Bruce Snider
Sestinamerica: Poetic Form in the Age of Trump

Two years ago I went to bed reading Elizabeth Bishop and woke up reading Donald Trump: overnight, compact stanzas morphed into sprawling tweet, the compressions of form giving way, despite Twitter’s character limit, to apparent formlessness. Even more disconcerting was how sleep seemed to transform the white clapboard house of Bishop’s famously exacting “Sestina”—

In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

—into verbal chaos fired off from the White House:

… Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star …

… to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius … and a very stable genius at that!

It was a bewildering juxtaposition at a time when, during Trump’s brief tenure as president, the world seemed more disorienting than ever before. I suppose in retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised to find Trump’s presence seeping even into the poems I read. After all, most mornings, I woke, grabbing my phone to scroll through headlines before my feet hit the floor. I watched cable news, obsessed over social media. Walking through the park to work, I listened to podcast after podcast, journalists rehashing the Muslim travel ban, Russian Collusion, North Korea, Charlottesville. All day updates pinged me from fear to rage to hopelessness. I’d been reading about the uptick in people seeking mental health treatment. I was having trouble sleeping, focusing on work.

Later that afternoon, standing in front of my introduction to writing poetry class, I continued our discussion of poetic form and began to describe the sestina. I explained its six sestets and single envoi, its thirty-nine lines and spiraling repetition of end words that frequently encourage awkward syntax and elliptical thought. It can be a dizzying form, I told them. I quoted Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio’s description of the sestina as “often maddening,” and James Cummins’ claim that the form “humiliates you as a writer…mocks you…” I described the feeling, when drafting a sestina, that you’ve taken a seat on some creaking old carnival ride that won’t let you go even as you sense that the giant spinning tea-cup you’re strapped into could fly apart at any minute. Turning toward the white board, I flashed on Trump’s face proliferating across cable news; his words echoing through the Twittersphere: tweeted, retweeted; his bullying compulsion to humiliate; his distortions of speech, meaning, fact; all of it colliding with my own pervasive feeling of helplessness.

Am I living in a sestina? I thought to myself. Are we all actually living in a sestina?

“Mediocre talents,” wrote John Frederick Nims, “are irresistibly drawn to forms like the sestina.” Some version of this sentiment has been echoed in various ways by critics and poets over the years. James Fenton called the sestina a “minor form.” Robert Hass has noted: “For a form to which books on form give so much attention, there are remarkably few memorable [sestinas] in the English and American Canon.” To be honest, I’d sympathized with for these attitudes. Never entirely sold on the sestina as a vessel for my own poetry, I’d thought of the form as more a technical exercise, useful for writers of mathematical temperaments. Although I’d admired sestinas over the years—A.E. Stallings’s “Like,” Sherman Alexie’s “The Business of Fancydancing,” Catherine Bowman’s “Mr. X”—the form had always seemed to me to overvalue cleverness and technical showmanship, too self-conscious, too graceless and eager somehow to impress like a version of my gawky fifteen-year-old self, trying to bum a cigarette from his older cousin. Despite being one of a handful of closed forms I taught each year, the plain-spoken Midwesterner in me had never sensed its relevance to the world as I’ve been compelled to write about it.

Enter Donald Trump. Or more accurately, enter Donald Trump as filtered through our current social media driven news cycle. For the first time in my life, the sestina has begun to seem not only like a form of our age but the form of our age. For a set of poetic limitations that originated in the Middle Ages, the sestina’s sense of powerlessness driven by repetition, its mechanical shuffling of end words careening toward absurdity or chaos, now seem frighteningly prescient in our digitized age of information overload, a form perfect for an era of social media outrage and the mind-numbing repetitions of cable news. Of course, reading the sestina as an expression of postmodern alienation isn’t new, but the more I’ve thought about the sestina in this context, the more our national moment seems encoded with the form. Isn’t listening to our current president a lot like listening to a Franken-sestina, its dismembered words and phrases reassembled into some linguistic B horror movie? Here is one of Trump’s off-the-cuff comments during a campaign speech:

Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, Ok, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my life credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are—nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was thirty-five years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right, who would have thought?—but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed us, they just killed us.

Here, however twisted, we find so many markers of the sestina—the numbing repetition of words and phrases, the forced elliptical logic as words draw attention to the formal construction/deconstruction of language, the constant swerving toward nonsense. In some ways, I’d even argue that Trump’s natural speech patterns read like one of the scores of sestinas written each year by poets new to the form.

Is it equally plausible that Trump’s endless lies and distortions of fact are allied to the sestina? As James Cummins has pointed out, critics have historically framed the form, like the villanelle, as a form of obsession; but the more sestinas I’ve read, the more it seems to me that the form’s insistence on distortion is what distinguishes it most dramatically from other received forms. To accommodate its technical demands—the intense juggling and re-juggling of end-words in such close proximity for thirty-nine lines—something has to give. Sometimes it’s the language itself, growing awkward in its repetitions or, in many contemporary versions, beginning to morph from stanza to stanza, becoming homonyms (“here” repeated as “hear”) or letters embedded in another word (“me” resurfacing as the last two letters in the word “time”), etc. Simultaneously, the sestina warps thinking, encourages non sequiturs, sudden reversals, elliptical logic. If the poem’s end words and thinking aren’t distorted, the content is. In strict interpretations of the form, it can be challenging to sustain realistic representations of time and space. Take, for example, the fairytale quality of Bishop’s weeping tea kettle and speaking almanac in “Sestina,” or Yolek’s haunting at the end of Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek” (“Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to, / He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.”). Strict sestinas seem to encourage magic and ghosts, fantasy and dreams. Other sestinas—perhaps a majority of those written today—are driven by comic distortions, the inflations and deflations of the joke. The mother of these, as others have pointed out, is John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements with Rutabagas in a Landscape,” a parody of a Spanish language version of a Popeye comic strip. It mocks the elevated traditions of received poetic forms even as it uses one. In time, scores of poets have followed suit with their own parodic stylings. 

