SPEAK FREELY: FORMAL VERSE AS AN ACT OF RESISTANCE
Past iterations of Speak Freely have most often engaged free verse, which is perhaps the most common choice of form for contemporary poets. However, formal verse plays an important part in the history of the genre, and it’s heavily prioritized in curricula standards. To that end, this month I want to look at one of the most complex forms: the sestina. Though the sestina doesn’t require a specific meter or rhyme scheme, it is a fairly long form and one with specific rules regarding repetition. The form has been used by classical masters like Elizabeth Bishop, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Rudyard Kipling. Of course, I’m always a fan of teaching poets who are alive and writing in the current moment, so I’m going to focus on poems by Patricia Smith, Tiana Clark and Taylor Byas.
What is the sestina and where did it come from?
When teaching the sestina, the first hurdle is in teaching students the rules of the form. These rules won’t mean a lot in the abstract, but it’s important for them to have a framework from which to work when they begin analyzing the poems themselves. To introduce students to the sestina, I write out a visual representation of the form on the board and then explain how to decode the information.
- (envoi) ECA or ACE
Each of the letters represents an end-word and each row represents a stanza of the poem. The first 6 stanzas are 6 lines each, so A is the end-word of line 1, B is the end-word of line 2 and so on. The final stanza of the poem is 3 lines, with the pattern dictating the end-words. In addition, the three end-words not represented by the pattern (BDF) must be included in the stanza, but poets differ on how they incorporate these words. The pattern of repetition above is important to the form and is often followed strictly.
Next, I present students with the first poem we will analyze; however, I give them strict instructions not to read the poem yet. For now, we are conducting a sort of scavenger hunt. Students identify the end-words of the first stanza and assign them to their corresponding values in the form (ABCDEF). Next, they move through the remaining stanzas labeling the end-words to capture the form. I also ask them to make note of any instance where the poet alters the end-word by changing its tense, function, etc.
Before analyzing the first poem, I share a brief history of the form with students. This isn’t necessarily something that all educators find important, but my focus with these poems is to discuss how Black women have co-opted the sestina and used it to make sociopolitical commentary. Understanding the history of the form is important to understanding what might motivate authors of color to use the form today, and what might inform their decision to alter the form. For our purposes, I explain to the students that the sestina is rooted in the troubadour tradition, a largely oral form popularized in France during the 12th century. This tradition involved competition and often centered narratives, particularly narratives that sought to undermine authority by describing unrequited love that disrupted the accepted social hierarchy.
I typically lead with “Ethel’s Sestina,” by Patricia Smith. Even though this poem pushes against the traditional structure slightly, it’s close enough to allow students an opportunity to map the end-words and repetition. It also happens to describe an event most students are familiar with (Hurricane Katrina) and use language that is accessible to them. Because the poem takes the first-person perspective of a Black woman from the South, this is a good poem to address Black English and linguistic racism (April Baker-Bell and James Baldwin offer good supporting resources). You can also find a brilliant reading of the poem by Smith to help capture the orality of the poem more effectively.
The poem begins with an epigraph that explains the event which motivated Smith’s poem, the death of Ethel Freeman. Students either read the poem or follow along while Smith reads the poem, and then we discuss key features of the poem. I encourage students to consider why Smith chose the sestina specifically and how the repetitive nature of the form emphasizes the tediousness of waiting, a key theme in Smith’s piece. We also discuss how Smith’s poem stresses the lack of information offered to those awaiting a bus out of the region.
With regard to form, it’s particularly interesting that Smith uses both “son” and “sun” as end-words. Many contemporary poets utilize homonyms with sestinas, but they typically use sound to justify swapping one homonym for another in subsequent stanzas. Smith, on the other hand, features both as independent end-words, doubling down on the redundancy captured by the end-word “wait.” Thus, Smith aptly employs the form, following the rules of repetition closely and even basing the narrative on the concept of something unrequited. In this case, it isn’t love that is unrequited but faith, and specifically faith in the United States to care for the Black community in New Orleans.
Stanza 6 appears to deviate from the form, so we spend some time there during our discussion. Smith chooses to elongate the third line with six repetitions of the word “come.” This has two effects; first, “come” appears to serve as a stand-alone stanza, and second it implies two envois to close out the poem. However, moving the repeated words up to line 3 of the stanza shows that Smith follows the required repetition of the form precisely. Thus, extending the word into subsequent lines stresses the metronomic call for Ethel to “come” to the Lord.
One final note about this poem is the final question, “And see my golden chair?” Chair has been an end-word throughout the poem, but its pairing with the adjective “golden” provides a potential allusion to Langston Hughes’ poem, “Impasse.” Like the speaker in Smith’s poem, Hughes employs the voice of a Black mother in “Impasse.” Hughes’ speaker describes a “crystal stair,” and Smith may mean to invoke that poem with her use of “golden chair.” The two phrases mirror each other in sound and rhythm, and both poems center the necessity of continuing to move forward. Like the mother in “Impasse,” who continues to climb despite her hardship, Ethel ascends to glory in the closing scene of Smith’s poem.
