Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Twisted Tales Of An Ancient Warrior: A Sestina

Just when you thought it safe to dip your toes into the poetic pool, along comes the sestina. For those up to the challenge, the 39-line sestina is one of the most interesting forms in a mind tickling way.

As it turns out the structure of a sestina is almost as difficult to explain in words as to write. That is, the easiest way to understand it is to write one. Using the line by line break down below, the letters indicate the word at the end of each line in the six stanzas, each of which has six lines; plus a three-line kicker at the end. So, for example, the last word in the last line of the first stanza must be the first word in the first line of the second stanza.

To top it off, the ending three-line stanza (tercet), uses the six line endings from the first stanza in the sequence noted below. Often the endings of the three lines in the tercet are the same as the endings for lines two, four and six in the first stanza. The object is to write the sestina so its rigid structure doesn't appear evident. My attempt is not an eloquent example of a sestina and, in fact, becomes more twisted with each succeeding verse. But it may give you something to go on.

Give it a try and you'll soon be writing sestinas with the best of them. Here's to getting all your line endings to end up where they must.


Sestina line-ending sequences:

Stanza 1: A, B, C, D, E, F
Stanza 2: F, A, E, B, D, C
Stanza 3: C, F, D, A, B, E
Stanza 4: E, C, B, F, A, D
Stanza 5: D, E, A, C, F, B
Stanza 6: B, D, F, E, C, A
Tercet: AB CD EF

Twisted Tales Of An Ancient Warrior
By Bill Kirk

“I came.
I saw.
I conquered.”
That’s what
The warrior

And since the day he said
He came,
Each warrior
Who has come after the one who said he saw,
May think he knows just what
That warrior supposedly conquered.

But could he have conquered
All that he said?
And is all of what
He came
To tell us he saw,
The true tale of a warrior?

For which warrior
Has ever conquered
All he said he saw
At precisely the time he said
He came?
Can we be sure of whom or even what?

Alas. The truth of neither whom nor what
Can be verified because the warrior
Who so long ago came
To tell us he had conquered,
Simply said
Only that he conquered what he saw.

Might his tale be just another old saw—
The stretched and embellished bits and pieces of what
Has for centuries been said and re-said
About the deed this fabled warrior
Might have done, were he to have conquered
All that he said he did when he came?

Nay. As all warriors then and since, when the ancient warrior came and saw,
He could only have conquered or been conquered; so what
More could be asked of any warrior? And what better could be said?


  1. Just my thought I was through with school, you post a poetry lesson! This is interesting stuff, Bill, I've never heard of a sestina before.

  2. Oh my, I'm not sure I could do this. Great work, Bill.