Sestina – “Pink” – and Little “How-To”

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This is an old poem that I am reposting as part of dVerse Poets Pub formal poetry exercises and also for Jingle’s prompt re color. It is a sestina, one of my favorite forms (though I don’t do them enough.)

I’ve included a little information about my take on the form below.

Pink

Trees full of blossom, the night smells pink
though it’s black, a thick summer darkness
barely held back by window screen.
I hear dishes in the sink, a familiar clatter,
and think of the summer kitchen
of my youth (my grandma’s), where the women wiped

the dishes, too many for the rack, wiped
the oilclothed table too; the men, skin pink
from glossy food, escaped the kitchen
glare, slinking into the darkness
of the den, the chatty t.v. clatter
a sound fluorescence against the dim screen.

There too, we were protected by a screen
from bites, buzz, wing, and the wind that wiped
that stretched-flat land, a soft clatter
of night and grass and damp that blew towards the pink
edge of dawn, an engine of chill darkness
that was only truly blocked by the glow of kitchen

yellow. I watched one aunt in the kitchen,
amazed that she never even tried to screen
her keen sense of life’s darkness.
When she looked at my grandmother, she often wiped
her eyes, and sniffing, face too pink,
cleaned with a banging clatter.

Though she was always a center of clatter,
that aunt. She had a kind of two-walled kitchen
in her own house, open; and wore hot pink,
played jokes, charades, a half-hearted screen
of despondency, still, the good housewife, she wiped
the smallest speck from her counters. Her own darkness

seeming inevitable, it was a darkness
she hurried towards, smoking, drinking hard, the clatter
of uncertainty (as to timing) wiped
her out. In the meantime, she cleaned-—my grandma’s kitchen
after her death, and, at the Funeral Home, made a quick screen
of the corpse. “That lipstick’s way too pink,”

she hissed, then wiped my grandma’s lips like a kitchen
stain. Despite the clatter in my brain, I served as screen,
a guard in the blossomed darkness, as she rubbed off pink.

(All rights reserved. Karin Gustafson – from Going On Somewhere, available on Amazon.)

The sestina is an extremely “ordered” form of poem with a strict line structure that focuses on six repeating “end words,” (that is, the last word in each line.) Thankfully, these end words do not have to rhyme.

There are six six-line stanzas, and six repeating end words. At the end of the six six-line stanzas, there is a three-line stanza (the “envoie”), in which the six repeating words are used again, two per line.

The hard part is not just repeating the six words, but repeating them in the right order; each stanza turns itself partly inside out for the next one. The music of the poem comes from the shifting, and sometimes surprising, echo of the repeating words. If the meaning and tone of the words can also shift through the poem, a kind of irony can be found.

Here’s how the form works:

For notation purposes, I’ll assign each end word a number – 123456. That is the order of the first stanza.

The second is 615243. The third is 364125, the fourth 532614, fifth 451362, and finally 246531. You’ll notice that the last line of each stanza becomes the first of the next, the second- to-last line, the third, etc. It helps to think of the stanzas as interlocking or clasped hands, with the clasp between the fingers moving up the hands with each stanza. (I guess they’d have to be Anne Boleyn-style hands – six fingers.)

There are different forms for the order of the words in the last three-line stanza; my favorite puts the words in reverse of their original order, meaning 65,43,21.

The form is hard, yes. A tip: once you’ve decided on your repeating words, write them down in the prescribed order for the entire poem. (This means that you’ll have a nearly blank page or so, with just a column of numbers and words on one side.) This list will not only help you keep your focus; it will also avoid the frustration of having a nearly finished poem that, you suddenly realize, did not quite follow the rules. (If it’s a great poem as is, terrific. But if you wanted to write a great sestina, this can be upsetting.)

It is useful to pick end words with flexible meanings and usage (meaning words that can be either nouns or verbs, even homonyms). Commonplace words are easier, but less interesting.

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29 Comments on “Sestina – “Pink” – and Little “How-To””


  1. Exceptional. Loved your notes too. I agree that ordering your thoughts and the end words is the best way to prepare; however, notwithstanding your preparation you wrote your readers straight into a movie, into shifts in viewpoint, and shifts in time. We went through 6 stanzas and an envoy as though it were a complete novel, a wide screen film, playing out inside our minds. Thank you for this piece of art. G.

    • manicddaily Says:

      Thanks so much. It such an interesting form and such a revelation to see yours with those short crisp lines. I tend to think in pentameter–I’m not sure that it’s true pentameter, but my lines are predictably long.

  2. Laurie Kolp Says:

    One of my favorites so far… I love that this isn’t forced or reptitive… great internal rhyming.


  3. I love how you maintain the flawless narrative flow despite the corset of the form. I agree with Gay it read like a novel. Thank you.

