Do the First Draft

Don't worry about composing a perfect sestina on the first go-around. It won't happen. The first draft is important because you'll have a sense of the ultimate success of your sestina; you can worry about meter and clarity of end words later. Your goal, simply, is to get a draft using your end words in the prescribed pattern. That is, by far, the most difficult aspect of composing a traditional sestina.

Here's my first draft:

They come on wheel or crutch to pray at Lourdes.

The millions set up camp along the walks.

They line the wells that lead to the resort,

Awaiting miracles or mercy. Tales

About Saint Bernadette abound, whose heels

Mark the spot on which Our Lady first appeared.

Today in town a rainbow arch appears On the horizon, sudden light at Lourdes, And then is gone. The holy water heals. You catch it as it drips upon the walks In magic puddles, mop it up in shirt tails, Or buy it bottled, shopping at a resort.

Inside chalets, the Jesuits re-sort Accounts of cures, deciding which appear Miraculous, divine, or fairy tale. The Vatican's verdict always lords. It doesn't matter that a woman walks Among the mass of worshippers and heals.

The pilgrims try to follow on the heels Of another sighting, their last resort. They dip their fingertips in marble woks And somehow make the one-mile trek up here To see how Mary manifests at Lourdes. Her silken hood is white, her robe is teal;

The scent of roses, a truer tell-tail Sign. And she is silent. She won't say Heal Thyself to people healthy with the Lord's Light already in them. She won't resort To greater acts of awe. When she appears, That is awe enough for those who see her walk

Through her own spectra. In the end, all walks Of life depart with a parable or with a tale Of how a saint appeared or did not appear. Of how they healed or later could not heal. Of how they traveled to France at a resort And saw or did not see the Lady at Lourdes.

She walks on mist, not water, as she heals

Mortality. The tale at the resort,

When she appears, is: Make your peace at Lourdes.

The first draft had its problems. I wanted my iambic pentameter to mimic the "walking" of pilgrims at Lourdes, but in some lines the meter was rough. For instance, the sixth line had six hard stresses and read like hexameter. The meter and the sense of lines sometimes sounded forced (particularly in the fifth stanza).

Despite the obvious problems, however, the prospects for a publish-able sestina were good. Some lines intrigued me and the stanzas seemed to move easily or logically into each other. I let my first draft cool for a day or so, and then I revised it.

You should do the same. If you attempt to revise a sestina too soon, the original hard-fought lines of your first draft may still be echoing in your ear. It will be easier to conceive new lines to replace awkward ones if you wait a while.

Instead, think about a title.

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