Saturday, September 19, 2009


As I mentioned last week, September’s set of Weekly Poems are all long-standing personal favorites—poems to which I feel a strong connection: not simply poems I admire but ones that “speak” to me in some deep way.

This week’s offering is by poet Elizabeth Bishop, a long-time favorite poet of mine. The poem’s title is descriptive of the poem’s form—i.e., a sestina is a poem of six 6-line stanzas (often, but not always, as here with a 3-line envoi). The form is built on a series of end words that change according to a set pattern:

Line 1 in the first stanza becomes line 2 in the second
Line 2 in the first stanza becomes line 4 in the second
Line 3 in the first stanza becomes line 6 in the second
Line 4 in the first stanza becomes line 5 in the second
Line 5 in the first stanza becomes line 3 in the second
Line 6 in the first stanza becomes line 1 in the second

& so on thru the six stanzas, each succeeding stanza being formed in the same order relative to the preceeding one. If this pattern were followed all the way thru a seventh stanza, then the order of the end words in a seventh stanza would have come full circle—they’d be the same as the first. In the case of Bishop’s poem, the six repeating words are “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” & “tears.” As someone who’s written sestinas (actually a “fun” form in my opinion) I can tell you that Bishop’s choices are interesting—five of the six are quite flexible, but almanac seems extremely unlikely! Bishop handles it beautifully.

Of course the poem isn’t simply “about” being a sestina—title notwithstanding; it’s really poignant in an under-stated way. Hope you enjoy it this September Saturday.


September rain falls on the house.
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.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Elizabeth Bishop


  1. It is very clever but I found myself getting caught up in the unraveling of the mechanism rather than appreciating the overall message. It gave me a bit of a headache reading it - such things must be hell to write.

  2. John this is beautiful and I transported myself to my grandma's kitchen circa 1965... while did bring on some tears.

    I also read it aloud to my daughter who said..meh..

    she's young yet :)

    Peace - Rene

  3. Oh, my. I bow to Elizabeth Bishop. And again, and again.

    By the way, one of my favorite poems is her "The Fish." ..."and everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow..."

  4. Hi Alan, Rene & Karen

    Alan: Sorry for the headache; I think perhaps my intro may have been somewhat at fault, as it may have enouraged "unraveling the mechanism."

    Rene: So glad you liked it; probably a lot of kids would say "meh."

    Karen: Yes, she was such a good poet, & "The Fish" is indeed remarkable!

  5. How unique, I'd never heard of this particularly intertwining complex poetry. I've a little system myself but nothing this intricate. Have to agree with Alan Burnett, one tends to let the mind wander into the area of "now let's see, which line and what word..." still, it's poetry! Thanks for sharing, John.

  6. I've always been enamored of the sestina, and the way it turns around on itself, how it looks backwards and forwards while continuing its movement to its eventual end.

  7. Hi Cathy & T:

    Cathy: Ah well, as I mentioned in my comment to Alan, I may have put unnecessary stress on the form--which I find fascinating--in my intro. Sounds like you liked it ok, tho. Thanks for stopping by.

    T: That's one of the best descriptions of a sestina--if not the best--I've ever read.

  8. How cool to understand the structure of the poem. It would probably help me to study the forms. Wow.

    It's a perfect September day here, not rainy but very very Septemberish. This is exactly the poem for today. Thanks!!

  9. Hi Reya: Glad it's nice in DC--it's about picture perfect here in Idaho, too--blue skies, temperatures in the 80s. September can be such a glorious month! & glad you liked the poem!

  10. wonderfully fun post -'s amazing how much of what i "used to know' i have "forgotten" - i sometimes am far too.....well, always remember the mechanics of writing and just "go with the flow of the moment" so to speak -

  11. I'm with T in loving the reassuring circularity of the sestina. Such a moving poem, John. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  12. Thanks for this. Ought to read more EB (and have a go a a sestina, even).

  13. Hi Jenean & Audrey & Dominic

    Jenean: Go with the flow--yes! Glad you enjoyed this.

    Audrey: Thanks again! & for the shout out on FB!

    Dominic: Bishop is a very rewarding poet to read--& sestinas are fun!


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.