................................. About the Sestina
This essay appeared in American Poetry Review...

Sacred and Profane: the Sestina as Rite

By Marilyn Krysl

A high school English teacher had assigned Dylan Thomas’ villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” The poem drew me by its probing of loss. I’d lost the hearing in my left ear when I was ten, and when we moved from the Midwest to the west coast, I learned the devastation of being taken suddenly from my birth place. Thomas’ villanelle resonated. It rocked like a canoe on the buoyance of diction and syntax, its two repeating lines the canoe’s curved sides. “Poetry is a form, reaching out,” Edward Hirsch writes, “a disembodied hand--a voice--coming from darkness into light....”1 Thomas’ poem beckoned, inviting me in. It was the impulse to writing my first villanelle.

Form became a fascination. At university I studied Auden’s sestina “Paysage Moralise” and Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” and the surrounding terrain: Ashbery, Bishop, Blumenthal, Hecht, Justice, Klappert, Kees, Lattimore, Meredith, McPherson, Van Duyn. Dianne Wakowski was the first poet I heard read a sestina aloud. Later I was drawn to Marilyn Hacker’s facility with form, and to her sestina “Toward Autumn.” In Auden’s “Paysage Moralise” the repeating teleutons were all nouns; ditto in “Toward Autumn”--daughter, friend, bread, mother, lover, myself. Additional repetition of friend and mother within lines complicated and deepened the poem’s musical range. The difficult fourth stanza failed to sag, but built and lifted toward bridging into stanza five. And five lifts partly because Hacker enacts another repetition within the line (the word women)--adding that tactic’s contrapuntal, emphatic energy.

...To have a friend
a generation older than myself
is sometimes like a letter for my daughter
to read, when she can read: What your mother

left undone, women who are not your mother
may do. Women who are not your lover
love you...

Reading sestinas, I felt myself present at the enactment of mysterious rite. The form itself felt freighted--but how? Was it that the sestina’s design delivered the complimentary pleasure of repetition and variation which Robert Hass elucidates in Twentieth Century Pleasures?

“... repetition initiates a sense of order. The feeling of magic comes
from the way it puts us in touch with the promises of a deep sympathetic
power in things: heart-beat, sunrise, summer solstice....In the same way,
freedom from pattern offers us at first an openness, ...and it contains the
threat of chaos, rudderlessness, vacuity. Safety and magic on one side,
freedom and movement on the other....” 2

The two parts of this polarity are poetry’s givens, and the sestina’s repeating teleutons seem especially suited to deliver repetition and variation’s pleasures. I think of Helen Frost’s young adult novel in sestinas Keesha’s House, much celebrated by its wide readership: an impressive instance of the teleutons’ rendering of these complimentary staples of poetry. The teleutons rhyme with themselves, and as they float by, they take their place in the past, but they also reverberate forward, differently this time, since the present toward which they reverberate is not the same present in which they occurred. The repeating teleuton is each time itself, but each repetition takes place in decisively changed scenery. As James Cummins notes, “the teleutons of the fifth stanza are not the teleutons of the first, though they hang the same way over the bridge-rail.”3

And the chiming teleutons’ power gets modernized in our era by variation. Two polar examples compliment each other: Miller Williams’ “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina” and Jonah Winter’s’ “Sestina: Bob.” In Williams’ poem the six teleutons alone constitute the sixth stanza.



In Winter’s poem, all thirty-six lines end with the name of the narrator’s rival, that most middle American of proper nouns: Bob.

