The poetry reading by contributors to Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl, with an Afterword by Lewis Putnam Turco, Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2014, took place at Bestsellers Cafe in Medford, MA, at 2:00 p.m. on 19 July 2014. Above, left to right: Barbara J. Orton, organizer of the session, Alfred Nicol, Lewis Turco, Ada J. Schneider, Michael Cantor, Jeffrey Harrison, Rhina P. Espaillat, and Ruth Foley. Lewis Turco opened the program:
INTRODUCTION TO OBSESSION
By Lewis Turco
Although I knew neither Carolyn Beard Whitlow nor Marilyn Krysl, when they wrote to ask for my help in organizing and publishing their anthology, Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, I was inclined to agree because it was fairly obvious that my sestina, “The Obsession,” had had some sort of influence on the book to begin with. In any case, I have seldom said “no” to anyone who had a poetry project that looked interesting.
Therefore, I accepted, and the editors sent me their typescript. When we three had finished diddling with it I suggested they send it to the publisher of my text The Book of Forms, a boutique organization called the University Press of New England which has as its base the Dartmouth College Press. Dartmouth gave it a publishing grant, and the book was accepted and published under the Dartmouth imprint.
That, in a nutshell, is why we are gathered here today to publicize this beautiful volume. The poems gathered in it are some of the best sestinas ever assembled anywhere, and the indices and various reading aids included are extraordinary.
But what is a sestina? This is the description of the verse form from my The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Fourth Edition, the various manifestations of which have been called “the poet’s bible” for the decades since 1968:
The SESTINA is a verse form of Medieval French origin, attributed to Arnaut Daniel in the late 12th century and used by other Gallic poets and by Italians including Petrarch and Dante (from whom it received its Italian name). The popularity of the poem in English is primarily a 20th century phenomenon, however, particularly in the United States. The six end-words or teleutons of the lines of the first stanza are repeated in a specific order as end-words in the five succeeding sestet stanzas. In English the sestina is generally written in iambic pentameter or, sometimes, in decasyllabic meters. Its thirty-nine lines are divided into six sestet stanzas and a final triplet envoy (or envoi), In the envoy the six teleutons are also picked up, one of them being buried in, and one finishing each line.
The order in which the end-words are repeated appears to have its roots in numerology, but what the significance of the pattern was originally is now unknown. The sequence of numbers is 6-1-5-2-4-3. Obviously, the series is just 1-2-3-4-5-6 with the last three numbers reversed and inserted ahead of the first three: 6-1-5-2-4-3. If the end-words of stanza one are designated ABCDEF (the capital letters signifying repetitions) and the sequence 615243 is applied to it, the order of repetitions in the second stanza will be FAEBDC. Apply the sequence to the second stanza, and the third stanza will be CFDABE. Continuing the process will give us ECBFAD in the fourth stanza, DEACFB in the fifth, and BDFECA in the sixth sestet. The order of repetition in the three lines of the envoy is BE / DC / FA.
I will end by welcoming you all to this reading by some of the finest poets in the nation, including members of the Powwow River Poets organization; thank you for coming. Now let me step back and turn the reading over to Barbara Orton who organized it.