Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Proper Sestina

. . . how much time is lost in invention, internal arrangement, and combination! for which nobody thanks us, even supposing our work happily accomplished.
––Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann

The sestina is a poetic form that I, at least, don't hear much about these days. Its invention is commonly attributed to Arnaut Daniel (fl. c.1180-c.1210), a Provençal troubadour of the 12th century. It pre-dates the invention of the initial canonic form of the sonnet, attributed to Giacomo da Lentini (fl. c.1233-c.1248). In contrast to the sonnet which has had a relatively unbroken history, the sestina keeps dropping out of sight and being rediscovered (by poets, at least), a discontinuity that appeals to me and fits in nicely with what's yet to come in this thread.  But now we need an example.

Dante Alighieri was a big admirer of the poetry of Arnaut Daniel, famously paying tribute to him in Purgatorio XXVI.139-48. Dante also occasionally used the sestina form himself.  One of the better known of these sestinas is "Al poco giorno, ed al gran cerchio d'ombra" which, for those fluent enough in Italian to appreciate fully, can be found >here<.  Later, one of Dante Alighieri's great admirers, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), translated this sestina into English, adding his own title.[1] This translation is where I will jump back into my story–––

Rossetti, Madonna Pietra

Sestina of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni

To the dim light and the large circle of shade
I have clomb, and to the whitening of the hills,
There where we see no colour in the grass.
Nathless my longing loses not its green,
It has so taken root in the hard stone
Which talk and hears as though it were a lady.

Utterly frozen is this youthful lady,
Even as the snow that lies within the shade;
For she is no more moved than is the stone
By the sweet season which makes warm the hills
And alter them afresh from white to green,
Covering their sides again with flowers and grass.

When on her hair she sets a crown of grass
The thought has no more room for other lady;
Because she weaves the yellow with the green
So well that Love sits down there in the shade,––
Love who has shut me in among low hills
Faster than between walls of granite-stone.

She is more bright than is a precious stone;
The wound she gives may not be healed with grass;
I therefore have fled far o'er plains and hills
For refuge from so dangerous a lady;
But from her sunshine nothing can give shade,––
Not any hill, nor wall, nor summer-green.

A while ago, I saw her dressed in green,––
So fair, she might have wakened in a stone
This love which I do feel even for her shade;
And therefore, as one woos a graceful lady,
I wooed her in a field that was all grass
Girdled about with very lofty hills.

Yet shall the streams turn back and climb the hills
Before Love's flame in this damp wood and green
Burn, as it burns within a youthful lady,
For my sake, who would sleep away in stone
My life, or feed like beasts upon the grass,
Only to see her garments cast a shade.

How dark soe'er the hills throw out their shade,
Under her summer-green the beautiful lady
Covers it, like a stone covered in grass.

–––Dante Alighieri
         (Tr., Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

Taking up now where my previous sestina entry, "On the Advice," left off, let's try to do this mostly without reference to any spirals. Go to the first stanza in Dante's poem, note the order of the final word in each line, and assign a letter or number:

                                                shade    hills    grass    green    stone    lady
                                                   A         B          C           D           E           F
                                                   1          2           3          4            5           6

Now, using the same letters or numbers, do the same with the second stanza: 

                                                lady    shade    stone    hills    green    grass
                                                   F         A           E          B          D         C
                                                   6         1            5          2           4         3

Going through six complete stanzas in this way, stopping before the final three-line envoi[2], the linear "rhyme" scheme[3] for Dante's poem emerges whether you know the spiral trick or not. Using alphabetic notation for now:


If you follow the pattern by connecting the dots (words) through six verses, you come up with a "map" that looks like this:

This is one possibly helpful way of representing "what happens" structurally in the background just barely below the surface, not only for the poet making a sestina, but also––in some way––for the poet's audience hearing or reading it.

We don't have to squint very hard to see that the paths between successive verses are not drawn at random.  There is a repeating pattern here whether or not the reader is aware of it in-time.  And this leads to the more usual descriptions of "how to" compose a sestina.

The repetition scheme above read, say, in this way:
ABCDEFF AEB    DCCFD ABEE       CB FA DD    EACFB        BDFEC           A
is how the reader/listener experiences the form in time.  (Spaces indicate one possible reading –– an "interpretation" which is outside the poet's control and further helps to mask the structure.)  It is doubtful, to me at least, that anyone, especially those unfamiliar with the sestina form, upon hearing a sestina for the first time, would "cognize" (entrap by the conscious) the form that produced this string of repeated words.  That there were repeated words, yes, of course; but not a/the compositional pattern.

But the question at this point is not the analytically easy factual question, "What is happening structurally in this or any sestina?" but: How does one "experience" the defining structure of a sestina?––the thing that makes it a sestina and not a sonnet or rap[4] or prose.  At the risk of drawing opprobrium from a sphere of poesy experts and amateurs, here is what I believe is happening (maybe even meant to happen in some sense) and not happening, experientially . . .

First of all, here's what doesn't happen in experiencing the poem.  Remember the initial, and surely the simplest, explanation for the spiral algorithm is to think first of a string of things in one dimension. Then to rearrange them by going into two dimensions and applying a spiral to select the things into a new order. And then carrying that newly ordered string back into one dimension.  That works fine for the carpenter building a sestina, the poet. But no way on earth does anyone experience a sestina by following the changing positions of the terminal words from one stanza to the next as a spiral. So what possibly does happen then?