According to her housemate, she is out with Bob
tonight, and when she’s out with Bob
you never know when she’ll get in. Bob
is an English professor. Bob
used to be in a motorcycle gang, or something, or maybe Bob
rides a motorcycle now. How radical of you, Bob--

Bob, the very sound of which suggests a dud, and there it is in the jilted lover’s mouth, six times in each strophe, six in the tornada. Then there is variation of the teleutons themselves. Arguments as to whether or not the teleutons should be varied are moot: it’s happening. In Renee Ashley’s “The Light, The Dark, The One Stone, And the Bird Looking On,” long becomes prolong, altar becomes alter, alteration. Also inventive is Dan Bellm’s “Book of Maps” in which the teleuton boy alternates three times with girl, and in the envoy (referred to in the sestina as the tornada) becomes girlboy. And the daring of outright substitution of teleutons ups the complexity quotient. In Lynn Domina’s “Thursday”--a modern take on the psychological ambience of Christ’s Last Supper--five teleutons are the names of Christ’s disciples. The sixth is also, but in each stanza this sixth name changes.

The more I wrote and studied the sestina, the more I suspected that it wasn’t simply a concentration of repetition and variation but the fact of this concentration coupled with the sestina form. Focusing on the sestina’s prosodic rationale, David Rothman writes that “those ends words that were furthest apart in any one stanza are placed as close as possible in the next,” creating “the greatest possible sequential displacement and juxtaposition.”4 Robin Becker’s “Sad Sestina” from The Horse Fair illustrates.

Sad Sestina
For Susanna Kaysen

Today’s sadness is different from yesterday’s:
more green in it, some light rain, premonition of departures
and the unpacking of books and papers. It’s not a bad thing
to be sad, my friend Susanna says. Go with it. I’m going by foot
into this sadness, the way we go as children into the awful
school day and the hours of cruelty and misunderstanding,

the way we go into family, into the savagery of standing
up for ourselves among siblings and parents, in yesterday’s
living room, where secrecy turns to habit and we learn the awful,
unthinkable fact: time twists our days into a series of departures.
When he was mad, my father used to say Someone’s got to foot
the bills, and I think of him now, this man who knew one thing

for sure: you had to pay your own way, since nothing
came free in this life. A young dyke, grandstanding
before the relatives, I held my sadness close, one foot
already out the door. Who could believe in yesterday’s
homilies while women cruised me, seventeen and hot for departure?
Today’s sadness unfurls without drama, without the awful

punishments or reprisals of that house. In its place, the awful,
simple, mystery of human melancholy. Most day, I’d trade anything
to be rid of the blues, accustomed to flight and departure,
strategies that saved my life. Today I’m befriending it, standing
beside my sadness like a pal down on her luck, who knows yesterday
isn’t always a good predictor for tomorrow. A rabbit’s foot

won’t help; when the time comes, it’s a question of putting my foot
in the stirrup and riding the sad horse of my body to the awful
little stable at the edge of town. And there to wait while yesterday
has its way with time. Susanna said, To be sad is not a bad thing,
and I believe her, as I pull the heavy saddle from the standing
horse and hang the bridle away. Sadness readies for my departure,

and I for hers. In a most unlikely departure
from the ordinary, even the tough butch on a bike will be a tenderfoot
when it comes to goodbyes. We carry on, notwithstanding
all the good times gone and December’s awful
cheerfulness. Susanna, if I ever discern something
useful about sadness, I’ll wish I’d known it yesterday.

I’ve put distracting things aside and discovered, underfoot,
no wisdom absent yesterday. Still, a saint would find this awful:
a standing date with change, a season of departures.

Thing ends line three in the first stanza and doesn’t reappear until eight lines later, at the end of stanza two. Then it’s repeated almost immediately at the end of the first line of stanza three--this immediate repetition heightened by Becker’s variation, moving from the amorphousness of thing to the absolute of nothing. Then this teleuton doesn’t appear again until a full seven lines later, at which point the absolute nothing becomes anything. This pattern of repeating recurs with the other five teleutons. Now furthest apart, now cheek by jowl, now apart again. The teleutons enact polar extremes of positioning--first far apart, then close--linked into a dyad by repetition. I’m reminded of Buddhism’s perception that the appearance of phenomena is dyadic--phenomena “rise up” and “pass away.” The ardent writer of sestinas James Cummins also perceives this movement from one pole to the other and refers to it as “the voyage out, the return.....” 5 The sestina’s encoding of this pattern of polar moments linked by repeating teleutons fuels a peculiarly intoxicating tension.

