Friday, 7 December 2007

Do you know a sonnet from a sestina?

So, Ofsted have managed to offend government and teachers once more as they complain that all this preparing for examinations teachers unreasonably do means we're not getting enough poetry in classrooms these days. Michael Rosen, the Children's Laureate, leaped to the attack as well.

The thing which worried me most about the whole report was the way no-one seemed to notice the contradiction between their criticism that pupils were only encountering 'relatively easy' poems - ie fun modern ones - and their desire that poetry teaching should be about kindling a love of poetry. Now, personally, I think shoving a load of 'classic' poems down people's throats is a sure fire way to lose them forever.... However, far be it from me to disagree with Schools' Minister Lord Adonis (who seems to be more commonly known as 'Andrew Adonis' now, in a nice, socially equal kind of a way. He said: "I want to see a generation of young people who know their poetry from Auden to Zephaniah and their sonnets from sestinas."

Well, I am sure you know Auden (W.H. Auden - wrote 'stop all the clocks' from 4 weddings and a funeral? aha, yes I thought you would) and Zephaniah (Benjamin, fabulous dreadlocks, well known for writing in dialect - great poem about being kind to your turkeys at Christmas) and a sonnet (14 lines - Shakespeare wrote a LOT of them) but what about a sestina? No, well, I am surprised. Or not, actually. It's a 39-lined poem. Fairly impossible to do a lot of those in an hour's English lesson and the chances of you being able to write one for homework, also fairly slim. But because this blog is good for you, here's what one is.

Definition of the Sestina
--from the Encyclopedia Britannica (

An elaborate verse form employed by medieval Provençal and Italian, and occasional modern, poets. It consists, in its pure medieval form, of six stanzas of blank verse, each of six lines--hence the name. The final words of the first stanza appear in varied order in the other five, the order used by the Provençals being: abcdef, faebdc, cfdabe, ecbfad, deacfb, bdfeca. Following these was a stanza of three lines, in which the six key words were repeated in the middle and at the end of the lines, summarizing the poem or dedicating it to some person. The sestina was invented by the Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel and was used in Italy by Dante and Petrarch, after which it fell into disuse until revived by the 16th-century French Pléiade, particularly Pontus de Tyard. In the 19th century, Ferdinand, comte de Gramont, wrote a large number of sestinas, and Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Complaint of Lisa" is an astonishing tour de force--a double sestina of 12 stanzas of 12 lines each. In the 20th century, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden wrote noteworthy sestinas.

Did you get that? Well, basically, all the lines end in one of six words, in varying order. There's an example below, by Ezra Pound. And because it's Christmas time, a competition for you. Try writing a sestina of your very own, submit it via the comment button and I'll put you up in the main body of the blog... Fame, adulation, wealth... well, moral wealth anyway. Good luck.

Example of a Sestina

Sestina: Altaforte
by Ezra Pound

Loquitur: En Bertrans de Born. Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer-up of strife. Eccovi! Judge ye! Have I dug him up again? The scene is at his castle, Altaforte.
"Papiols" is his jouleur. "The Leopard," the device of Richard (Coeur de Lion).


Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let¹s to music!
I have no life save when swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair,purple,opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howel I my heart nigh mad rejoying.


In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When tempests kill the earth¹s foul peace,
And the light¹nings from black heav¹n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven God¹s swords clash.


Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour¹s stour than a year¹s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there¹s no wine like the blood¹s crimson!


And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears throught he dark clash
and it fills my heart with rejoycing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might Œgainst all darkmess opposing.


The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But it is fit only to rotin womanish peace
Far from where worth¹s won and the swords clash
For the death of sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.


Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There¹s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle¹s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges Œgainst "The Leopard's" rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry "Peace!"


And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought "Peace"!

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