Each of the six repeated words (A through F) carries some subjective (first-person) "weight" for the reader[5] that interacts with the poet's "narrative" beginning in the first stanza.  This may be at a conscious or subconscious level, but the main point is that the reader takes a word––like taking a card from a deck offered by a magician (NB!)––and is drawn in to follow it from verse to verse through the sestina's contrapuntal (NB!) maze.  The next time through, the reader might take a different word leading to a different path through the exact same surface narrative.  [Why am I reminded of Bach?!] And at any point in the middle of a reading, there is the possibility that attention might be drawn from the initially chosen word to a different one, subverting a consistent "correct" path; so instead of following, say, (D-D-D-D-D-D), the poem's structure and the reader's "attention status" might encourage a reading that reflects the path (D-D-D-D-E-E) or (D-D-F-D-C-D)––an uncountable number of ways to experience (interpret?? analyze???) the poem.

I realize that "uncountable" may seem like an overstatement, but remember that, if you wish to defeat this claim by actually calculating the number of possible paths as a fun exercise in combinatorics, you must include "attention flagging" moments––paths which leave a hole in the structural fabric. E.g. (still concentrating only on the word repetition scheme), we must include paths such as (A-B-B-x-A-C), (C-C-e-k-F-x), (p-q-E-q-E-E), and so on, where the lower case letters indicate undefinable variables ("stray thoughts") that happen to pop into the mind during a reading and that may or may not have anything to do with the poem but nevertheless do have something to do with the reader's experience.[6] One possible reading in this view––and maybe the most common and "human" one––might be, for example, (a-b-c-d-x-f) which might mostly follow the surface narrative but doesn't (can't or won't) follow the sestina's characteristic word repetition pattern at all.  (This is a version of what might be called the just-let-it-wash-over-you experience––an approach not to be scoffed at in approaching a new work.) Being quasi-engaged in something while remaining oblivious to how or why it works is not uncommon.

And now for a pop quiz.

You may not have noticed anything unusual about the fact that I chose, as an example to work from, an English translation of a sestina by Dante Alighieri rather than finding a sestina originally written in English.  Finding this Rossetti translation was a bit of serendipity, because it now allows me to ask you all a question that, if you answer it honestly to yourself, may prove a wee bit embarrassing... (It was embarrassing for me when I made the discovery.) –– Now that you know the sestina's defining form,  whether you think of it as spiral or linear, did you notice, when reading this poem, that the form was violated?  It wasn't Dante, but the translator Rossetti, who made a "mistake." The "mistake" occurs in verse 5 where Rossetti has reversed Dante's (proper sestina) terminal word order for lines 4 and 5.  We might try to "correct" the mistake by naively reversing lines 4 and 5 of the translation:

"Corrected" verse:

A while ago, I saw her dressed in green,––
So fair, she might have wakened in a stone
This love which I do feel even for her shade;
I wooed her in a field that was all grass
And therefore, as one woos a graceful lady,
Girdled about with very lofty hills.

This would technically fix the form, but now we have a real conundrum about what the verse says, or is supposed to say––how it scans between two poets––one poetizing directly in Italian and the other translating poetically into English.  Here is the original for comparison:
  • Io l'ho veduta già vestita a verde
  • Sì fatta, ch'ella avrebbe messo in pietra
  • L'amor, ch'io porto pure alla sua ombra;
  • Ond'io l'ho chiesta in un bel prato d'erba
  • Innamorata, come anco fu donna,
  • E chiusa intorno d'altissimi colli.

Even to attempt to discuss this form-content anomaly (I certainly hesitate to accuse Rossetti of making a mistake!), let alone resolve it, is well beyond my abilities in both poetry and translation. But that isn't the point here at any rate. My point is to demonstrate that if you disrupt the highly complex rhythm below the surface set up by a rigid structural scheme such as the spiral algorithm, it may or may not affect the content or message at the surface––that is, the experience.

This idea of sub-surface structure vs surface perception will return in a more violent form when I discuss music applications later. But for now I want to explore not mistakes and violations in the form, but surprising logical extensions.

(By the way, how did you do on the pop quiz?
Did you spot the mistake before I told you about it? 
And if so, did you discover it by hearing it
or analyzing your way into it?)

[1] This is not meant to be a full, or even fully accurate, tracing of a small piece of poetry's history, nor to give the sestina undue importance in that history. But in setting it up I did realize that it illustrates nicely how poets, possibly more than other artists, seem to talk with one another across centuries.
[2] I am purposely leaving out the envoi to make this demonstration more clear. I am aware that the envoi as a culmination or destination or turn may even be the point of a given sestina, so leaving it out of the discussion misses the full "poetry." However, I have noted that there are many variant "acceptable" patterns for the envoi that would better be discussed in light of the pattern found in those first six stanzas which are my focus here.  In other words: another time, maybe.
[3] More properly called a repetition scheme.
[4] . . . but rapping within the confines of the canonical sestina form would be an interesting challenge, wouldn't it.
[5] "Weight" is meant to convey more than "meaning" and refers not only to acceptable dictionary definitions, but to incorrect understandings, past associations, contexts, and even the subjectivized sound or "flavor" of the word.  Also, "read" may also be read as "hear" or "listen to."
[6] My contention (better: my guess), which I doubt I could ever adequately defend, is that a "perfect attention"-reading is either impossible or rarely achieved.  But as far as I know, either to demonstrate or disprove my contention would take defeating the first-person avowal problem––or worse, asking the reader to pay attention to what she is paying attention to, and then accurately report back.  (This is also not a good strategy for making love, but I digress (or perhaps it wouldn't be a digression––this particular sestina, after all, is about . . . . ) . . . . )