National Poetry Month: Day 20

Always Upwards

The prerogative of the phoenix was to rise
from the ashes for a second try: not so Icarus,
whose first tumble was his fatal fall;
do we only get one chance to fly?
Should we all heed forebears’ call
lest our wax melt, and we all die?

Stumbling to the sky, to climb, to die,
we accept death as the price of the rise
to apotheosis; and though we call
for better wax, stronger feathers, Icarus
knows as we that though pride may fly,
it always comes before a fall.

Though he must have known he would fall,
sooner or later, and that he would die
(for don’t we all?), the need to fly
was too great. The urge will rise
until, much like our ancestral Icarus,
we answer the sun’s siren call.

When the final boarding call
tugs me to the gate doubt will fall
by the luggage check. Sun-reacher Icarus
clutches the same straws: I’d rather die
than crawl my long life through, rise
to my kneels only. Tomorrow, I fly.

Man, they say, was not built to fly;
aeroplanes, says man, because the call
of the sky is too strong. Souls rise,
bodies follow. So often do we fall
we scarcely notice any more; to die
is only to stumble, and this knew Icarus.

Rise, Icarus, and fall:
Fly, call out: “I shall not die.”

— Delilah Des Anges

Determining whether a sestina is an easy or hard form to write depends on one’s ability to choose the right place at which to end lines. The pattern of repeating words encourages the exploration both of the central theme and of the meanings (multiple) of individual words in different contexts. The knowledge of the latter is brought to bear on the former over the course of the poem: it is best not to choose a fleeting or shallow thought for the sestina as it must stand up to lengthy poetic examination!

The changing pattern is achieved, as with a pantoum, by moving the lines (or in this case, line-endings) stanza by stanza in a cycle. How one envisages this moving is up to the poet (a friend of mine uses finger movements to remind herself of how the lines change), but the formula is this:

The first stanza has six lines, as do all the following stanzas barring the final epigram which may be any number of different formats. Number the lines in the first stanza 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

In the next stanza, the lines from the preceding stanza are rearranged thus: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3. As you can see, this is also a spiral decreasing of “jumps” between last and first: 6-1 is the largest jump, then 5-2, then finally 4-3, moving towards the middle lines of the stanza.

For the next stanza, take the preceding stanza as your starting point and apply the same formula.

This may sound complicated, but in practice it is quite straightforward.

The Wikipedia page for the sestina will doubtless do a better job of explaining than I will about the final lines.


Throughout this month I will be nagging readers to donate to MSF