“Sad Sestina” is instructive in that the speaker’s underlying ambivalence toward the subject of sadness echos the form’s dyadic, no and yes, gone then here. Sadness has a way of seeming maddeningly even and unaccented at the same time that we experience it as painful. In “Sad Sestina” a level tone is underscored by the fact that there are no end stopped lines until just before the tournada. This levelness is further underscored by insistently recurring repetitions within lines of the words sad and sadness. The name Susanna is also repeated, echoing that same vowel and sibilant. Sadness: the repeated aural intoning of that vowel wrapped in the soft swish of s sounds suggests the poet steeping herself in sadness the way one steeps herbs for tea. And indeed she states that she’s “befriending” sadness. But the poem’s negotiation of this emotion feels painful and concludes that even “a saint would find this awful.” We sense that the speaker wants to push the emotion away at the same time that she entertains it. Thus the yes and no dynamic of ambivalence in subject matter mirrors the dyadic movement in the form.

“The sestina,” Cummins writes, referring to the Medieval period, “is a relic from an age of faith.”6 The verb Trobar means to invent and compose verse. The Troubadour poet Arneau Daniel, is credited with inventing the sestina. In his form the forward pattern of teleutons ending the six lines of the first stanza is altered in the following stanza in a way that suggests a braid. As the braider crosses the strand in the center with a strand from the left, then from the right, so Daniel took the teleuton from the top and then the one from the bottom and places them side by side in the second stanza, repeating this three times, working from the top and bottom lines inward. He called this pattern the retrogradatio cruciata. Retrogradatio (from Midieval Latin), refers to backward movement, and cruciata (from crux, meaning cross) implies crossing. Thus the term might loosely be rendered as “backward crossing” or “crossing backward.”

Troubadour poets came to understand that writing and singing poems was a way of mediating desire within time’s flux. In this process one gained a sense of “self-knowledge and completion from the experience of loving, composing and singing viewed as an inseparable unity.”7 They composed in an era when Pythagorean number theory was in vogue, and Daniel would have known that the number six represented the highest state of union attainable in the profane world. Six, the lowest multiple of three and two, appears in geometry as the double triangle. This double triangle--Seal of Solomon, star of David--corresponded to the middle sephiroth of the Kaballah tree, the sephiroth which joins heaven and earth--top and bottom of the tree--to its male and female left and right. Alastair Fowler suggests that adequate account of the form must include its relation to the zodiac’s twelve sections, particularly the signs in the six sections of the northern hemisphere. The sestina’s end word sequence “matches the sequence of corresponding solar and lunar zodiacal signs.” 8 The form “may be meant to render in its stanzaic structure the sun’s annual course round the ecliptic.” 9

Six represented the “perfect marriage” of polar opposites in earthly life and temporal time. And in the realm of sound, Marianne Shapiro writes, six was considered the numerical equivalent of perfect harmony wherein one might hear the music of the spheres.10 The sestina foregrounds this charged number. Six stanzas of six lines each, followed by the envoy or tornada in which the six teleutons appear again in their original order. If we assign numbers one through six to the teleutons in the sestina’s first strophe, the method for determining the order of the following strophe is a pincer pattern shifting from the outer lines toward the center. The order in strophe one appears in stanza two as 6 1, 5 2, 4 3. This new pattern combines a triadic component and a dyadic one: three sets of pairs. The original order from strophe one appears now as two triads of alternating numbers. 1 2 3 (alternating with 6 5 4) hold to their original order, whereas the 4 5 6 triad is now in reverse order. Thus the pattern, three pairs of two numbers simultaneously unfolding in reverse order (6 and 1, 5 and 2, 4 and 3). We “braid backward,” arrive at the centerless center, and pause--stanza break--then begin again. At some point we arrive at the end of the 36 lines. We have exhausted this particular pattern’s possibilities. Now to “closure” and “resolution.” This point is crucial. Six times we’ve come to numerology’s “perfect marriage” in profane time. But the number six lacks what Marian Shapiro refers to as a center.

