Friday, 16 November 2012


The International Academy for Poerty Therapy
A while ago I was co-teaching an online poetry course  called Poetic Forms. One of the aims of the course was to introduce the various forms that poetry can take, to read examples of each form and to experiment with writing in the forms. Throughout the course I set myself the challenge of writing a poem in every form that the course covered. One of my least favourite forms was the sestina.

This definition might go some way to explaining why.

 Definition of Sestina - The sestina is a challenging form in which, rather than simply rhyming, the actual line-ending words are repeated in successive stanzas in a designated rotating order. A sestina consists of six six-line stanzas, concluding with a three-line “envoi” which incorporates all the line-ending words, some hidden inside the closing lines. The prescribed pattern for using the six line-ending words is:

1st stanza 1 2 3 4 5 6
2nd stanza 6 1 5 2 4 3
3rd stanza 3 6 4 1 2 5
4th stanza 5 3 2 6 1 4
5th stanza 4 5 1 3 6 2
6th stanza 2 4 6 5 3 1
envoi 2--5 4--3 6—1

It feels a lot like hard mathematical work.

Here is a sestina by 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.

Tomorrow I am attending a training day/seminar at Bangor University about Dementia and Creative Writing. My grandmother had dementia for the last six years of her life. This is my sestina using the same repeated words as Elizabeth Bishop.

I remember the house
where my grandmother
lived. How I watched her, as a child,
coax into life the old stove

with pages from the almanac,
the smoke in her eyes bringing tears.

I never saw her cry. She kept her real tears                          
shelved like preserves. In her house
she had no need of any almanac
to dictate or predict. My grandmother
who could resurrect a dying stove
had lost her first born child

to diphtheria. For this child
she counted out the tears
like cobbles, hardened for the stove.

Never really spoken of, the house
held onto grief. My grandmother

never used an almanac -

 memory, for her,  made an almanac.                                              
blank. My mother, as a child
remembers my grandmother
as toughened by hard work. Futile the tears
when at sixteen she ran a house 
for seven younger siblings round the stove.

Later we sat at her warm stove
deriding the predictions in the almanac.
Nothing can foretell the way a house
decays from the inside. To a child
she was the upright woman without tears
to waste, she was the only grandmother

 I knew.  My uncomplaining grandmother
busy on her knees or at the stove.
And it was still without tears
that she touched the pages of the almanac,
turned for her by her oldest grandchild,
the chaotic ruins of her mind collapsing like a house.

In the last house that my grandmother
lived she had become a child. The stove
gone cold, her almanac  a distraction for our tears.

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