Sestinas and Paint Chips Collide

Hello poets. At the beginning of this month I warned you that the fourth prompt for September would involve writing a sestina. As I began to write this prompt, I was tempted to change course because, well, sestinas are hard to write and I hadn’t written mine yet. But I managed to get one written, though it probably needs some polishing I don’t have time for right now. Think of it as a first draft. As you write yours, if you choose to take up the challenge, remember that there is nothing wrong with a first draft that still needs polishing.

The definition of sestina in the poetry dictionary takes up two full pages and is followed by five pages of examples. I am not going to type all of that into this post. So I’m sharing the relevant parts of the definition, and also offer this Wiki How article about how to write a sestina. The best part of the article is that it tells you exactly how to rearrange the six end words for each stanza. I have a Word doc that I use that has the structure laid out for me. It makes writing one so much easier.

SESTINA (ses-tee’-nuh; Italian, “sixth”) A fixed form, developed in Provençal by the Troubadours, in which six end-words are repeated in an interwoven order through six stanzas and in a final three-line envoi (also called tornada), which contains all six of those words.

After the first stanza establishes a sestina’s six end-words, each of the following stanzas rearranges the previous stanza’s end-words according to a prescribed numerological order: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3. This arrangement can be remembered easily as a weaving pattern that moves from bottom to top and from outside to inside. [Frankly, that last sentence is not helpful to me, but it was in the dictionary so I included it here.]

In the envoi, three of the end words appear at the ends of lines, while the other three are embedded, one per line. The poet is free to arrange the end-words as needed. Since the envoi often sounds like a postscript anyway, some poets choose to omit it altogether.

* * * *

Although many poets write their sestinas in iambic pentameter, Arnaut’s original uses a syllabic pattern of 8-11-11-11-11-11 in each of the six-line stanzas. Free-verse sestinas [have also been written].

the poetry dictionary, pg 278-79.

The Challenge

Your challenge is to write a sestina using at least two of the seven paint chip words and phrases I will provide. You can stick to iambic pentameter, try some free-verse, or have a hand at Arnaut’s syllabic pattern. Feel free to label your sestina as a “rough draft” if you think you may polish it a bit at another time.

I was surprised that the first five paint chips I pulled were clearly fall colors in increasingly darker shades. I almost stopped there, but then decided to stick with my usual seven paint chips. The paint chip words and phrases you have to work with, in the order in which I pulled them randomly from the deck, are antique lace, sawdust, field of poppies, gold medal, safety orange, pinot noir, and the blues. Some of these might actually work well as end-words for your sestina. I managed to use one as such.

My Poem

This poem is my first draft with a few modifications as I typed it from the handwritten draft.

September Sestina

Sometimes in late-September
I'm enveloped by the blues
Days grow short, darkness falls early
Pine pollen like sawdust covers
Everything, makes my eyes sting and water
Truly summer, my favorite season, is at an end

Yet before the month reaches its end
I find great joy in September
A field of poppies we need not water
Even when the sky reveals deepest blue
And each leaf like a sparkling gold medal covers
The trees that don't shed early

I recall my beautiful wedding day early
In this month some call fall, an end
To summer, but for me the sun covers
Over all the worry that September
Brings us one month closer to blues
Of winter too cold to sit beside lake's water

Seasons in their turn will turn water
From warm to cold to frozen, early
In far northern climates where blues
Like glaciers slowly come to an end,
But farther south, where I love, September
Can be brisk with deep cloud covers

Soon when a bed of leaves covers
The ground, and the sunset reflects in water
As a safety-orange sky, then September
Will be all but gone, and early
Fall will be upon us, celebrations end
And I'm drawn to listening to the blues

This is when I most love the blues
Because, oddly, they remind me hope covers
Over all the hardships of life to the end
Of our days, and the beginning of water
Rushing over spring waterfalls will come early,
Barely half a year from the 30th of September

Even the blues are washed away as water
Flows deep and covers all that comes early
Until the end and return of September

Your Turn

Now it’s your turn. Try your hand at a sestina. It’s a challenging form, but I believe you are all up to the challenge. You can post your poem in the comments, although a sestina might be a little long for a comment. You could also post the first stanza in the comments, and then link to the whole sestina on your own blog or website. Be sure to check out the poems shared by other poets and offer some encouragement.

I am a Jesus Freak, and I don't care who knows it. I am a wife, mother, sister, aunt, daughter, and friend. My blood family is only part of the larger family of Christ that I belong to. I love to write, especially about my dear Savior.


14 Responses

  1. This took all day and I think it needs a lot of polish! Don’t understand the envoi part. 38 lines. Well, I tried.

    The Making of a Dream

    Dreams fly as sawdust on sandpaper
    Drifting lazily down atop a field of poppies
    Couched in the warm blues of unsung melodies
    Muffled by the clamor and cacophony
    A safety orange sun set in lavender
    Disturb not and none will notice

    Homogenized flavors none notice
    Sleep’s rust chafes like sandpaper
    Restless dreams seek peace in lavender
    A toxic trance from this field of poppies
    Deepen the wounds of clamor and cacophony
    Chords changing tempo in soothing melodies

    Harmonious no more are melodies
    A tournament now a few notice
    Violent wrest and arrest in Cacophony
    To fight or desist each a grade of sandpaper
    The lure and sweet fragrance of poppies
    Soak in the prism of lavender

    Soon shades emerge from lavender
    Hot and cool split from the melodies
    Dreams once diluted in a field of poppies
    Quietly awaken some take notice
    Smooth softened edges from sandpaper
    Strangely still in the wake of cacophony

    Angels gather around the cacophony
    Dipping their wings in shades of lavender
    Marbled swirls polish as sandpaper
    No longer grates but extract sweet melodies
    It no longer matters who will notice
    Let all fall asleep in the field of poppies

    Snow out of season in a field of poppies
    Everyone wakes in amazed cacophony
    Dreams know only one matters to notice
    The maker of both music and lavender
    And dreams survive in heaven’s melodies
    But need waking up to the scratch of sandpaper

    Don’t let your dreams slumber in fields of poppies
    Awake with the day and don’t settle for lavender

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