Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Double Sestina

Twenty-four years ago, when I was a freshman at college, I was present at a poetry reading in South Hadley, Mass. where famed poets John Ashbery (b. 1927) and James Merrill (1926-95) were arguing in a friendly manner about the nature and form of a double sestina.  Was it merely a sestina that was twice the length of an ordinary one, as Merrill thought, referring to Sir Philip Sidney's "Double Sestine"? Or was it, as Ashbery maintained, a sestina with twice the number of stanzas AND twice the number of lines per stanza -- a dodecina, if you will, in the manner of Swinburne's "The Complaint of Lisa"?

I don't know why I recall the incident with such fondness. It outdid Frasier and Niles Crane for sheer shameless flaunting of literary credentials! I still find it hard to believe that real people, even poets, talk about such things! 

But I think I know why I smile as I look back on this exchange.  These two then-sexagenarian poets were treating something that would make most of us say "Huh?" as a matter of urgent importance! They took joy in the more recondite aspects of their craft.  They wanted to get it right. And they spoke -- not snobbily or affectedly, but naturally -- from a place of intimate knowledge of literature.  And there are worse qualities to have, I would humbly submit.

So tonight I shall raise a cup of tea in honor of Mr Ashbery and the late Mr Merrill.

(I side with Ashbery, by the way. A double sestina is the twelve-by-twelve form. Or at least that's the more interesting form!)