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by Elizabeth Bishop

Sestina Introduction

In A Nutshell

Oh Elizabeth Bishop, with your coat buttoned all the way up to the collar and your pleated pants, you've written another no loose ends, no frills, perfectly tucked in example of formal poetry. Yep, this sestina, oh so cleverly titled "Sestina," follows the form to a tee.

But wait, while this poem breaks no formal rules, it's completely off its rocker. Unlike many poets who feel constrained by the rules of formal poetry, Bishop feels just the opposite. The tight constraints force her to think outside the box and get totally innovative and off the wall.

Rest assured, though: these lines are not the first fleeting thoughts to pop into her head. Bishop worked painstakingly on each poem, and "Sestina" is no exception. In fact, she was so particular about putting pen to paper that her poetry buds Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore had to urge her to publish. But being the perfectionist that she was, she'd revise and revise until she felt the poem was perfect.

When it comes to this one, we have to acknowledge that sestinas are hard to write well. Try it, and you'll see what we mean. How the heck did she manage to make the word "stove" interesting that many times? But that's what makes the sestina form such fun. They're about reinventing language in every line, and by tightening the formal vise as much as she could, Bishop squeezed out a pretty amazing poem.


Why Should I Care?

What's the longest amount of time you've had a song stuck in your head? Usually it's not even the whole song, but just a few lines—the refrain or the hook, probably. Next time this happens to you, think of poetry. Both poetry and music use the hypnotizing technique of repetition to trap their listeners. While music can rely on a good beat or melody to keep you coming back, poetry only has the language, so the poet better make sure to keep it interesting.

Different poetic forms use repetition in different ways (in fact, the poem doesn't have to be formal to make use of repetition). The sestina is one of the more demanding forms, because they repeat the same words at the end of the line throughout the poem in a specific pattern. (Check out our "Form and Meter" section for more.)

Needless to say, the sestina's a big challenge for a poet to tackle. The words have to be used differently each time in order to keep the poem going, otherwise it's just a heaping mess of repetitiveness. But Elizabeth Bishop is a master, and "Sestina" is a great example of a master at work. Who knows, maybe "hit me baby one more time" would have been more exciting if Liz had gotten her hands on it and switched things up a bit. Read it in the headlines: "The sestina saves pop music!" Well, we can dream, can't we? Music and poetry, BFFs.

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