By May Huang
I encountered my first sestina in college, through a creative writing workshop centered on poetic form. For homework, we read the canonical examples, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” and John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.” We learned the rules of the form: the sestina comprises six stanzas of six lines each, followed by an envoi (or “tornada”) of three lines. The six lines of each main stanza end with specific words that cycle throughout the poem in a strict pattern. At the end, all six words appear again in the envoi.
When composing sestinas, it is crucial to choose strong end-words—words that will each appear seven times throughout the poem and, with every iteration, add depth and nuance to the text.
When I was in that class, I had not yet become interested in literary translation, let alone the translation of sestinas. Yet I was already drawn to the form for reasons that would later overlap with my love for translation. I liked the challenge that writing a sestina posed, and I particularly loved how six words could shape-shift throughout a poem. I also liked that the form gives poets a road map to follow—you don’t know how the full poem will manifest, but you do know that one of six special words awaits you at the end of every line. These end-words bring a welcome certainty to a process marked by uncertainty.
In her essay “Sestina! or, The Fate of the Idea of Form,” literary critic Stephanie Burt presents a pessimistic view of contemporary sestinas. Contemporary poets, Burt argues, “use sestinas to lament their diminished or foreclosed hopes for their art.” Burt’s essay was largely informed by the “miniboom of sestinas” that occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period when sestinas frequently featured in anthologies and journals. Despite their seeming popularity, however, Burt argues that the sestina is “a difficult form whose difficulties seem arbitrary and whose accomplishments carry little cultural weight.”
Although Burt’s argument is compelling and persuasive, contemplating the fate of the sestina through contemporary English literature alone neglects the form’s place in world literature. Indeed, there is a lens through which sestinas do not embody artifice and inconsequence, but instead reflect a sense of purpose and cross-cultural significance: literary translation.
I wonder why more has not been said about the relationship between translation and the sestina, a form whose popularity arose from translation itself. It is widely believed that the first sestina was written by Arnaut Daniel, a twelfth-century Occitan troubadour. In the thirteenth century, Dante and Petrarch took an interest in Daniel’s poems and began writing Italian sestinas. Sir Philip Sidney brought the form into English literature in the sixteenth century, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that the sestina saw a “revival” in contemporary English poetry. It was during this time that poets such as Bishop, Auden, and Ashbery composed the sestinas typically placed on Western syllabi today.
To explore the affinity between sestinas and translation, we may turn to Albert Goldbrath’s “As There Are Support Groups, There Are Support Words,” which adopts “translation” as one of its end-words. The poem was inspired by the writings of nineteenth-century scientist and explorer Alexander Humboldt, whose Personal Narrative was translated into English by Jason Wilson in 2006. Throughout the seven stanzas, we travel from Humboldt’s era into a sci-fi future, only to return at the end to a simpler time in which “birds all choir” and “tender forests sigh.” The poem is about the evolution of words over time and the comfort or “support” that their original meaning can bring. Goldbrath writes: “Without these occasional reminiscences, any translation / from nation to nation, tongue to tongue, becomes a translation / difficult to sustain.”
“Perhaps non-English sestinas and the translation of sestinas are crucial for reviving the form.”
Most of the end-words in Goldbrath’s sestina transform throughout the poem. “Shire,” “fair,” and “siren” in the first stanza become “reassure,” camphor” and “Byron” in the second stanza, and continue to mutate in the stanzas that follow. “Hygrometer” and “nitrogen,” two words from Humboldt’s original text, remain the same but take on different meanings (“Hygrometer” becomes part of a fictional company’s name in the fifth stanza). But “translation”—and its connotation of moving from one language into another—remains intact, allowing the rest of the end-words to translate and evolve throughout the sestina.
Translation may play a supporting role in Goldbrath’s poem, but in Joan Larkin’s “Jewish Food,” it is the scene-stealer. The end-words in Larkin’s sestina are “bread,” “onions, “sweet,” “flesh,” “supper,” and “hungry;” however, the words we pay attention to throughout the sestina are the Yiddish ones instead: tsibele bulkes, kneidlach, Shabbes, etc. The poem even ends with a glossary of translated terms (Larkin herself is also a literary translator). In “Jewish Food,” non-English words that recur freely challenge English end-words that can only repeat in a strict pattern. Moreover, a Yiddish word sometimes appears next to an end-word to add further nuance to an otherwise generic term (“Pesach, supper / was called a Seder”), and on one occasion even replaces it entirely (“chopped liver, start of a fleysh-/edik meal). “Jewish Food” not only challenges the rules of the sestina, but also hints at the form’s possibilities beyond English.
This brings us to Julia Alvarez’s “Bilingual Sestina,” a poem that not only borrows the idea of translation or translated words, but makes translation an essential theme of the poem itself. Two of the poem’s end-words are “English” and “Spanish,” the two languages that dance around and with each other in the sestina. The poem begins by disavowing the primacy of English, a “blond, blue-eyed, gum-chewing” language that cannot speak for the Spanish memories the poem’s speaker is nostalgic for. But Alvarez acknowledges that Spanish has its limitations, too, for a “frail” Spanish word cannot always capture the full essence of “the thing it names.” The poem draws an important parallel between “word” and “worlds,” which alternate as end-words between the fourth and fifth stanzas: “begin first with those first words / you put in my mouth as you pointed to the world.” Throughout the poem, Alvarez grapples with the challenge of finding a world through words, especially when her bilingualism has seemingly split the world in two.
