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The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina -- Miller Williams

(Poem #904) The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina
 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.
-- Miller Williams
[Note on form]

Sestina: 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.

        -- EB

[Commentary by Thomas]

The danger with sestinas, of course, is that they can easily become
repetitive and dull: no matter how far afield the poet roams, he is
compelled to return to one of the six words with which his lines end. It
goes without saying, then, that the choice of these six words dictates not
just the form, but also the content of the poem; they are like the
scaffolding around which the poet (more architect than artisan) piles up the
bricks and mortar of individual lines of verse.

Miller Williams handles his architecture adroitly. His six words -- home,
time, come, goes, fast, to -- are simple enough to feel natural and unforced
wherever they occur; at the same time, they are evocative enough to give the
poem a depth beyond mere nostalgia.

[Commentary by Martin]

The sestina, as Thomas has pointed out, can be a rather restrictive verse
form; while six fixed words per stanza may not seem like too much of a
constraint, the fact is that line endings have a disproportionately large
effect on a poem, even when (as in the case of most[1] sestinas), the poem
is unrhymed.

As with villanelles, one way to counteract the monotony of the repeated
words is to play with the form. Techniques include using words that can be
cast into various parts of speech, relaxing slightly the 'exact word'
restriction (to/too in today's poem, for instance), and, as Williams has
done here, playing with the line lengths to add variation to the stanzas.

Note, though, that this is not merely idle wordplay superposed on the form.
The shrinking lines are an integral part of the poem, mirroring the
lessening spate of memories
   to thoughts of home
   when they come.
   They're going to
   less with time.
and building up to the startlingly unexpected monosyllabic verse, 'Time goes
too fast. Come home.'. Watching the message emerge, like a rabbit out of a
hat or, perhaps, like a three dimensional image springing into life from a
random sea of dots, is nothing short of magical, and adds greatly to the
impact of the poem.

[1] a counterexample is Swinburne's "The Complaint of Lisa", a rhyming
double sestina to which the only applicable phrase is 'tour de force'.


Here be a nice link:

"The Complaint of Lisa":

Reading the poem, I (Martin, that is) kept getting echoes of MacNeice's
"When all is told, we cannot beg for pardon" (from 'The Sunlight on the
Garden'); it makes a nice companion piece to today's poem. poem #757

[On the theme]

This week we're going to examine some inhabitants of the menagerie of named
verse forms: familiar creatures such as the sonnet, the haiku, the
villanelle and the limerick, and more curious beasts such as the sestina,
the triolet and the pantoum. If you have any suggestions for these (or for
any other named verse form), do write in.

87 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Donald Williams said...

An unobtrusive tour de force: it takes an oxymoron for me to try to characterize this poem, because that's the way I read it--marveling at the technique that pulls off such a difficult and imaginative feat of meter and structure and at the same time keeps a natural voice, almost country-western-plaintive in its honing for the one who has left. Delightful imagery: the compass, the mole-like memories. I am warmed by this poem and also envious of it, because the only sestina I ever wrote was artificial from start to end. I must find and read more of Miller Williams's work.

Donald Mace Williams
Canyon, Texas

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