  4. hobgoblin2011 Says:

    Very nice job. I totally agree the form is rather difficult. You made it look rather easy though, really nice write. Great tips too, I’ve done a bunch over the years and never seem to make it easy for myself, like tonight I picked math terms, lol Thanks a lot, enjoyed the read

  5. Reflections Says:

    Another fine example of the form. Yours read like such the story of the narrative, blending well the form.

    Great notes to take note of. I read Laurie’s and found she used the homonyms, which seems to aid in making the overall piece sound repetitive. Thank you.

  6. brian Says:

    nice…i really like your play on the form…some great storytelling in yours as well….i like your tips as well…will ponder doing one of my own as i travel…

  7. Elliot Says:

    I know exactly what you mean by the night smelling “pink.” It’s simple but effective. A lot of that here.


  8. What a touching, touching story about your grandmother and childhood. I like how you carried the stanzas one to another, not always ending the sentence on line six. That gives a definite flavor to the story I think. The ending is sad, but revealing of your charming aunt who must must have been fun to grow up with. She reminds me of several of my sisters. I can’t do sestinas because when finished I look at the repeating words and they are like sore thumbs, constantly and obviously banging around inside the poem. I saw my first sestina as a youngster, written by one of my all-time favorite poets Elizabeth Bishop, and she actually titled it “Sestina.” Her poem reminds me of yours, about a grandmother and a child. I didn’t know what sestina was back then, but I enjoyed her poem (of course) enough to look up the definition and then the form. When I returned to her poem with instructions on the form in my hand, I was absolutely amazed that I had not noticed its rigid structure on the first go round, nor the repeating words… It made me think that it takes incredible talent to do that, to whisk a poem by the reader in such a staunchly tight, formal format, and yet tell a charming, endearing story so beautifully that the form itself disappears. Just now, while in the midst of writing this I revisited Elizabeth’s “Sestina” to bring back the memory of reading it. And honestly, I like yours more. It is more emotional, more personal, more endearing, and although both poems took me back to a lovely childhood, yours painted it in incredibly vivid, living colors. Far more than just pink. I know you mentioned a concern about the length of your lines, but it works, really well. Beautiful memories, beautiful poem.

    • manicddaily Says:

      Thanks so much, John, for your kind words and the time thinking about this. I know the Bishop sestina, of course, which is wonderful. I can’t remember whether I read it before or after this one, but it seems a less topsy-turvey family scene so perhaps less familiar to a modern reader! I know what you mean about sore thumbs. The choice of words is what’s especially hard with these as you may get halfway through and stuck because the six words just aren’t flexible enough. This was my second one, but I may repost my first, stuck in the archive of the blog, as it doesn’t work very well. (it’s called “Vacuum.”). May be interesting. Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment.

  9. Brendan Says:

    Fine fine job here – the narrative is fluid and uses the schema like a guitar, strumming out the ballad’s strict pattern while telling a great story. And the ending is sublime, a trope on how things skip a generation in order to repeat themselves.

  10. hedgewitch Says:

    I also love this form and don’t use it enough because it requires real concentration and mental energy, but your poem is an example of how much we get back for that investment. Very fine sestina, and an excellent window into life as well–esp the sad truth of the ending told unsparingly.


  11. A truly wonderful sestina. I love your use of enjambment. You brought the character of the aunt vividly to life and painted the scenes convincingly too. As others have said, it’s a novel in a poem!


  12. Intense, beautiful, sad, Karin. I’m so glad you shared it with me. I love to write sestina’s as well. I find that chosing the right end words leads to some amazing surprises. This is one of the best I’ve enjoyed. And the color tied it together so well. Thank you.

    • manicddaily Says:

      Victoria, thanks so much. I hated to burden you with it, but I was thinking of it after your reading your wonderful essay about using color in poetry. Color is such a wonderful emotive force–just incredibly evocative I find. Not so much in my poetry! But in general. K.


  13. perfect with the form and my god your imagery is mesmerizing! I was totally captivated at how you placed me right there inside the scene and slowly guided me through touching each of the senses. GORGEOUS!!!!!!!!!! thank you!!!

    my latest
    http://magicinthebackyard.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/shine-eternal/

  14. Zoe Says:

    I hadn’t come across this form before and I am itching to try it. I love the subtle change in this poem – it is poignantly written and leaves me thinking. Great poem!

  15. Taylor Says:

    this is beautiful.

    cheers, love pink colors, 🙂

  16. Tinkerbell Says:

    K, this is quite moving, my eyes got misty reading it. It’s incredible. I love it.

    Those concluding three lines are potent. You realy allowed the reader to experience the scene of the story with your word choice. It’s really lovely, and so moving with your narrative.

    Thank you for the link to this, it’s actually one of my favorite poems now. I can’t wait to read more of your poetry.

    ~Tinkerbell


  17. […] Real Toads to write something that began with a last line of an earlier poem.  My earlier poem “Pink” is a sestina, that ends with this poem’s first line. […]


  18. […] Actually, one of my personal favorites of my poems is a sestina called Pink that may be found here.   This is one of many poems and draft poems written each day this April 2015 National Poetry […]


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