A sestina is a thirty-nine line poem in seven stanzas. The first six stanzas must be six lines long followed by a seventh three-line stanza. The end words of the six lines of the first stanza must be repeated in a prescribed order at the end of each line of the six succeeding stanzas. The difficulty of the form explains why there are not many sestinas in the body of English or American poetry.
The 1962 anthology Poet’s Choice features one poem selected by each of one hundred English and American poets from the poets’ own work, with a brief comment by the poet on why he or she selected the poem. In that anthology I discovered this sestina by Robert Francis, about whom I have never heard and know nothing. Regarding the poem, Francis writes:
If you drape thirty-nine iron chains around your arms and shoulders and then do a dance, the whole point of the dance will be to seem light and effortless. Commenting on “Hallelujah: A sestina,” several people said: “We don’t know what a sestina is but we enjoy the poem. It made your father vivid.” I was both irked and pleased.
It was the first sestina I ever attempted. What made it a little easier was an idea I had before I started. If six words are to be repeated over and over, two things should be true of them: (1) they should be words so “useful” that the ear will keep track of their recurrences and (2) enjoy the pattern of chiming. Such a word, for instance, as hallelujah. That word suggested another Hebrew one, Ebenezer. With these two words as a starter, I was on my way. Out of these two words grew everything I found to say.
Here’s “Hallelujah: A sestina”:
A wind’s word, the Hebrew Hallelujah.
I wonder they never give it to a boy
(Hal for short) boy with wind-wild hair.
It means Praise God, as well it shoud since praise
Is what God’s for. Why didn’t they call my father
Hallelujah instead of Ebenezer?
Eben, of course, but christened Ebenezer,
Product of Nova Scotia (hallelujah).
Daniel, a country doctor, was his father
And my father his tenth and final boy.
A baby and last, he had a baby’s praise:
Red petticoat, red cheeks, and crow-black hair.
A boy has little to say about his hair
And little about a name like Ebenezer
Except that he can shorten either. Praise
God for that, for that shout Hallelujah.
Shout Hallelujah for everything a boy
Can be that is not his father or grandfather.
But then, before you know it, he is a father
Too and passing on his brand of hair
To one more perfectly defenseless boy,
Dubbing him John or James or Ebenezer
But never, so far as I know, Hallelujah,
As if God didn’t need quite that much praise.
But what I’m coming to–Could I ever praise
My father half enough for being a father
Who let me be myself? Sing Hallelujah.
Preacher he was with a prophet’s head of hair
And what but a prophet’s name was Ebenezer,
However little I guessed it as a boy?
Outlandish names of course are never a boy’s
Choice. And it takes time to learn to praise.
Stone of help is the meaning of Ebenezer.
Stone of Help–what fitter name for my father?
Always the Stone of Help however his hair
Might graduate from black to Hallelujah.
Such is the drama of boy and father.
Praise from a grayhead now with thinning hair.
Sing Ebenezer, Robert, sing Hallelujah!