How To Write A Sestina


The Sestina is another favourite of mine. It seems to me that the formula, though a little complicated, guarantees a certain depth and etherealness that you may not have otherwise been able to achieve on your own.

The Sestina is about repetition. It is a conversation, a telling, a retelling, an obsession with an object, a person, a situation. It is definitely a poetic form that you should try at least once.


So what do you need to know about the Sestina?


1)      Length: The Sestina is 39 lines long (don’t be daunted by this, remember repetition is a major element of the form.)

There are six stanzas with six lines each. The seventh stanza only has three lines (known as an envoi)

2)      Rhyme: The good news – you don’t have to worry about rhyming

3)      Repetition: The six words at the end of each line of the first stanza must feature at the end of the lines of all the other stanzas. This is known as lexical repetition.

4)      Pattern: The bad news – the repetition of the end words follows a fairly complex pattern –


1st stanza – 123456

2nd stanza – 615423

3rd stanza – 364125

4th stanza – 532614

5th stanza – 451362

6th stanza – 246531

7th stanza – 3 lines – 2 end words per line

So, the sestina is not the easiest form to attempt but it can result in lovely reflections of what poetry can do and be.

The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina by Miller Williams is one of the best examples of how you can play around with the sestina and what the sestina can do. Look out for the pattern of the end words:


The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina

By Miller Williams

Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,

a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time

to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come

to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes

the way it went once, where nothing holds fast

to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,

whether we notice it or not, is home.

It may be true that if you move fast

everything fades away, that given time

and noise enough, every memory goes

into the blackness, and if new ones come-

small, mole-like memories that come

to live in the furry dark-they, too,

curl up and die. But Carol goes

to high school now. John works at home

what days he can to spend some time

with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.

Your sister was going to come

but didn’t have the time.

Some mornings at one or two

or three I want you home

a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.

Hold on fast

to thoughts of home

when they come.

They’re going to

less with time.







Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.

A myth goes that when the years come

then you will, too. Me, I’ll still be home.

If you decide to try the sestina for the first time, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

1)      Choose a topic or theme that you are comfortable with

2)      Your first stanza is your most important one, so spend some time on it.

3)      If you can, select words that can double as another word, or mean something else i.e. ‘day’ can be used as ‘today’, ‘yesterday’, ‘Monday’ in other lines; ‘game’ can mean a game you play or game you hunt.

4)      Don’t try to be ‘poetic’, the form will do the work for you; just focus on saying what you want to say.

5)      Your first draft may look, feel or sound funny; with the sestina you have to embrace the art of editing.



By Oyinkan Braithwaite

You do not know my name

To you, I’m just another black girl

Speaking some African language

Invading your wonderful country

Camouflaging an accent

Behind perfect English phonetics

My ancestors mastered your phonetics

Yet you cannot say my name

You try to distinguish a foreign accent

I’m not a peach coloured girl

If you hadn’t invaded my country

I probably wouldn’t speak the language

I cannot even speak my language

I annihilate the phonetics

Sometimes I think this is my country

But you cannot say my name

To you I’m just a clever black girl

With a very pretty accent

The accent

Is on perfecting the English language

So I’m not just some black girl

But armed with appropriate phonetics

I condense and transform my name

Making it easier for your country

Would you come visit my country?

Listen to how they change their accent

And correctly say your name

Speak to you in your own language

With rightly said phonetics

Or slangs like ‘babe’ instead of girl

But I’m just another black girl

In a cream coloured girl’s country

Who is an expert on phonetics

And has disguised her foreign accent

Who has lost out on her language

Yet still holds on to her name

Just another girl with a funny accent

In another country speaking another language

Cringing at the phonetics when you say her name

Keep writing!

About the author

Oyinkan Braithwaite

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June 2019
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