Sonnet vs. Sestina

I use to write poetry, years ago. Until I had a teacher who told me I was definitely more of a prose writer than poet. And as I also wrote short stories, essays, novels I was okay with her pronouncement. I guess in my youth I’d been toying with which to be. Poet? Novelist? I didn’t think I could be both.

A few years later I took a poetry class. Not because I had changed my plan to be a novelist. I just needed the credits and the class fit into my schedule. And maybe I could improve my skills. In that class I was introduced to a broader range of poets and poetry forms. The sestina is the form that I remember best. And the form I most enjoyed writing. It was like a puzzle, trying to tell a story within precise rules.

I’m currently reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life and I came across a short section where she discusses creating in the wrong structure and she compares sonnets and sestinas:

It’s amazing that such a goofily willful form [the sestina] survives, but some contemporary poets are intrigued by all that self-guiding structure…Unlike the testy sestina, the sonnet’s length and rhymes make it pleasing to the ear, and provide room for linguistic and thematic invention…The difference between the sonnet and the sestina is the difference between going fishing with a fishing net or in a diving bell: Both devices are built for the water, but the diving bell is hard, inviolate, confining, and inviting only to extremely curious fish; the net is flexible, porous, and expansive — perfectly designed to haul ’em in.

It sounds to me like she doesn’t appreciate the sestina at all! But then I’ve never tried to write a sonnet so perhaps I’m missing out. What do you think? Do sonnets make you soar while sestinas trap you with their rules?

Check out my attempt at writing a sestina here. I was inspired by a postage stamp-sized ad I read in the paper years ago. For those of you who are accomplished poets, I hope you’ll forgive me for attempting what you do so skillfully! And feel free to share your sonnets and sestinas in the comments or with a link. I’d love to read them!


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