Poetry in Form: Sestina

Poetry in Form: Sestina

Leaves of the same size and shape arranged together. Photo by Erol Ahmedon Unsplash
All formal poetry employs some form of repetition. Human beings have an natural affinity for repetition. Our world, of course, repeats the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of sunrise and sunset. The first sound we ever hear is our mother’s heart beating in a predictable, repetitive rhythm. We like to hear the same songs and stories over and over again.

Maybe it’s my affinity for repetition that leads me to make the same mistakes over and over again!

Sestinas don’t have to repeat a rhythm or meter or rhyme scheme. They only need to repeat the same end-words in six stanzas of six lines each, and then include the six end words in a three-line envoi at the end of the poem. It sounds easier than adhering to a strict meter and rhyme pattern, but I agree with a poet-friend who said “the sestina is the road to insanity.” Try it at your peril.

Here’s one that was published earlier this year in StirringThe repeated words are killing, understand, might, case, keep, and manage. You can give yourself more flexibility with this form if you choose words that have more than one meaning. The sestina form seemed to fit my subject: scientific experiments which seek to create a reproducible result. This issue of Stirring was edited by Caseyrenee Lopez.

Destructive Sampling

We do it in 10×10 meter plots, killing
the hemlocks to understand
what loss and succession might
look like, in case
the wooly adelgid keeps
advancing north. Will we manage

the loss the way we manage
these plots, in incremements — killing
slowly, girdling tree trunks to keep
the sap from rising up? Will we understand
what makes each tree’s case
unique? One girdled hemlock might

die over winter, another might
hang on for years, or even manage
grim survival. They run on tree-time, a case
of willingness to wait. Killing
them slowly may help us understand
which life forms will keep

rising up as the hemlocks keep
dying. But how might
we predict any outcome? Under one stand
of hemlocks, we manage
insect collection with pitfall traps and a killing/
preserving solution encased

in plastic. To monitor cases
of deer-browse impact, we keep
exclosures so the deer won’t kill
the regrowth. We create scenarios: we might
lose the south, the north, but manage
the east, the west, as we understand

them now, or seasons as we understand
them. Should someone make the case
that time’s advance prohibits managing
the future, that we can’t keep
up with change? That it’s silly to insist we might
keep the old growth safe, once the killing

insects manage to come north? What might
keep us safe when the world changes? Or help us understand
experiments’ results, in case we keep on killing?


Did I mention my partner is an ecologist? This poem is part of a long argument we’ve had over the years about whether or not science (or any discipline) can predict the future. Relationships, like nature, can be rich fodder for poetry.

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