A Sestina by Everyone
A few weeks ago I was talking with some colleagues about the changing face of literature. Everyone knows about e-readers and online publications by now, and even blogs are getting a lot of attention. We started talking about an author who is writing a novel one chapter at a time, publishing it online like a blog, and then getting her readership to send her input on what should happen next. She then takes all that input and writes the next chapter. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book but in real time. The author is literally catering to her own, specific audience. Joking, I said, “Can you imagine writing poetry that way? Gross.” Because poetry is so personal, so visceral, there’s no way it could ever be written by a group of random, loosely strung-together strangers, I thought. But the idea of a crowdsourced poem had gotten into my head and it wouldn’t get out. What if we did compose a poem with a bunch of random, loosely strung-together strangers? What would happen to the creativity level? The personal aspect? Could it be done?
To understand what we’re talking about, it may be necessary to take a couple of steps back and actually define what crowdsourcing is and how it’s been used in the past. Crowdsourcing is a method of outsourcing work that is thought to get better results by spreading the work around to as many people as possible, especially people who are not necessarily specialized in a particular skill. The idea is that while expert knowledge is held by a few, wisdom is held in the collective conscience. The term crowdsourcing was coined by Jeff Howe in an article for Wired Magazine in 2006, but the method itself can be dated much farther back in history. The editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Sir James A. H. Murray, faced with the daunting task of recording and defining every word in the English language from Middle English forward, as well as finding the earliest known examples of each, put out an “Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public” asking anyone who was willing to read works of English and gather data for this huge etymological endeavor. These contributors would then send in slips of paper for each word researched and Murray and his colleagues compiled the lot of them into the most extensive dictionary we have to date. The more people you have working on a project the more input you get, and, with an intellectual endeavor, as opposed to a mathematical or scientific one, more and varied input is valuable. But, what about with a creative or an artistic endeavor? Will the crowd’s wisdom be a contribution to the work or will it detract from it, leaving you with an unfocused, overreaching mess? I have decided to find out.
Over the next several weeks my colleague Victoria Capaldi and I will be driving a new project that, for now, we are calling “The Crowdsourced Poetry Project.” We, as in Victoria and I and you and anyone who chooses to take part, will be writing a poem, one line at a time, together. To do it we will post a single line on our facebook page, and then in the comments we will accept submissions for the next line. As the comments come in, Victoria and I will be compiling and editing the submissions, and each time a new line is chosen we will post it and accept for submissions for the next line. For our form we have chosen a sestina, originally a French form of poetry divided into 6 sestets (six line stanzas) and 1 triplet called an envoi, a concluding stanza half the size of the rest. The distinguishing feature of a sestina is that the words ending each line in the first stanza are repeated as the end words for the other six stanzas in a specific order: ABCDEFG, FAEBDC, CFDABE, ECBFAD, DEACFB, BDFECA, (envoi) ECA or ACE. One excellent example is “Sestina” by Charles Algernon Swinburne, reprinted below. While he chose to rhyme his end words, it is not required. Some other notable examples are “Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/sestina/) and SIX by Charlotte Mandel (http://winningwriters.com/resources/critiques/2010/urc_1005mandel.php#.UdruFG12GM1) .
Stay tuned to our page at https://www.facebook.com/UPNGA to take part in this exciting and terrifying new project.
Sestina by Charles Algernon Swinburne
I saw my soul at rest upon a day
As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,
Among soft leaves that give the starlight way
To touch its wings but not its eyes with light;
So that it knew as one in visions may,
And knew not as men waking, of delight.
This was the measure of my soul’s delight;
It had no power of joy to fly by day,
Nor part in the large lordship of the light;
But in a secret moon-beholden way
Had all its will of dreams and pleasant night,
And all the love and life that sleepers may.
But such life’s triumph as men waking may
It might not have to feed its faint delight
Between the stars by night and sun by day,
Shut up with green leaves and a little light;
Because its way was as a lost star’s way,
A world’s not wholly known of day or night.
All loves and dreams and sounds and gleams of night
Made it all music that such minstrels may,
And all they had they gave it of delight;
But in the full face of the fire of day
What place shall be for any starry light,
What part of heaven in all the wide sun’s way?
Yet the soul woke not, sleeping by the way,
Watched as a nursling of the large-eyed night,
And sought no strength nor knowledge of the day,
Nor closer touch conclusive of delight,
Nor mightier joy nor truer than dreamers may,
Nor more of song than they, nor more of light.
For who sleeps once and sees the secret light
Whereby sleep shows the soul a fairer way
Between the rise and rest of day and night,
Shall care no more to fare as all men may,
But be his place of pain or of delight,
There shall he dwell, beholding night as day.
Song, have thy day and take thy fill of light
Before the night be fallen across thy way;
Sing while he may, man hath no long delight.
This article was written with assistance from UPNG interns Victoria Capaldi and Patrick Brehe