When the order of rhyme-words has progressed in a pincer
movement of 6 1 5 2 4 3, having reached the last two terms,
the pincer movement closes upon nothing. The rhyme-word
3 is underscored by repetition in the first line of the next
strophe, but this emphasis...serves only to indicate the
generation of a new, centerless strophe.” 11

Mercea Eliade’s studies of myth and religion describe the “center” as an axis mundi or earthly location where sacred and material worlds meet. There we transcend linear time and enter eternal time--a sphere, Eliade asserts, where we may experience space, the world and consciousness as divine. Shapiro believes the sestina embodies this leap from the physical world into the divine center in two ways. First, the head-tailed linking of strophes (where the last teleuton of one strophe repeats as the first teleuton of the next) suggests aurally the tail biting serpent Uroboros, a circular figure for cyclic regeneration; and second, the pairing of teleutons in three sets, 6 and 1, 5 and 2, 4 and 3, which yields in each case the sum of seven. Numbers one through six corresponded to geometric forms and the material world, but seven was formless. Formless because it represented the marriage of dyadic opposites embodied in the number six now elevated into the spiritual realm. Eliade cites Philo Judaeus’ interpretation of the six days of creation after which, on the seventh day, God rested, opening profane, earthly existence into eternal, “timeless” time. “In numerology,” Shapiro writes, seven “is the number of eternity and mutability, of the temporal, sublunary world and the world of the eternal Sabbath.”12 The pairing of lines in the backward braiding results three times in each stanza in a sum of 7. Thus we have fleetingly experienced three times in each stanza Shapiro’s leap from profane to sacred time.

Cummins thinks we may have “lost the meaning of the number mysticism that the medieval mind associated with the sestina” and concludes that we must “somehow feel their meaning in the poem.”13 We can. The poet John Frederick Nims writes that we “are affected by precise relationships we are not conscious of.” 14 He argues that we “feel” meaning in the same way that we perceive without being aware of them the Golden Section and “golden numbers” of the Fibonacci sequence as they appear in nature. Weddings, funerals and the miracle of birth resonate with deep feeling, though we may not acknowledge or remark this, and personal diurnal rituals such as ablutions make us feel “reborn.” In similar fashion the symbology of six and seven resonate subliminally, bodily, when we hear them in the formal structure of music and poetry.

Within the thirty-six instances of the teleutons, each stanza brings forth three pairs of lines, the sum of which is seven. Thus the form enacts repeated catharsis by delivering eighteen instances of the number seven in situ. We see, Cummins writes, “the sense of circularity and completion--of Eliade’s sacred and profane time--that resonated in the medieval mind, and resonates still.”15
I’ve suggested that the retrogradatio cruciata’s dyadic movement enacts a cathartic rite. Yes--yes but--and then again yes. In a general sense all poems might be said to deliver some version of transcendent feeling. Every poem mediates time, flashing its repetition and variation, performing itself through duration. A poem makes time interesting. But the unique gestalt of the retrogradatio cruciata, Cummins argues, turns this mediation of time into a structural component of the form which “self-consciously calls attention to its (the sestina’s) existence-in-time.”16 Think of duration as a sensuous arena in which our human sense of diurnal time varies and may sometimes seem to extend expansively. We feel, often enough, immortal--for a while. But the retrogradatio cruciata’s delivery of effects which depend utterly on counterpointing long against short duration is unique and uniquely suited to deliver its metempiric effect.

