. It also just makes it look better on a page.
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