Repetitions are a feature of many established poetic forms – the triolet, pantoum, and villanelle all contain patterns of repeated lines, while the ghazal consists of couplets with a repeated refrain. The sestina is determined by six end-words, following a fixed rotational pattern through six six-line stanzas, with a three-line envoi that includes all the end-words.
Some of these forms are centuries old. The origins of the ghazal can be found in 7th century Arabia, while the pantoum arose out of the Malaysian pantun, which dates back at least 500 years. The earliest known example of the sestina was written around 1200 by Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour from Aquitaine.
The sestina challenges poetic creativity and craftsmanship as well as the strength of the narrative to sustain such rigorous constraints over 39 lines. The structure gives it a dense circularity, an attribute that Seamus Heaney exploits with consummate skill in ‘Two Lorries’, with its juxtaposition of cinematic images, of the specific and the intangible, the mundane and the deadly.
A shorter, less dense but formally pleasing alternative to the sestina is the tritina. This modern poetic form consists of three tercets with three end-words rotated in the sequence 123, 312, 231, and a single final line containing all three end-words.
The tritina was invented towards the end of the last century by Marie Ponsot and her colleague at Queens College, Rosemary Deen. If you are not familiar with Ponsot’s poetry, it is well worth exploring. Beautifully crafted, subtle and melodious, her work is both formally elegant and full of zest, pragmatic and intellectual. She is equally at home writing about Greek myth, Elena Cornaro or Peter Rabbit’s sister Mopsy as she is expounding on waste pipes and window frames.
Here are the opening lines of ‘Roundstone Cove’, a tritina from Ponsot’s collection The Bird Catcher (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998):
The wind rises. The sea snarls in the fog far from the attentive beaches of childhood— no picnic, no striped chairs, no sand, no sun.
You can read the full poem here.
In this case the end words are ‘fog’, ‘hood’ and ‘sun’. The poem has a satisfying circularity in both its form and its content, as Tamar Yoseloff observes in her eloquent discussion on the tritina form: ‘ Look at how the circular motion of the poem reflects the various roundnesses; the name of the place, the return to childhood, the pregnancy of the speaker, the hood.’ These ’roundnesses’ are represented visually by the shape of the letter ‘o’, which appears frequently – as well as fog and hood, the poem includes moonlight, mock, lost, long, poor, while the final line employs a graceful inversion to lift the poem out of its sombre, reflective mood towards a more upbeat note of resolution:
Fog hoods me. But the hood of fog is sun.
In her essay, Yoseloff proceeds to share two further examples of the tritina, both of which suggest circularity in their themes.
Embedded in the tritina’s cyclical structure is another geometric form – the triangle. The sequence of end-words through the tercets can be modelled by the rotational symmetries of an equilateral triangle, as illustrated below with the vertices 1, 2 and 3 representing the respective end-words (we are rotating the triangle around its centre point):
David Yezzi‘s ‘Tritina for Susannah’ draws neatly on both the form’s cyclical dynamic and its angularity:
The water off these rocks is green and cold. The sandless coast takes the tide in its mouth, as a wolf brings down a deer or lifts its child.
The poem can be read in full on the Poetry Foundation website.
Like ‘Roundstone Cove’, ‘Tritina for Susannah’ is set by the shore, with the sea’s rhythms providing a background melody to contemplative temporal and generational shifts. In contrast with the soft contours of Ponsot’s poem, however, Yezzi’s tritina is characterised by its sharply defined outlines – the rocks, the fangs that we visualise within the wolf’s mouth, the child’s fingers ‘stinging brightly in the cold’. Even the predominantly monosyllabic words that make up the poem are hard and clear. There is an unsettling edginess, epitomised by the wolf – both predator and parent – and the chill resonance of the final line.
As Tamar Yoseloff astutely observes, the tritina ’embraces the trinity of villanelle, sestina and sonnet: it is perfect for the circular argument often found in a villanelle, but has the more conversational feel of a sestina and the proportions (and turn) of a sonnet.’
It is fun to experiment with the form, perhaps envisaging as you do so the rotational symmetries of a triangle. The results can be unexpected and intriguing.
Julie Larios (2014) ‘Undersung | Marie Ponsot: Wandering Still’ in Numéro Cinq Magazine, Vol V, No. 1, January 2014. Available at: http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2014/01/09/undersung-marie-ponsot-wandering-still-julie-larios/
Marie Ponsot (2016), Collected Poems. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
David Yezzi (2016) ‘Marie Ponsot’s Ever-Fixed Mark’ in The Sewanee Review, Summer 2016. Available at: https://thesewaneereview.com/articles/marie-ponsots-ever-fixed-mark
Tamar Yoseloff (2012) The Tritina. Available at: https://poetryschool.com/assets/uploads/2016/01/Tamar-Yoseloff-Tritina.pdf