Sunday, November 18, 2012

A permutation puzzle -- the sestina

In a sestina, line-ending words are repeated in six six-line stanzas in a designated permutation of the words; the thirty-nine-line poem ends with a three-line “envoi” that includes all six of the line-ending words.  (After the first, a stanza's end-words take those of the preceding stanza and use them in this order:  the 6th, then the 1st, then the 5th, 2nd, 4th and, finally, the 3rd. In the envoi, two of the six words are used in each line.)  Here is a sestina by Lloyd Schwartz that uses only six words -- but its punctuation and italics cleverly shape variations of meaning. 

       Six Words      by Lloyd Schwartz

       yes   
       no
       maybe
       sometimes
       always
       never

       Never?
       Yes.
       Always?
       No.
       Sometimes?
       Maybe—

       maybe
       never
       sometimes.
       Yes—
       no
       always:

       always
       maybe.
       No—
       never
       yes.
       Sometimes,

       sometimes
       (always)
       yes.
       Maybe
       never . . .
       No,   

       no—
       sometimes.
       Never.
       Always?
       Maybe.
       Yes—

       yes no
       maybe sometimes
       always never.   

     Schwartz's poem (included here with his permission) was first published in Ploughshares (Spring 2003); it also is found in a collection for young readers, How to Eat a Poem (Dover Publications, 2006), edited by Ted Kooser. 
     Sestinas also may be found at these earlier postings:  19 August 2011 and  6 May 2011;  on 19 November 2010 was posted a "syllable sestina."
     Finally, I offer a link to another six-word sestina -- this one by Ciara Shuttleworth, (in the 29 November 2010 issue of The New Yorker).  Here is the opening stanza:

       SESTINA     by Ciara Shuttleworth

       You
       used
       to
       love
       me
       well. 

       Well, . . .

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