Saturday, April 7, 2012

A septina ("Safety in Numbers") -- and variations

Recall that a sestina is a 39 line poem of six 6-line stanzas followed by a 3-line stanza.  The 6-line stanzas have lines that end in the same six words, following this permutation pattern:

   123456   615243   364125
   532614   451362   246531

The final stanza uses two of the six end-words in each of its three lines.  An original pattern for these was 2-5, 4-3, 6-1 but this is no longer strictly followed.

Can sestina-like patterns be extended to other numbers?  Poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud of the OULIPO investigated this question and he considered, in particular, the problem of how to deal with the number 7 of end-words -- for 7 does not lead to a sestina-like permutation.  Rombaud circumvented the difficulty (see Oulipo Compendium -- Atlas Press, 2005) by using seven 6-line stanzas, with end-words following these arrangements:

   123456   715243   674125   362714
   531672   457361   246537

In "Safety in Numbers," Oulipian Harry Mathews has followed Roubaud's specifications  -- and Mathews' "septina" also uses the words one, two, three, . . ., seven  as end-words.

Safety in Numbers     by Harry Mathews

The enthusiasm with which I repeatedly declare you my one
And only confirms the fact that we are indeed two,
Not one: nor can anything we do ever let us feel three
(And this is no lisp-like alteration: it’s four
That’s a crowd, not a trinity), and our five
Fingers and toes multiplied leave us at six-

es and sevens where oneness is concerned, although seven
Might help if one was cabalistically inclined, and “one”
Sometimes is. But this “one” hardly means one, it means five
Million and supplies not even an illusion of relevance to us two
And our problems. Our parents, who obviously number four,
Made us, who are two; but who can subtract us from some 

                    mythical three

To leave us as a unity? If only sex were in fact “six”
(Another illusion!) instead of a sly invention of the seven
Dwarves, we two could divide it, have our three and, just as four
Became two, ourselves be reduced to one
 – Actually without using our three at all, although getting two
By subtraction seems less dangerous than by division and would also 

                    make five

Available in case we ever decided to try a three-
some. By the way, this afternoon while buying a six-
pack at the Price Chopper as well as a thing or two
For breakfast, I noticed an attractive girl sucking Seven-
Up through an angled and accordioned straw from one
Of those green aluminum containers that will soon litter the four

Corners of the visible world – anyway, this was at five
O’clock, I struck up a conversation with a view to that three-
some, don’t be shocked, it’s you I love, and one
Way I can prove it is by having you experience the six
Simultaneous delights that require at the very least seven
Sets of hands, mouths, etcetera, anyway more than we two

Can manage alone, and believe me, of the three or four
Women that ever appealed to both of us, I’d bet five
To one this little redhead is likeliest to put you in seven-
th heaven. So I said we’d call tomorrow between three
And four p.m., her number is six three nine oh nine three six.
I think you should call. What do you mean, no? Look, if we can’t 

                    be one

By ourselves, I’ve thought about it and there aren’t two
Solutions: we need a third party to . . . No, I’m not a four-
flusher, I’m not suggesting we jump into bed with six
Strangers, only that just as two plus three makes five,
Our oneness is what will result by subtracting our two from three.
Only through multiplicity can unity be found. Remember “We Are


Look, you are the one. All I want is for the two
Of us to be happy as the three little pigs, through the four
Seasons, the five ages, the six senses, and of the heavenly spheres 

                    all seven.

Mathews' poem is found -- along with 150 other math-related poems --  in the anthology Strange Attractors:  Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008), collected and edited by Sarah Glaz and me.  
Links to postings related to this one include:   On 5 August 2010, snowballs by Harry Mathewspermutations are examined on 3 January 2011. The posting for 6 May 2011 offers a sestina that describes a sestina -- by Caleb Emmons.  A Mobius strip sestina by Heidi Williamson appeared 19 August 2011 and a syllable sestina by Tiel Aisha Ansari  on 19 November 2010.  On 16 September 2010, a sestina-variation with five-line stanzas (called a quintina) -- "The Prisoners' Dilemma" by Isaac Cates. 

As your time permits, check out other poetry conversations happening this National Poetry Month at Couplets where poet and blogger Joanne Merriam is featuring a guided tour of a variety of poetry blogs.

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