An Italian poetic form that consists of six stanzas with six lines each, followed by a three-line envoy. The lines of each stanza end in the same six words, which are rotated in the pattern ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, and so forth. The six end-words are reintroduced (in any order) in the envoy. The name "sestina" means "song of sixes", and the form was popular with Italian and French troubadours a long, long time ago.

Sestinas are difficult to write, but the American poet Robert Frost reportedly once said "I have never read a sestina that was genuninely bad." Writing a sestina can be compared to riding your bicycle down a hill -- the pedals pretty much push your feet. To write a sestina, choose six words you'd like to hear repeated six times, then write the poem. Properly executed, sestinas have a hypnotic, echoing rhythm to them that is terribly effective.

I wrote a sestina once in high school while sitting in an incredibly boring class, if you care to read it. Of course, it doesn't hold a candle to this awesome sestina written by Elizabeth Bishop, which I present here for the sake of illustration and for the sake of your enjoyment. Take note of the words at the end of each stanza. This poem is probably autobiographical, for those curious and who know anything about Bishop.


Elizabeth Bishop
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.