- The Figure a Sestina Makes
I first learned about the sestina in high school. My English teacher presented the 39-line form the way many people do: as a thorny, rarefied form that, like uncorrupt government or the abs of Thor, was admirable but unattainable to mere mortals. The sestina, I learned, with its six intricately repeating end words (or “teleutons”) was an ungainly torture device invented by twelfth-century Frenchmen. It was good to admire from afar but dangerous to touch, the brightly colored jungle frog of received forms.
Reading about the sestina in the twenty-first century is like reading about the fluctuations of a pop star’s career. In the 1930s, it was celebrated by Elizabeth Bishop, and in the 1950s by Ezra Pound and the New York School poets; later, it was derided as clunky and inane. Richard Wilbur criticized it several times, once stating that “most sestinas impress me as forced and tiresome.”
Stephen Burt, however, said more recently that “the sestina is a favored form now as it has not been since the 1950s,” appearing frequently in a large number of first or second poetry collections. From 2004 until 2007, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency had a section devoted to sestinas. Black Warrior Review, which had previously published more of Wilbur’s anti-sestina commentary (In 1997, he said that “non-metrical sestinas” were “about as bad as you can get”) published Sandra Beasley’s chapbook Bitch and Brew: Sestinas in 2008. And now, we have The Incredible Sestina Anthology, edited by Daniel Nester, former Assistant Web Editor for Sestinas at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
Nester has collected 121 sestinas (plus a bonus Easter egg sestina hidden in the Introduction) that range in subject matter from fancy dancers to praying mantises, Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Elton John, grief to breakfast. Contributors, too, range from poets to fiction writers, journalists to comics artists, new poets to immortal masters.
I’m just going to say it: The Incredible Sestina Anthology is incredible. Here the sestina, “formerly dismissed as nonsense,” emerges as a tour de force form that, crafted well, can handle comedy and tragedy, obsession and indecency, and, of course, the sacred and the profane. The Incredible Sestina Anthology has everything, and by “everything,” I mean sestinas.
In an interview with The New Delta Review, Nester said, “sestinas represent, to me, the dream of a common poetry, a common endeavor, with room for both master and apprentice.” Indeed, this is a tremendously democratic book, which demonstrates that sestinas are elastic enough to handle infinite variety in form and subject, adaptable enough to please everyone from formalists to Flarf poets. As evidence, the anthology includes successful sestinas by poets from Sherman Alexie to Louis Zukofsky and many poets, comic artists, journalists, and novelists in between.
Poems are ordered alphabetically by author’s last name, which makes for a book’s worth of surprising and apt juxtapositions. Thus, the hefty last line of W. H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralise,” “And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands” leads directly into the deceptively whimsical-sounding first lines of Sandra Beasley’s “Let Me Count the Waves:”
You must not skirt the issue wearing skirts.You must not duck the bullet using ducks.You must not face the music with your face.Headbutting, don’t use your head. Or your butt.”
Later, the spare, lean construction of Donald Justice’s “Here in Katmandu,”
Let the flowersFade, the prayer wheels run down.What have those to doWith us who have stood atop the snow”
flows directly into the prose-like ease of Meg Kearney’s “14th Street:” “How many times can one listen to ‘She’ll Be Coming Round / the Mountain’? And how could a woman ride six horses at once? 14th Street / is not place for country songs…”.
Matt Madden’s “The Six Treasures of the Spiral: A Comics Sestina” is a witty graphic take on the form. Here, each line of three panels ends with one of six...