No matter its subject, the sestina insists insistently on this fact. Examine in “Sad Sestina” the progression of the teleuton foot. “I’m going by foot/ into this sadness,” Becker writes in stanza one, introducing the theme of time. To go by foot suggests not the thrill of speed but its opposite. The fact of “going by foot” implies that the speaker anticipates that this encounter with sadness will move slowly. The vowel sound stopped by a t resembles the treading thud of a single step. It counterpoints the sibilant s sounds of sad, sadness and Susanna. Both aurally and by its meaning “going by foot” underscores the fact that the poet will entertain sadness for a good while.

In stanza two foot becomes a verb in the father’s remark that “someone’s got to foot/ the bills.” Calling up the harrowing of family conflict begins to intensify discomfort, and inevitably we register again foot’s first appearance as a description of the laborious moment by moment way that this journey through time will take place. In stanza three tension around progress through time twists tighter as the speaker, now claiming the label dyke, has “one foot/ already out the door.” One foot--not two. That recognition again throws us back to foot’s first two unsettling contexts. These contexts now reverberate and are intensified by this smidgen of qualified hope: one foot out the door, but only one.

Stanza three begins the retrogradatio cruciata’s pyrotechnics. Foot ends line three, and a stanza and a half pass before foot closes stanza four. In stanza five it occurs just one line later. Far apart, then close. In stanza four the fact that “a rabbit’s foot/ won’t help” counters the momentary hope of escape raised in stanza three and re-invokes the sense of time as plodding. It echos the dolor of the previous instances and loads on more. The baggage of sadness weighs heavily now. And stanza five’s “foot/ in the stirrup” is no lift, since the rider approaches the “awful/ stable....” But at the same time “foot/ in the stirrup,” occurring just one line after the rabbit’s foot--that word again, so soon--jolts us. The spatially close teleutons’ rhyming acts like a spurt of adrenaline in the blood. Far, then close. Fading, then reasserting themselves anew.

Now the poem progresses seven full lines rather than six before foot sounds again. Add to this the fact that we experience this sounding while also experiencing the complex matrix of five other teleutons in their process of acting out exactly this pattern.

Through stanza five the duration of sadness has felt heavily freighted. But the use of foot in stanza six introduces into the poem’s context a surprising turn. The speaker’s sense of herself as tough dyke takes on nuance: she’s also a tenderfoot. In this new incarnation the reverberation of the first five instances--emphatically loaded with angst--springs up, as though embossed in relief. The speaker delineates this moment in time as one of high irony: even parting from sadness, it seems, may feel momentarily sad. This startling perception inevitably calls up all the previous instances of foot and reverberates both with and against them. What seemed a fixed trajectory, we’re reminded, changes. “Sad Sestina” demonstrates eloquently that it’s flux which truly characterizes duration: how amazingly things can and do change through time--even as things may seem to our ploddingly habitual minds to remain the same.

In life’s shifting landscape, the sestina suggests, we can find no absolute. Thus we welcome any transcendent moments we can get, however momentary. When this occurs, we may know, briefly, that state of being which Marianne Shapiro calls “the erotic abandonment of reason,” meaning the dissolving of a fixed self, and “surrender...to the movements of sun and moon...telling and retelling myths of soul, immortality, and rebirth.”17 The key to the sestina’s allure is this bodying forth of a rhythmic experience of linear time in which, for moments at a time, we feel jolted beyond it.

I suggested that Becker’s content renders the speaker’s yes--and--no ambivalence. We can say that previous utterances of the teleuton inform each present instance with the knowledge of its own history, at the same time that this history is transformed and enlarged by each present instance. The past reverberates in the present. Thus each teleuton contains “more, or other than its previous incarnation, while it contains its own echo.”17 Eighteen times we’re brought from profane time into cyclic time, and for that duration we may experience intimations of immortality. Then, “simultaneously and decisively,” Shapiro notes, “the event of the poem leaves us an open door.”18

That door opening from cyclic back into linear time is the tornada. We might at first imagine it as the sestina’s final cathartic pinnacle. And indeed repetition, confined in a small space, intensifies. The teleutons, having performed their ardent roles, gather on stage to take that final bow--as though saying this is about to be over--but you won’t be the same now, not by any measure. But this envoy is no ordinary summary. It puts an end to the cyclic character of the six strophes and opens the door back into quotidian time. And the teleutons underscore this. Their original order in stanza one is now reiterated. What time is it? Time to return to the daily round.