And yet, the poem does not ultimately pit English and Spanish against each other; rather, as Catherine E. Wall argues, it establishes a “bilingual aesthetic.” Throughout the poem, Alvarez also explores the possibility of embracing both English and Spanish to find intimacy, nostalgia, and belonging. This turn is encompassed by the end-word “closed,” which suggests confinement, but appears as “close” in the final two stanzas to denote familiarity. Indeed, Alvarez concludes the poem by translating English into Spanish—"words so close to what I mean that I almost hear my Spanish / heart beating, beating inside what I say en ingles.” In the end, translation allows Alvarez to simultaneously access the words and worlds that Spanish and English conjure. As a form that repetitively interrogates the multiplicity of words, the sestina feels particularly appropriate for a bilingual aesthetic.
Thus, if the contemporary English sestina is edging toward obsolescence or becoming marked by “uselessness,” perhaps non-English sestinas and the translation of sestinas are crucial for reviving the form.
I have a sestina to thank for my own foray into poetry translation. A few months after I took the aforementioned poetry workshop, I was working on an assignment for a translation workshop when I came across a Chinese sestina written by the Hong Kong poet Chung Kwok-keung (鍾國強). It was the first poem by Chung that I read, as well as the first Chinese sestina I encountered. I remember the poem as a turning point in my attitude toward contemporary Hong Kong poetry and translation. It was refreshing to see a traditionally Western form wrought in Chinese. And, above all, it was a striking poem—the kind I wished I could read in class, share with friends, and write. Translation allowed me to do all three.
“Translating Chinese sestinas allowed me to see the possibilities that the form has outside of Western literature.”
Chung’s sestina, “In the rain stands a bright house,” pays homage to Elizabeth Bishop’s famous sestina about a “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” and “tears.” The end words in Chung’s poem are “fruits” (specifically, the “wampee” fruit in the original Chinese), “weight,” “days,” “sound,” “house,” and “dream.” Both sestinas concern a maternal figure, a house, and the rain; they are also marked by a melancholy feeling that gathers weight as the poem goes on. In an essay he wrote about sestinas, accompanied by his own translation of Bishop’s poem, Chung uses the word “tension” (張力) to describe the effect of the sestina’s repetitive structure and layered meanings. The tensions created by the form heighten the tensions inherent in Chung’s sestina, which moves between time, dreams, and memory to explore a series of juxtapositions: weight and weightlessness, sound and soundlessness, presence and absence. The sestina is a form that likes to insist on the existence of things—six specific words are seated at the end of every line like punctual attendees marking themselves present. As such, the absence they are complicit in is stark. The poignancy of Chung’s sestina comes from the tension between the sound of rain and the mother’s silence; the weight of a bowl and the lightness of an empty table; the promise of ripe wampee fruits and the sadness of a sour fruit that only the dustpan touches.
Susan Bernofsky wrote in “The Art of Translation” that literary translation is “as rigorous as the composition of a sonnet or sestina.” The craft “requires not only a deep understanding of how style is created, but also the ability to write in many different styles; not only a sophisticated mastery of tone and nuance, but a sense of the direction in which a particular word choice will nudge a sentence.”
I have translated three of Chung’s sestinas so far, and each time I have indeed been reminded that translating a sestina is very much like writing one. In both the composition and translation of a sestina, the end-words you select are crucial, for you need to sustain them throughout seven stanzas. When translating Chung’s sestina “Gecko,” one of the challenges I faced was translating the Chinese word for “hypnosis” (催眠)—a fitting end-word for a form that is trance-like in its repetitions. Chinese can alternate between verb and noun forms easily (which are often the same), whereas I had to decide whether to use “hypnosis,” “hypnotize,” or “hypnotized” in my English translation. Moreover, the challenge of retaining end-words feels especially pronounced when moving between languages with different syntaxes. I frequently had to place compound modifiers, such as “night-like,” “light-interring,” and “once-pierced,” before the end-words to protect the sestina’s pattern. Making the arrival of these end-words feel unforced, a challenge already inherent in sestina writing, is doubly felt by a translator who must compromise and rearrange throughout the poem for their sake. So, although one might associate the contemporary English sestina with arbitrariness and inconsequence, the sestina in translation feels purposeful and intentional.
Walter Benjamin famously remarked that “the task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet’s work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such.” And yet, a sestina’s poet and translator share the same task of creating “echoes.” If the sestina is a form that adds depth to words through iteration and replication, does it not also engage in a form of translation? When translating a sestina, translators keenly experience the tensions and reverberations at the heart of literary translation.
After translating Chung’s poems, I now wonder: what’s next for the sestina? Translating Chinese sestinas allowed me to see the possibilities that the form has outside of Western literature. Chinese is a compact language, such that a generous amount of information can be packed into a single line, creating sestinas characterized by density and vividness. In another one of Chung’s sestinas, “Fish Tree,” the same number of characters is used in each line such that the poem takes on a uniform shape and resembles “slabs of dried bean curd” (Chung’s words). Chinese also has many homonyms, which can present compelling possibilities when it comes to repeating end-words.
Moreover, for the reasons mentioned in this essay, the sestina is a useful form through which writers and translators can probe nuances in word choice, see how initial translation decisions affect the rest of a text, and balance the innate tensions of maintaining poetic form and moving between languages. The composition of sestinas is similar to literary translation in that it, too, is marked by obsession, intimacy, and perseverance. Perhaps that is why I am so attached to the form; when I translate a sestina, I feel like both its translator and its poet. Every choice I make seems more intentional, and the consequences are more deeply felt. And, of course, I get to experience the joy of carrying six special words from one stanza into another, creating echoes that reverberate not only throughout the poem, but across languages.
Published Feb 3, 2021 Copyright 2021 May Huang