Oulipost, Day 19 – Sestina

This has been the Oulipost I have both dreaded and anticipated – the sestina.  The sestina is a modern poetic form, but very well established.  Six stanzas, six lines each, with a selection of six repeating words (called teleutons) ending all 36 lines.  The order of operations for these words is as follows – (a,b,c,d,e,f );   (f,b,a,e,b,d,c);   (c,f,d,a,b,e);    (e,c,b,f,a,d);   (d,e,a,c,f,b);   and (b,d,f,e,c,a).  For the cherry to top it all off, you can include a final tercet which contains all six teleutons (the envoi).
I’ve been dreading this form because it is huge; for the most part, I write very tight, terse poems.  Sestinas are long, they are  repetetive (that’s kind of the point, really, that’s how you establish cohesion in this form) and they can be incredibly boring – think  Weather Sestina by Ted Kooser (and here I want to say that I simply worship Ted Kooser – he’s lucky he lives too far away for me to stalk – but that sestina is not the most exciting poems he has ever put out).  However, once I read Night Train, by Theodore Thompson Genoways, I knew I wanted to play with this form.  But still…afraid
I’m not the only one.  In our little Oulipo backroom, many of us have stood up to say “Hi, I’m poet X, and I’m afraid of sestinas.”  But we’ve also been sharing well-written sestinas that we know of, talking about stategies, and discussing what tools would help here (once again, all hail Doug Lumen and his Oulitools).   I have to say, for my first sestina, it went pretty well.  It’s coherent, I used an envoi (which is optional, but I prefer sestinas which employ them), I was able to enjamb effectively, and I even used my teleutons for the title, in yet another order – c,e,d,f,a,b.  Given the long nature of the sestina, and the brief nature of newspaper articles, I was worried that my article wouldn’t yield enough content for the piece, but it did, just barely.  I really enjoyed doing this as found poetry, actually – there was a lot of cento work put into practice here.
What will I do differently in my next sestina? (yes, there will absolutely be a next sestina)   In the first place, I’d go to the trouble of  writing out the order of operations!  I quickly decided that I didn’t actually want to use Doug’s Oulitool, because it prevented me from making punctuation and spelling changes.  I thought that I understood the form well enough to do it freehand – I didn’t.  I ended up having to rewrite the entire darned thing.  I’ll not be doing that again!  Next, if it were to be a found piece, I would combine several articles.  I wasn’t really able to transform the content, which is one of our missions, but I would have needed more word choices to do so.  Other Ouliposters used multiple articles, to great effect, and accomplished this.  If it were not a found piece, I would think long and hard about my teleutons, and select words which were homonyms or could be made into compound words.  My favourite sestinas are not obviously sestinas; I think the key to achieving that is careful selection of teleutons and deft enjambment.
Right then – enough tech talk.  I hope you like serpents, because that is what we have on the menu today.  But first, some appetizers –
My pick of the day from the Ouliposter offerings, a fabulous sestina from Joseph Harker.  Then, settle in and see sestinas from the rest of the Ouliposters at FPR.  And now, the main course.


These Snake People Are a Mystery to Me

Like a boogeyman, they’re a creepy mystery –
silky, almost glasslike on the belly, to me
they are a Holy Grail.  Enamoured with these
color combinations, dazzling the people
who don’t identify with them, my snakes
are purple, orange, yellow-albino.  They are

quite docile and predictable, so we published a guide, we are
producing new genetic expressions.  Breeding is a mystery;
I’m all self-taught.  They’re a wonderland, these snakes,
and I’m manipulating cycles, temperature, humidity.  Me,
I’ve converted a lot of people – they want corn snakes, people
want reticulated pythons, they’ve been wanting these.

Will they strangle anyone in their path, these
animals with no eyelids, that don’t blink?  We are
creating such a shroud of nonsense around snakes.  People,
feel the snakes’ pure muscle; they’re super-soft.  It’s such a mystery
that accidents inflame such fears.  Go on and ask me
why they have this image as ruthless mankillers,  my snakes.

I attend birthday parties with them.  I put heavy snakes
around my neck.  I’m deeply passionate about these
outreach groups, Cub Scout packs.  I want them to give me
a chance to bring snakes to a friend’s house.  Snakes are
just so interesting to watch, to present the mystery
at a fair table to  groups of fascinated people.

I’m decrying the effort to curtail their ownership.  People
say my industry is dying, people say snake
breeders are being shut down, rules will restrict this mystery
because of Burmese Pythons and Yellow Anaconda.  These
breeders are concerned the government will keep going.  We are
the loudest voices down the line.  Who’s with me?

Hand me a healthy animal with a different paint job; hand me
that same kind of money – I can polarize the debate.  People
find critters that slither alluring, but docile pythons are
the eerie instrument of horror movies.  Fans of snakes
and exotic reptiles are the reason why these
creatures that crawl draw such animated mystery.

Will he bite me?  They’re a vivid mystery;
a lot of people think they’re slimy.  These
are the misconceptions that blanket all snakes.


Boston Globe, April 19, 2014

Sullivan, James.  Snake Charmers; Snakes Alive



And dessert, if you are not too full…

An astonishing meta-sestina in McSweeney’s

Night Train, TheodoreThompson Genoways

Weather Sestina, Ted Kooser





2 thoughts on “Oulipost, Day 19 – Sestina

  1. Right away, the title made me smile and then as I read on, the smile grew into a LOL and but I also wanted to cry a little at those wonderful poignant surprises throughout! Well done. My hats are off!

  2. I love the title of your sestina – These Snake People Are a Mystery to Me. My favourite line of the piece is – “creatures that crawl draw such animated mystery.” 🙂

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