Poetry Friday- A Sestina Follows a Pattern

January 24, 2014 — 1 Comment

I am seeing patterns.

My recent fascination with looking at crossovers from the Mathematical Practice Standards to the English/ Language Arts classroom has me seeing patterns everywhere. In poetry and in prose, I am seeing applications to the Mathematical Standard #7 where “proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure.”

Take, for example, the poem I assigned this morning to the Advanced Placement students. The students are studying how the structure or form of the poem helps to convey the meaning of the poem. The poem under discussion was Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.”

Before reading the poem, however, an understanding of the sestina is in order. This form of poetry is highly structured; 33 lines constructed with five stanzas of six lines each with the final stanza as a tercet. The pattern is in the repetition of the intital six end-words of the first stanza; the last end work in the stanza before becomes the first end word in the following stanza.  The final tercet is called the envoi which contains all of the end-words.

 The form is as follows, where letters represent end-words:

  • Stanza 1: A, B, C, D, E, F
  • Stanza 2: F, A, E, B, D, C
  • Stanza 3: C, F, D, A, B, E
  • Stanza 4: E, C, B, F, A, D
  • Stanza 5: D, E, A, C, F, B
  • Stanza 6: B, D, F, E, C, A
  • Tercet: AB CD EF
    • First line of Envoi: B, E
    • Second line of Envoi: D, C
    • Third line of Envoi: F, A

The pattern above looks to me like sets of algebraic equations, and I mentioned that when I passed out copies of  the sestina by Elizabeth Bishop titled, appropriately enough, “Sestina.”

Listen to the poem:

Sestina

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.

(READ THE POEM continued…)

animated houseThis poem always reminds me of some small child’s drawing of a house, in which everything suddenly comes to life, to dance or to hover or to fall. These images seem too animated to place under multiple choice microscope I use to prepare students for the Advanced Placement test. But the new semester has begun, and test preparation is necessary, so we took our time studying the questions that had been prepared in dull, unanimated standardized testing rooms.

The grandmother and the child in the poem are portrayed primarily through descriptions of their:
(a) actions
(b) thoughts
(c) conversation
(d) facial expressions
(e) physical characteristics

Reading the question aloud, I was not entirely sure that Bishop would care about the primacy of her descriptions. Given all the action verbs in each stanza, we settled on “(a) actions,” and we were right.

One of the questions dealt directly with the poem’s pattern:

Which of the following literary devices most significantly contributes to the unity
of the poem?
(a) Use of internal rhyme
(b) Use of epigrammatic expressions
(c) Use of alliteration
(d) Repetition of key words
(e) Repetition of syntactic patterns

A discussion of what syntactical patterns appeared ensued.
“There is dialogue,” one said.
“But, not as a pattern,” another replied.
We settled on (c) repetition of keywords, and we were right. Recognizing the pattern was helping with the questions.

 “There’s a lot of crying in this poem,” remarked a student, “What are ‘equinoctial tears’?”

I explained that knowing what “equinoctial” means, a violent storm of wind and rain occurring at or near the time of the equinox, is important to the understanding of the poem. Bishop’s association of tears with “equinoctial” suggests that there is some emotional storm that is the result of an annual event or anniversary. Once the students knew that, they were able to answer the last question:

 The mood of the poem is best described as
(a) satiric
(b) suspenseful
(c) reproachful
(d) mournful
(e) quizzical

“The repetition of words means there is more emphasis on them,” said a student.
“All that crying,” agreed another student, “Someone must have died.”
We decided on (d) mournful, and again we were right.

In the end, students got about 60% of the questions right on the poem, a high score this early in their practice. They had employed both the Mathematical Practice standard #7 and “looked closely to discern a pattern or structure” as well as the English Language Arts Literacy Anchor Standard #1, “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” 

“I liked it,” said a student, as she left.
I know she did not mean the multiple choice questions.
I am sure she meant the poem,“Sestina,” a crossover between English and mathematical practice standards.

A poem with a pattern:

Screenshot 2014-01-24 17.02.08 

Poetry Friday hosted this week by Tara at:http://ateachinglifedotcom.wordpress.com/

Come join her!

One response to Poetry Friday- A Sestina Follows a Pattern

  1. 

    Wow. Another post to bookmark. Math and poetry. Powerful.

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