I’m subscribed to the Poetry Foundation’s podcast Audio Poem of the Day. I subscribed to this myself, it’s not a mystery like their magazine has been. The recordings are sometimes voiced by the poets that wrote them, which I’m a big fan of because every so often you get a little poet’s note where they might explain something about the process. Sometimes someone will read an older poem and might give a little blurb of biographical context. Often, it’s just a poetry reading. Regardless, it’s wonderful, all the little tidbits that get in there.
Last week, one of the featured poems was “Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce” by Paisley Rekdal. It was read by Rekdal and included an introductory note from her. She said the poem was “responding to the sestina,” but that this poem itself is not completely a sestina. In her words, it’s a “faux-stina.”
It got me thinking about form and how it can change. Artists of all media spend a ton of time learning the rules, and I think part of learning is learning how, when, and why rules are broken. It is not enough to simply throw caution to the wind, there needs to be intent behind it. I think when Rekdal makes the comment about this not being a perfect sestina and this poem is a response to the form, that speaks volumes to the poet she is and the work that went into this piece.
What is a Sestina?
A Sestina is a type of French poetic form that’s known for its complexity. Six stanzas, six lines each, sometimes with a short 3-line stanza, or envoy, at the end to really drive the message home. The complexity comes with the last word on each line.
The last word of each line repeats, though it does so in a set pattern. Here’s a diagram I found on Wikipedia that essentially lays it out:
I find it a little difficult to wrap my head around, though the spiral method is certainly a good way to attempt to memorize the end-word orders per stanza.
Here’s another graphic to explain the sestina order:
This is, in my opinion, an easier representation to comprehend. Plus, here you can really note the perfect symmetry of the sestina form. It’s honestly pretty impressive. It seems to be one of the most difficult to write, though I’ll admit I’ve never attempted it.
There are many word repetitions in this poem, though I decided to only focus on the words at the end of the lines to remain consistent with the sestina criteria. I found twelve instances of repeating end words, all of which repeated twice. The instances: note, flowers, cut, together, red, wither, watch, out, She did it, pleasure, stems, heal.
I’ll admit, I went a little DaVinci-Code and tried to figure out if their placement had any sort of numerical consistency, but the only thing I could come up with was that 12 ÷ 2 = 6, and six is the core of the Sestina form. That could be something, but I’m not sure.
Another thing I noticed was that the last word of the first and final stanzas are the same: together. I might be reading into this, but I think that adds a nice level of conclusiveness. It’s a bit of a nod to the symmetry of the sestina.
Other things consistent to the form is that there isn’t any sort of rhyme scheme or metric rhythm.
The poem doesn’t, however, keep consistent with the structure of the sestina. For one thing, it’s eight stanzas, not six, and as I stated above, it doesn’t include exactly the same pattern of end words as the form does.
Why do we care?
Why do this? Why create a faux-stina, or a poem in response to an entire poetic form? While I cannot say Rekdal’s exact reasoning since I’m not her, I can come up with my own interpretations.
Looking at the content matter gives me ideas. Like the title suggests, the speaker contemplates the bouquet of flowers they received in a new relationship after having been divorced. There was a regularity to their life that was changed and now they have moved onto something resembling regularity again, though a much different type.
We could infer that the sestina, the regimented, formatted way, was life during the previous marriage. There was a rhythm, a routine to it. Then, the divorce happens, and two people set out to reshape their lives post marriage into individual lives. Now, the speaker has a new love, and there’s a resemblance to that routined-life they lost, though having come from their experiences, they only allow in so much regularity.
There’s a hesitance to return to pattern and return to love. The speaker takes time to note the temporary existence of the flowers and how this beauty in front of them will die soon. They have loved and lost, so they aren’t necessarily jumping full into this new relationship. The flowers will wither and die, this new beautiful thing could too.
It is not completely hopeless though. The end of the poem has a positive outlook on this new love. The last line stanza talks about no longer being alone and through togetherness, feeling a sense of belonging again.
It’s a lovely poem and a wonderful response to the sestina form, I highly recommend checking it out!