Broken Sestina Reaching for Black Joy
Tiana Clark published “Broken Sestina Reaching for Black Joy” as part of a longer series in The Atlantic about Black life in America. From the outset, then, students must contend with the fact that Clark is intentionally choosing a classical poetic form, one that has endured for nine centuries almost entirely in White dominant spaces. Moreover, the title alludes to Black joy, a theme which numerous contemporary Black poets have engaged. In many of these poems, the authors stress that America has continually sought to rob the Black community of joy through generational trauma and state-sanctioned violence.
Students will almost immediately notice that Clark deviates from the traditional sestina often. The second stanza, for example, does not include any of the same end-words introduced in the first stanza. What makes this poem so interesting, though, is that Clark is overtly metapoetic and considers the place of the sestina in discussing Black joy. “This stanza will break back inside the form of honeycomb to suck/the lyric into compression, reboot restraint…” she writes at the onset of the third stanza. As the lines promise, this stanza returns to the end-words of the first stanza; rather than restructuring them, Clark repeats them in exactly the same order as the first stanza. The fourth stanza includes the same end-words and reorders them according to the form, but the fifth stanza again abandons the end-words entirely.
The fifth stanza ends with another metapoetic exploration: “I selected the sestina to probe a problem I can name/but can’t answer. The end words are planets orbiting the math.” The sixth stanza includes only the end-words introduced in the first stanza, but reordered again:
Social / Media.
The poem continues with several more stanzas, most of them six lines but all deviating from the expectations of the sestina. In the final stanza, Clark again invokes the rules of the form, comparing a kiss during a first date to “the length of a tercet/an envoi sustained/with pleasure reaching for Black desire,/reaching for the transcendence of pain…” Here, Clark includes white space before the words “if possible. Is it possible?” The question lingers, presumably returning readers to the question that motivated the poem in the first place and, as the speaker admits in the opening stanzas, a question for which the speaker offers no concrete answer.
Like Smith, Clark’s poem emphasizes redundancy and repetition, this time of the Black bodies that proliferate social media and of the inescapable trauma associated with Black death in America. The stanzas near the end which most heavily deviate from form are also the stanzas in which Clark directly addresses the historicized violence perpetrated on Black bodies, thus rejecting traditional American forms in precisely the same way America continually rejects Black personhood.
My Twitter Feed Becomes Too Much
Taylor Byas’ sestina, “My Twitter Feed Becomes Too Much,” echoes the content of Tiana Clark’s poem and makes for an excellent follow-up. Unlike Clark, Byas choose to remain within the form, strictly employing end-words and following the rules of repetition from stanza to stanza. Having read both Smith and Clark, students will likely recognize this quickly and be prepared to annotate the chosen end-words accurately. They may also notice how Byas plays with the language to meet the requirements of the form, such as shifting from “break skin” in the first stanza to “cars skinned” in the third, or the many ways that the word “hand” is used.
This particular sestina also serves as a good option for educators who like to use prediction as part of their poetry analysis methodology. Now that students have learned to associate the sestina with repetition and narrative, they should be able to discuss potential themes, images and experiences within Byas’ poem based on the title. Some may not use Twitter, but most are likely attuned to just how overwhelming the scenes of trauma can become on any media platform. The fact that Byas is a Black woman further implies that what the students will encounter is connected to the commonly reported trauma like police brutality, protests and violence against Black women.
Note first how Byas begins the poem, already invoking the trauma associated with visual artifacts as she writes “I come across pictures of two rubber bullets/nestled in a palm…” Not only is this image concrete and familiar, it also sets up “bullets” as an end-word, further indicating that violence will take center stage. Throughout the poem, Byas infuses images of protest and riot that continually illustrate the frequency with which state-sanctioned violence targets Black people. We encounter burning cop cars juxtaposed with a police cruiser running over protests, gas masks situated alongside a Black man on the curb. At the beginning of the third stanza, Byas writes “and this is church. A baptism–cover/me with the blood” in a turn of phrase that both captures the immediate moment and invokes the history of violence associated with White missionary work.
“My Twitter Feed Becomes Too Much” uses variations of the word “refresh” a total of 8 times (including six inside the phrase “The page refreshes”), yet it is not one of the end-words Byas chooses. This is a strong opportunity for students to speculate about the effect of repetition and how author choices impact the version of the poem we experience. They should be able to pick up on the fact that the sestina is a particularly exhausting form, so it’s ironic that both Smith and Byas include exhaustion as a primary theme. Repeating the word “refresh” outside the strict pattern of the sestina adds to the heaviness of the form, creating an experience for the reader that emulates the heaviness the reader describes.
My hope when I teach sestinas is two-fold. As a literature professor, I want to introduce students to one of the longest-running forms in Western poetry. The activist in me also wants students to grapple with how form, and departure from form, serves as commentary on systemic oppression and gatekeeping. I want them to question why Black women like Smith, Clark and Byas must first display mastery of the form in order to deviate from it. They can carry this knowledge into other forms that we study, continually questioning how the history of form and what contemporary authors do with it act as a form of critical commentary on the current moment.
Ronnie K. Stephens is a proud father of six and college English instructor. He is the author of two poetry collections and one young adult novel. His second collection, They Rewrote Themselves Legendary, won Best in Show at the New England Book Show. Stephens is also a contributing writer for Interrogating Justice, a social justice think tank. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in English with an emphasis in diversifying the literary canon for the 21st century classroom.