The teleutons in the tornada reel off quickly, stressing the fact that they--and we--are fleeting. But suppose that we resist time’s passing and long to postpone closure. There are ways to engage and withdraw, to play and extend play. For example, a double sestina capped by one tornada. Or we may resist the tornada’s lock by writing an “open ended” sestina capped with a single line of “tornada”--if such flagrant disregard of the pattern is urged by the poem’s content. Or we may emphasize the poignant, insistent nature of longing as does Marie Ponsot who wrestles with our ambivalent pre-occupation with impermanence in “Half Life: Copies To All Concerned.” Though she’s used the six teleutons in the tornada, she adds a final line which reiterates all six.

I should say, as well: beyond what I ask
Lies the you you lost alive; in my thought
Still planning to be good. Redeem him now.

Now ask your thought for this lost good. Farewell.
The tornada, followed by that emphatic, extra line, doubles the sense of finality at the same time that the final line sneaks in one last riff of longing. It insists--as though to underscore our desire for an absolute closure life doesn’t deliver--until it’s over. Shapiro puts this in prosodic terms.

Cyclical movement and movement that is directed toward a formal
end contend with one another in the sestina so that The formal dismissal
in the tornada nevertheless betrays an open ended doubt, tentativeness,
or rejection of the absolute and unqualified assertion. 20

The sestina allows us to wear ethereal lineaments--briefly--and then it’s back to growing older. In Becker’s tornada, the seventh and final instance of foot brings the experience of hanging out with sadness back to the beginning. Befriending sadness has delivered no new knowledge. The speaker finds “underfoot,/ “no wisdom absent yesterday” and concludes by invoking the specter of our “standing date with change.” Sadness endures--until it doesn’t (just like everything else), and will surely recur.

Actually hanging out with sadness for the duration might or might not deliver transcendence. Hanging out with “Sad Sestina” just may do the trick--because the retrogradatio cruciata’s symbolic structure delivers, and because “Sad Sestina” returns us to what we knew all along. You can step out of the river for a while, but then you’ll step back in. Becker’s tornada constitutes one last reiteration of the plight of duration: we who long for permanence are fatally impermanent--and mortal.

1. Hirsch, Edward, “Beyond Desolation,” American Poetry Review, May/June, 1997, p. 33.

2. Hass, Robert, Twentieth Century Pleasures, The Echo Press, New York, 1984, p. 216--17.

3. Cummins, James, “Calliope Music: Notes on the Sestina,” American Poet, fall 1997, p. 33.

4. Rothman, David J., “An Enchanted Realm of Endless Transformations: Sestina Form and the Retrogradatio Cruciata,” Hellos, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1991, p. 307.

5. Cummins, op cit, p. 33.

6. Ibid.

7. New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Preminger, Alex, and Brogan, T.V.F., editors, Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 845.

8. Fowler, Alastair, Conceitful Thought, University of Edinburgh Press, 1975, p.40.

9. Fowler, op. cit., p. 41.

10. Shapiro, Marianne, Hieroglyph of Time: The Petrarchan Sestina, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1980, p. 13.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Cummins, op cit, p. 31.

14. Nims, John Frederick, Western Wind, Random House, New York, 1983, p. 315.

15. Cummins, op. cit., p. 33.

16. Ibid, p 32.

17. Shapiro, op. cit., p. 163.

18. Cummins, op cit., p. 33.

19. Shapiro, op. cit, p. 164.

20. Shapiro, op. cit., p. 19.

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