Copyright (c) 2012 Sheila Newton
The History and Art of the Sestina
The sestina is a complex form of poetry that often creates spectacular effects through end-word repetition. It is believed that the thirty-nine-line form was first used by Arnaut Daniel, the French troubadour from Provence in the twelfth century. The name “troubadour” likely comes from the word trobar, which means “to invent or compose verse.” The troubadours sang their verses accompanied by music and were very competitive, each trying to top the other in humour and wit, as well as a complex and difficult styling of language.
Love often was the theme of the troubadours, and this emphasis continued as the sestina was introduced in Italy, where Dante and Petrarch practiced the sestina form with real reverence for Daniel, who, Petrarch was quoted as saying, “is the first among all others, great master of love.”
The Pattern and Format of the Sestina
The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, finishing in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though initially the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where the numbers represent chosen end-words:
So, a sestina has 6 stanzas using the format of:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
6, 1. 5. 2. 4, 3
3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5
5, 3, 2, 6, 1, 4
4, 5, 1, 3, 6, 2
2, 4, 6, 5, 3, 1
And one final stanza of three lines using all six end words.
My chosen end words for the sestina below are –
N.B. Sestina has a modicum of poetic licence. For example, ‘plum’ can become ‘plumb’ as an end word: ’cause’ could become ‘course’.
She danced in the Nutcracker Suite, the Sugar Plum
Fairy, in a tutu of pink cerise net.
Ballet had always been her first love
since the age of three when she saw
Swan Lake on a video. “I want ballet shoes.”
“Can I have ballet shoes? Be a dancer?”
She became a Prima Ballerina: a dazzling dancer
with the Royal Ballet: always got the plum
roles, up on her toes in satin ballet shoes,
pushing the boundaries of pain in creations of net
in the hottest productions you ever saw
because ballet, for her, was a labour of love
Yet, sometimes she yearned for her second sweet love,
To dabble in the world of the belly-dancer.
On holiday in Turkey one year, she saw
the swivelling hips, the rolling gyrations of a plump
belly and a jewelled navel. Caught in the net,
she longed for low-slung skirts, an anklet with bells – no shoes
“Sorry, dear, you’re hopeless for sparkling costumes – no shoes.”
“Too thin, scarred feet. Stick to the ballet you’re good at, love.”
Approaching this dancing school, found on the internet,
She’d envisaged a future as a hip-curling belly-dancer
But now the tears welled in her eyes, cheeks turned plum.
Those words had hurt like a jagged-edged saw
until it dawned like a bright light. She saw
that she’d never been cut out to dance without shoes.
Being a ballerina – a Prima Ballerina – was plum.
It was mint – it was ace – she was truly in love
With the role she’d thought to desert: a dancer –
a ballet dancer, in ballet shoes and silk and net.
She considered telling her friend, Annette
about her near-miss. But she quickly saw,
if she confided her desire to be a belly-dancer
in glittering skirt, bell-heavy anklet – no shoes,
word would get out to the man she loved
and that was much too fine a line to plumb
But at night, in dreams, she saw her love-struck audience
through veils of plum net as she, resplendent in the spotlight,
Danced bare-foot, skirts swirling – no shoes.
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