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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Sestinas

Once upon a time, dear inklings, Aaron mentioned that I’m always talking about sestinas. When I read his comment, I thought to myself, “That’s true — I am always talking about sestinas.”

Except when I’m not. And after I read Aaron’s comment, and after I thought my agreeable response, I realized that here, at Unstressed Syllables, I have, in fact, not been talking about sestinas at all.

What a horrid oversight on my part. I do believe it’s high time I rectified this.


At first glance, a sestina is nothing more than a rhyming poem of six six-line stanzas with a tercet — a stanza of three lines — at the end. At second glance, you’ll discover that the sestina contains six rhyming words that alternate at the ends of the poem’s thirty-nine lines. Thirty-nine lines of poetry, and you only have to come up with six rhyming words. That’s not so bad!

But it gets even better. You can split those six words into two sets of three each. The words in one set rhyme with each other, and the words in the second set rhyme with each other. So really, all you need is two sets of similar-sounding words. Easy!

For example:





The Tricky Part

Here’s the cool part about your rhyming words: You don’t have to use the same ones over and over again. In fact, for the purposes of the sestina, you’re supposed to mix it up a little — and by mix it up, I mean get funky with homonyms and homophones. Ooh la la!

Now, not all of the sample words I gave you above lend themselves to being toyed with. Ideally, each of your rhyming words will have at least one homonym (same spelling, different meaning) or homophone (same sound, different meaning); this will allow you a lot more leeway in crafting your sestina line-by-line and creating coherent content. (More on that later.)

Still, for now we’re just gonna stick with the words I’ve picked, what say? Here are my six with some of their possible alternates:

would / wood
should / shooed (but this is really stretching it!)


cup (noun) / cup (verb)
sup / ‘sup (as in “wassup y’all?” — yes, you are allowed to play this way!)

Slightly Trickier

Okay, you’ve got your rhyming words and their possible substitutes. You know that these six words will alternate at the ends of every line throughout your sestina. (They’ll switch things up for you a little in the tercet, but we’ll get to that later.) Here’s where things get a leeeetle more complicated. But bear with me — we’ll get this thing figured out, I promise.

Much to the (unnecessary!) dismay of the sestina virgin, there’s a set pattern by which the rhyming words alternate from one stanza to the next. So to begin, we’re going to assign each rhyming word a number:

would/wood = 1
good = 3
should/shooed (iffy!) = 5


cup/cup = 2
yup = 4
sup/’sup = 6.

In your first stanza, the sequence of numbers is easy-peasy: 123456. The result is a first stanza with the following ending words:


Now, all you have to do is make up lines of poetry that end in those words — and you got yerself a first stanza! Traditionally, each line follows iambic pentameter, but I don’t usually hold with tradition, so I won’t tell you to do that. 😉

Bring It

Ready to tackle the next step? Remember, the ending words of your first stanza follow the simplest pattern: 123456. Here is the pattern for the remaining stanzas:

Second stanza: 615243 (sup, would, should, cup, yup, good)
Third Stanza: 364125 (good, sup, yup, would, cup, should)
Fourth Stanza: 532614 (you’ve probably got the picture and can plug ‘em in yourself)
Fifth Stanza: 451362
Sixth Stanza: 246531.

See? Didn’t I promise it would be painless? If your brain’s not completely fricasseed by now, let’s look at the final stanza, the tercet, which summarizes not only the content of the preceding six stanzas, but also the pattern of the rhyming words:

1 (middle of the line) and 4 (ending word)
2 (middle) and 5 (ending)
3 (middle) and 6 (ending).

Yes, But Whatsit?

You got yer rhymes, you got yer kinky alternates, you got yer pattern — in other words, you’re looking at your formula, and you’ve assembled the variables you’re going to plug into it. One might think that as a sestina-rocking poet, your work is practically done. The thing’s gonna write itself, right?

Wrong. Though formulaic in its structure, a completed sestina is greater than the sum of its parts. Or it should be greater, anyway, and that’s where your content comes into play.

Choose as your subject whatever you want. When I sit down to write a sestina, I have a general idea in mind, and I try to select rhyming words which relate to that idea in some way. As I start plugging the words into the pattern of each stanza, I keep my original idea ever before me, so that I never lose sight of my theme. That theme is like a small voice, guiding me from the back of my mind and nudging me in the right direction if I get off-track through desperate bids to force my rhymes to work. (If they don’t, some re-thinking of line-ending words might be in order.)