What form, therefore, could be more suited to rendering moments or states of unreality and hyper-reality? How might the repetitions of the sestina, like Trump, undermine the stability of language, trustworthiness, and authority. Unreliability seems woven into the warp and weft of the form. The poet Beth Gylys notes that both of her sestinas in The Incredible Sestina Anthology, edited by Daniel Nester, “end up undermining the credibility of everyone in the poems.” In the same anthology, Jerry Morgan’s “When Unreal Girlfriend’s Die: The Manti Te’o Sestina” is tellingly about a real-life hoax perpetuated by Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o. Nicole Sealey’s sestina “Clue” organizes itself around the popular board game of the same name, using variations of its murder suspects—Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum—as end words. Hoaxes, games, mysteries—all perfect grist for the sestina-mill. In fact, it’s not uncommon for sestinas to directly acknowledge the untrustworthiness or instability of their speakers. In “Sestina: Travel Notes,” Weldon Kees’s speaker admits from the outset that he’s “Blind to the long, deceptive voyage” in much the same way that Lawrence Schumel’s “Endless Sestina” declares “I must be delirious” and the speaker of Brooks Haxton’s “Posttraumatic Sestina” asks “Have I lost my mind?” Does the sestina create speakers who, like the current White House, are blatantly untrustworthy? Is the form post-fact? Post-truth? Daniel Nester himself has noted that the sestina tends toward cartoon, so doesn’t it seem like the perfect form to render a world become cartoon, or at least reality show—with its contrived plot points, self-generated drama, and simplistic notions of love and hate, good and evil. Even Congress’s impeachment investigation, with its disorienting echoes of Watergate, begins to recall Gertrude Stein: “This is what history teaches: repetition.” Which, of course, more than anything, is what the sestina teaches.

As I’ve been reading and re-reading sestinas, and as I’ve begun writing them in earnest for the first time, I’ve been struck by how the instabilities and awkwardness of the form increasingly seem not just meaningful but emotive. This is how the world really feels, how I—and many others, I suspect—really feel. This use of a highly stylized form to render day-to-day experience makes me think of the British playwright Joe Orton, who resisted the absurdist label critics gave to his plays. He argued that his work was realist; he couldn’t help it if reality was absurd. I think you could make a similar argument for the distortions of the sestina. I don’t mean to imply that the sestina is only or even primarily suited for our current Trumpian hall of mirrors. I’m increasingly surprised by the form’s versatility, capable not only of expressing postmodern angst but distortions of feeling—desire, fear, grief—or of larger disruptions of language, memory, and history. Some of my favorite sestinas—Alberto Rios’s “Nani,” Donald Justice’s, “Here in Katmandu,” Randall Mann’s “Flagging”—fit some of these categories. In many ways, the sestina seems particularly well-suited as a form of emotional extremity and the agitated mind.

The more I’ve worked with the form, the less helpless I’ve felt navigating it and even, to my surprise,the social-media-driven world surrounding us. I’ve grown steadily more aware that social media and our current news cycle are like rivers that feed the currents of thought roiling inside me. It’s so easy to step into one and be off, thrust into rapids of jealousy, outrage, despair. For those of us naturally more anxious and depressed, this can be a perilous journey. Likewise, the sestina is a kind of river, a circling current of end words that propels the writer helplessly forward. You either use those words as jutting rocks to reach and push off from as you navigate the poem, or the form takes you under. Despite the sestina’s forceful undertow, I’ve gradually found something reassuring about those end words coming back around like the repetition of a mantra, or my fingers returning to count the prayer beads so as not to lose my place. Indeed, as I’ve worked with the form, I’ve felt myself growing more conscious of the various patterns surrounding me: the motifs of color in the kitchen tile, the reliable echo of my neighbor’s footsteps each morning—even Trump, who, from a different perspective, becomes just one troubling pattern within a larger set. In this way, the sestina has been both an embodiment of my anxiety and, oddly, part of its antidote. In fact, I’ve found myself thinking of Wallace Stevens’s observation that “A violent order is disorder; and /… A great disorder is an order. These / Two things are one,” a claim that could easily be an insight into the nature of the sestina.

I’m not trying to suggest that we can all survive the Trump era if we simply write sestinas. But I do wonder if my experience relates to the work of research psychologist Jamie Pennebaker, whose studies have shown a strong correlation between writing about painful experiences and an increase in a person’s ability to endure and grow from them by turning such experiences into story. The poet in me likes to believe there’s something especially potent about the sestina’s maddening spiral, the way it rushes forward, often dream-like, wearing its imperfections without apology. The sestinas I’ve been drafting lately touch on subjects as diverse as American school shootings, the decline of manufacturing, the excesses of social media—all contemporary problems echoed and illuminated within the lines of a seven-centuries old, Medieval poetic form. Maybe there’s something reassuring about borrowing from the past to make sense of the present. Or maybe the sestina simply has a peculiar ability to honor the reality of our unreal times. Like Trump, it generates chaos. Unlike Trump, it transcends the self, turning that chaos into meaning.

Bruce Snider is the author of three poetry collections: Fruit, winner of the Four Lakes Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press (2020); Paradise, Indiana (Pleiades Press, 2013); and The Year We Studied Women (University of Wisconsin, 2003).