The sestina (less commonly, though more correctly, sextain) is a wondrous strange beast, the brainchild of a twelfth-century Provençal troubador. It doesn't use rhyme; instead, it has six keywords essential to the poem's structure. The poem's 39 lines - six 6-line stanzas followed by a 3-line envoi or tornada - all end with one of the keywords; in the tornada, there are two keywords in each line, one of them at the end and the other somewhere in the middle. It may all begin to make sense if we try an example. Here's a sestina from Old Wossname's Book of Assorted Swine:

Hogwash the Token Artist
The moment when he lifts the Porker prize
Would be the highlight of an artist's life.
Saul Hogwash comes so close to it each year
And misses it, by just a coat of paint.
Though there's no doubt of this pig's massive talent,
He will use watercolour for his art.

The short list features many kinds of art.
There's Tania Mulch, who won last year's prize,
A cowpat-sculpting sow whose major talent
Is publicising scandals in her life,
So that the portrait that the tabloids paint
Of her becomes more scarlet every year.

But Tania's not the favourite this year.
That's Brendon Slopp, who's reinvented art.
Surprisingly, he makes much use of paint.
The work that's tipped to win this boar the prize?
A pile of paint tins, called Still Unborn Life
- The title simply oozes Porker talent.

To rival that, there's Tom Treslurry’s talent,
The finest Cornwall's seen for many a year.
His tapes are magic. Yes, he's spent his life
Recording from the radio - what art!
Now spliced, played in reverse, they're “Worth a prize;
“Superb!” say some. “At least… it isn’t paint.”

This prejudice some have against “mere paint”
Cannot constrain a pig who has real talent.
And Troughly’s paintings may well win the prize.
He’s pushing back the boundaries; this year
He’s pissing on each finished work of art.
(A metaphor, he says, for real life).

Cy Gadarene’s exhibit’s called My Life -
He stands inside a frame, more real than paint.
The artist has become the work of art!
Poor Hogwash is convinced he has more talent
Than all the others shortlisted this year.
On tenderloins he waits; dreams of that prize.
Can Hogwash win the prize that rules his life
Perhaps this year? No! He can only paint,
So he's no talent for the world of Art.

Here the six keywords are prize (1), life (2), year (3), paint (4), talent (5), art (6), and they occur in the first six stanzas as follows:

stanza 1: 123456

stanza 2: 615243

stanza 3: 364125

stanza 4: 532614

stanza 5: 451362

stanza 6: 246531

This is the prescribed order for a sestina - at least, for an unrhymed one. (Yes, there are rhymed ones too. This is a variation dealt with later.) No deviation from this order is tolerated.

However, there are several different possible orders for the keywords in the tornada ("tornada schemes"). The example above uses 12/34/56. Other possibilities found in published sestinas include 14/25/36, 25/43/61 and 65/24/31. Pretty well anything goes, really. But since you're going to write the tornada first (see below), you may as well pick one of the four possibilities given here.

You'll notice that each keyword appears once in the first line of a stanza, once in the second line of a stanza, and so on. You may also notice that the permutations of the keywords follow a regular pattern. It's all a bit like bell-ringing. Or mathematical group theory, for that matter.

At 39 lines, the sestina is eligible for poetry competitions with a 40-line limit. (Perhaps they used to have a lot of those in Provence.)

How to write a sestina

First decide on your six keywords. Any old six words will do, but try to make life easier for yourself by making at least some of them common words, or words with several different meanings, or words that occur in well-known phrases. 

Now write the tornada. (Writing this first should ensure that the poem is going to come to a conclusion that makes sense.) Then decide which keyword is which i.e. what "tornada scheme" you are following. Now you know the last word of each of the other 36 lines. The rest is just "wording in"!


There is no shortage of of these, both standard (rhymed sestina, double sestina) and non-standard (Newman sestina, quartina, bina). 

There is also a related form called the canzone.

Notable Sestinas

Sestina of the Tramp Royal, by Rudyard Kipling.

Gargangel, by Philip Gross (in Changes of Address).

Pond Life, by Elizabeth Kay (in The Spirit Collection). (Winner of the Cardiff International Poetry Prize; available from Manifold. See links page.)

Advice on Adultery, by Gwyneth Lewis (from Welsh Espionage; in Parables and Faxes).

The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina, by Miller Williams.

And there are several sestinas by Leo Aylen in his book Dancing the Impossible.

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© Bob Newman 2004, 2005,  2006, 2007. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 05/03/2007