From one stanza to the next, I let the theme coalesce and build until it comes to a point somewhere toward the end of the fifth stanza or within the sixth. The ending tercet summarizes the story as well as its “moral”: the message I, as the poet, am trying to communicate.

And there you have it. In the final analysis, a sestina is a framework within which to tell a story, make a point, send a message, and touch a heart. It can be inspirational, endearing, silly, insightful — or all of that and more. A sestina can identify a problem and offer a solution. It can describe an emotion in a way that resonates. It can speak to the soul with form and language that take a reader’s breath away.

Try It On For Size

Some of you, my dearest inklings, balk at structure. Some of you revel in it. As for me, I encourage all of you to try penning a sestina, if for no other reason than the thrill of rising to the challenge of a complex genre of writing. Writing a sestina leaves one with a greater appreciation for the flow of language itself, not to mention a satisfying sense of accomplishment. And that, for us writers, is always worth a little extra effort.

If you’d like some examples of full-length sestinas instead of just sample rhyming words, check out the comments section. I’ve posted three of my own creations that will hopefully clear up any lingering how-to questions you might have. And who knows — maybe they’ll inspire something. 🙂

And that’s WILAWriTWe!

5 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Sestinas”

  1. Courtney Cantrell says:

    I penned this, my first ever sestina, in 1998. (No apologies for any political inferences any readers might make. 😉 ) It has received several minor edits over the last twelve years, but this is essentially how the original reads:

    Bridal Environment Sestina

    The sophisticate bride is picking out dresses.
    The media’s search is reaching its peak,
    Relaying bad news of environment messes
    Made by a Middle East oil-dealing sheik.
    And all the while, as bridesmaids she presses,
    Her mother insists that she’s marrying a geek.

    Her mother insists that she’s marrying a geek.
    They take oil man’s photo as salad he dresses,
    For all of the media’s taking a peek
    At this Middle East man who made the oil messes
    ’Cause folks in the West want their cars to be chic.
    But he has no comment, he’s hiding from presses.

    She looks at the TV as kerchiefs she presses:
    Her mother insists that she’s marrying a geek,
    But she’s watching the oil man and thinking of dresses.
    Her dear little sister is trying to peek
    In her wedding planner, in which there are messes
    As she frantically searches for something très chic.

    She looks at the TV and watches the sheik
    As he defends his rich cause to the presses.
    Her mother insists that she’s marrying a geek
    –And speaking of weddings in Middle East dresses,
    Maybe she’ll climb a tall mountain peak,
    Or join him back East to clean up oil messes,

    So she can escape her wedding plan messes
    And won’t have to know what makes bridesmaids look chic!
    And then she’ll ignore her dear mother, who presses:
    Her mother insists that she’s marrying a geek!
    So at the Arab who now media ’ddresses,
    She with growing elation continues to peek.

    The media’s elation is reaching its peak:
    He’s going to clean up his awful oil messes!
    Oil man cares not about brides who look chic,
    And she sadly returns to the kerchiefs she presses.
    Her mother insists that she’s marrying a geek,
    But she stubbornly picks at the salad she dresses.

    The search by the presses has now reached its peak:
    As the Middle East sheik cleans up his oil messes,
    She picks from the dresses and marries the geek!

  2. Courtney Cantrell says:

    This is a self-explanatory creation from 2007.

    Sestina for My Parents in the Year of Their Retirement

    The time has come these words to pen;
    I find myself unsure of how to write.
    Words flow and find their way to paper; then
    I wipe them away, take them from the light,
    and bring them back to mark my page again.
    And still, I search for what gives insight.

    I seek the words that give insight,
    those written sounds that could un-pen
    the cloistered memories, brought again
    into the view of this poem’s wright.
    I wish to bring remembrances to light;
    I wish to impart hints of now and then.

    In thinking of the things of then,
    reflections of the Spirit drift in sight:
    early teachings of the Light;
    tenets detailed by Inspired pen;
    difference ‘twixt wrong and right;
    lessons learnéd over and again.

