In defence of the sestina, part 1
Almost every poet has heard someone dismiss sestinas. Perhaps you, yourself, have dismissed sestinas. Sam Riviere, in his review of Christopher Reid’s Six Bad Poets in The Poetry Review, wrote: ‘I dread a sestina as much as the next person,’ taking for granted the inevitability of that viewpoint.
A common variation on the ‘I hate sestinas’ position is, ‘ I hate sestinas except...’ as in, ‘I hate all sestinas except [my friend’s sestina].’ In the UK, a sestina I’ve heard cited in the ‘except’ category is Joe Dunthorne’s ‘Sestina for my Friends,’ which you can watch him perform here. It is an excellent poem, and Joe’s delightful rendition has one of the most charming parenthetical interruptions I’ve seen anyone pull off mid-poem.
Occasionally someone will be extremely generous and say, ‘I usually hate sestinas but I like your sestina, [Kathryn Maris].’ The sestina they are referring to, ‘Darling, Will You Please Pick Up Those Books’, was posted on the Guardian’s ‘Poem of the Week’ blog in 2008 by Carol Rumens, a self-described ‘collector of contemporary sestinas.’ The very first anonymous comment to appear below my poem was this haiku-shaped lament:
we all have to bear.
Even on the rare occasion I am on the other side of the ‘but’ in ‘I-hate-sestinas-but’ conversations, I don’t feel vindicated. I empathise with poems: I don’t like to see them bullied. The ‘I-hate-sestinas-but’ refrain reminds me a little of when people say, ‘Some of my best friends are [fill in marginalised social group of choice].’
Putting such anthropomorphising aside, I think the form has versatility—more versatility than it is given credit for. We often hear that sestinas are good for ‘obsession’ because of the repeating end words. Indeed many sestinas are obsessive—but not all. For example, Leontia Flynn’s ‘Drive’ is a reflection on a childhood car journey in Northern Ireland; ‘The Painter’ by John Ashbery is a surreal narrative that ponders both the creative process and the reception to an artist’s work; Anthony Hecht’s ‘Sestina d’Inverno’ is a poem whose hero is the imagination: trapped in snowy Rochester, the speaker travels through time and climates in his mind. Perhaps Kathryn Simmonds’ speaker in ‘Sunday at the Skin Laundrette’, similarly trapped in an unglamorous landscape on a rainy day (a laundromat), had read Anthony Hecht? Maurice Riordan’s ‘The Hip-Flask’ is an elegy; Carol Rumens’ ‘Walking on Hail-Stones’ is an affectionate address to a granddaughter; Kate Bingham’s ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Monogamy’ are interrogations of aspects of marriage; and Jason Schneiderman’s ‘The Buffy Sestina’ versifies an episode of the famous television series.
Although I won’t talk about any of the sestinas I’ve just listed, they are all worth reading.
The sestinas I will discuss over the next week are somewhat arbitrarily selected. My discussions will be part critical analysis, part memoir and part blather, and you may not like sestinas any better by the end of my miniseries. But that’s fine too.