Sestina: Poetic Forms

Learn how to write the sestina, a 39-line poetic form beast with six alternating end words. Get the guidelines and an example sestina here.
Publish date:

So yeah, I've been meaning to post something about the poetic form known as the sestina for quite some time. It's actually one of my favorite forms. You pick 6 words, rotate them as the end words in 6 stanzas and then include 2 per of the words per line in your final stanza.

(Common Poetry Terms.)

Let's pick 6 random words: bears, carving, dynamite, hunters, mothers, blessing.

Here's how the end words would go:

Stanza 1
Line 1-bears (A)
Line 2-carving (B)
Line 3-dynamite (C)
Line 4-hunters (D)
Line 5-mothers (E)
Line 6-blessing (F)

Stanza 2
Line 7-blessing (F)
Line 8-bears (A)
Line 9-mothers (E)
Line 10-carving (B)
Line 11-hunters (D)
Line 12-dynamite (C)

Stanza 3
Line 13-dynamite (C)
Line 14-blessing (F)
Line 15-hunters (D)
Line 16-bears (A)
Line 17-carving (B)
Line 18-mothers (E)

Stanza 4
Line 19-mothers (E)
Line 20-dynamite (C)
Line 21-carving (B)
Line 22-blessing (F)
Line 23-bears (A)
Line 24-hunters (D)

Stanza 5
Line 25-hunters (D)
Line 26-mothers (E)
Line 27-bears (A)
Line 28-dynamite (C)
Line 29-blessing (F)
Line 30-carving (B)

Stanza 6
Line 31-carving (B)
Line 32-hunters (D)
Line 33-blessing (F)
Line 34-mothers (E)
Line 35-dynamite (C)
Line 36-bears (A)

Stanza 7
Line 37-bears (A), carving (B)
Line 38-dynamite (C), hunters (D)
Line 39-mothers (E), blessing (F)

A few other notes on the sestina:

While many poets try to write sestinas in iambic pentameter, that is not a requirement. Also, when choosing your six end words, it does help to choose words that can be altered if needed to help keep the flow of the poem going. For instance, take a look at the six end words chosen above:

Bears could be the noun or the verb and singular or plural; it could also be modified to bares, and I could possibly even get away with changing it to beer or beard.

Carving could be made plural and be a noun or verb; it could also be turned into craving or cravings--maybe even caving.

Dynamite has less potential for change; or does it? Dynamite could be used as a noun, verb or adjective. It could also be changed into dynamo or possibly even be changed to mite, miter or might.

And so on. I think you can see what I'm getting at.


The Complete Guide of Poetic Forms

Play with poetic forms!

Poetic forms are fun poetic games, and this digital guide collects more than 100 poetic forms, including more established poetic forms (like sestinas and sonnets) and newer invented forms (like golden shovels and fibs).

Click to continue.


I got into sestinas as a result of taking a creative writing: poetry course at the University of Cincinnati taught by sestina master craftsman, James Cummins.

I'm going to go ahead and humiliate myself by posting one of my first ever sestinas (possibly, THE first ever sestina I've written). I was 18 at the time, so it truly is horrible.

"Senor Eastwood"

I can hear your blood
It's making noise
It is celebrating
The way you took that man down
With the guns in your hands
Now you can finally breathe

You begin to breathe
When you notice the blood
You cover with your hands
Your mouth mumbling noise
As your knees drop down
No more celebrating

The mortician is celebrating
As your lungs hypobreathe
He'd like to lower you down
After you run dry of blood
And run void of noise
He'd like to cross your hands

All a result of the man's hands
Not quick enough for celebrating
He didn't get any of that noise
He didn't get to hypobreathe
And he didn't notice any blood
He just went down

He got to take you down
With him and his hands
Just quick enough to draw blood
You didn't get much celebrating
As now you don't have to breathe
And you're deceased of noise

And now do you hear noise
Did you go up or down
Does it hurt to not breathe
Are you still trapped with your hands
Is there any celebrating
Is there any blood

I really would like to know about the blood and noise
For though the celebrating has all calmed down
I'm old and my hands are shaky as is the way I breathe

About the only thing going for this piece is that I did keep the end words in the right order. Outside of that, I picked horrible end words. Beyond that, I was still writing very, very, VERY abstract. Oh yeah, and there's like totally no punctuation. O, am I blushing!


Here's a little more on sestinas from around the Web:

* Wikipedia entry

* The Sestina Verse Form, by Ariadne Unst

* McSweeney's Internet Tendency sestinas page featuring several examples by many, many writers (including Professor Cummins)

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2021

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2021

Here are the top live streams, podcasts, and YouTube channels as identified in the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 576

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a back to blank poem.

Where Are the Toxic Families in Children's Books?

Where Are the Toxic Families in Children's Books?

Christina Wyman discusses how for children who suffer difficult family dynamics, seeing their experiences reflected in books is few and far between.

the island

The Island

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, build yourself an island.

Nawaaz Ahmed: On Personal Identity in Literary Fiction

Nawaaz Ahmed: On Personal Identity in Literary Fiction

Nawaaz Ahmed discusses how his personal experiences acted as the impetus for his new book, Radiant Fugitives, and how it went from novella to novel.

Comedy vs. Comity (Grammar Rules)

Comedy vs. Comity (Grammar Rules)

There's nothing funny about learning when to use comedy and comity (OK, maybe a little humor) with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Debut author Shugri Said Salh discusses how wanting to know her mother lead her to writing her coming-of-age novel, The Last Nomad.

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

Does your manuscript need a little more definition, but you’re not sure where to begin? Try these 100 tips to give your words more power.

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson discusses how she never gave up on her story, how she worked through internal doubts, and how research lead her out of romance and into historical fiction.