    Still today, the lessons come again.
    Understanding waxes, wanes; and then,
    I find that I with honesty can write:
    The two who taught me have insight
    that’s greater than what I could pen.
    Of their wisdom I will not make light,

    for it’s wisdom born of walks in Light,
    of trials won, over and again,
    woes that in others could un-pen
    the doubts in faith, leading then
    to lack in sight.
    But ‘twas not so; they followed right.

    All my life, they’ve remained right
    with Him whose very Self is Light.
    Their times of doubt (lack of insight?)
    inspired me, for yet again
    they remained true. So let me, then,
    close this, my tale, with aid of pen.

    A tribute to these two I pen: for teaching Light,
    for guarding right—in spite of trials yet again.
    In walking down my own road, then, I’ll keep their pattern well in sight.

  3. This one, too, is self-explanatory; it dates from 2008.

    sestina for the artist (upon the occasion of amy’s 26th birthday)

            the time has come to paint anew.
            she sits in almost reverent hush
            hoping for distractions few
            while choosing all the colors lush
            in tantalizing, vibrant hue.
    the canvas shall receive the brush

    the canvas shall receive the brush
            she draws on artist’s spark anew.
            with care she chooses every hue
            while basking in the silent hush
            of mixing paint and brushstroke lush
            thankful for distractions few.

            but own distracting thoughts? not few.
    the canvas shall receive the brush
            the silence fraught with turmoil, lush
            with thoughts she hoped not to renew.
            they waited for this moment’s hush
            to paint her mind with darkling hue.

            they limn her soul with darkling hue.
            joys and comforts are too few
            to succor her in fearsome hush.
            the canvas shall receive the brush
            of ’wakened miseries anew,
            dreadful image all too lush.

            dreadful evil’s all too lush;
            temptation at her soul does hew.
            she then remembers what she knew
            when fears of soul were less than few:
                    the canvas can receive his brush
                    the medium of Savior’s hush

            the Savior whispers softly, ‘hush
            my child. redeeming colors lush
    the canvas shall receive the brush
            do limn your soul in my blood’s hue.
            your fears need be no more than few:
            the Master painter shall renew.’

    he paints anew with reverent hush,
    makes worries few and comfort lush:
    soul takes its hue from Savior’s brush.

  4. Aaron Pogue says:

    Okay, fine, I’ll give it a try!

    From Damascus to Rome
    I took a swing, so sure that I was right.
    Defiant, chose to go a different way
    Unhesitating, picked a bitter fight
    With enemies I’ll maybe keep at bay
    But cannot beat. My words were shining light
    But they have shaped the cell where I will stay.

    There’s hope, I think, some pardonner will stay
    The punishment that’s mine by every right.
    I dare not hope, not chase that feeble light
    And yet I pray, and hope in some sweet way
    I’ll find relief. There’s got to be some bay
    Still calm despite the storm of this fierce fight.

    It rages on, indeed, the bitter fight —
    Despite my own inhospitable stay.
    I’ve friends, and I can hear the wolves that bay
    And course the night, and though it isn’t right
    It’s how they play. And I’ve provoked this way
    By striking out at beasts that hate the light.

    And that’s the key: at last there will be light.
    It won’t be soon — and harsh will be the fight —
    But day will come. And then we’ll find our way
    To places safe and sure where we can stay.
    That’s why, in cold, in dark, in pain, I write:
    To grant you hope, the promise of that bay.

    The metaphor’s too weak. There is no bay
    That’s safe against this storm. But there’s a light.
    A blinding glow inspired me to write
    And face the tormenters who bring the fight
    To tell them, “Here I stand, and here I stay.”
    I know the cost…but there’s no other way.

    This started on a dry and dusty way
    While I was one of those we keep at bay
    And going where I never thought I’d stay.
    But then, unwarned, I looked upon the Light….
    And since that day, I’ve carried on the fight.
    What choice? I live and die by what is right.

    We’ll do what’s right. We’ll keep the wolves at bay.
    We’ll take the holy way, toward the light.
    And…gladly fight, to gain a place to stay.

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Well done, my friend. Quite well done.

      I know you’re already well-versed (well-versed — get it? hahaha) in writing rhyming poetry…but I’m still deeply impressed with how effectively you met the challenge. 🙂 Of course the vivid imagery grabbed my attention right from the start (that movie-in-head thing), but I was just delighted when I realized who the narrator really is. And I particularly like your stay/stay/stay homonym; it gave you a lot of creative flexibility.

      More, please! 🙂