Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Crab Feed,” by Kathleen McClung

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Crab Feed” is a sestina, a repeating form that follows a strict 39-line pattern of six six-line stanzas (or sestets) plus a final three-line stanza called an envoi, in which the six end words (sometimes called “teleutons”) of each stanza are repeated in a particular sequence as end words throughout the remaining sestets before all appearing, once again, in the envoi. The lines may be of any length, but they must follow the pattern below, with the capital letters representing the sequence of end words—in today’s poem: “eat,” “tickets,” “bar,” “way,” “across,” and “right.”

Stanza 1. ABCDEF eat, tickets, bar, freeway, across, right
Stanza 2. FAEBDC right, eat, across, tickets, way, bar
Stanza 3. CFDABE bar, right, way, eat, ticket, across
Stanza 4. ECBFAD cross, bar, tick, write, eat, way
Stanza 5. DEACFB way, across, eat, bar, right, tickets
Stanza 6. BDFECA ticket, way, right, across, bar, eat
Stanza 7. ECA or ACE + BDF tickets, across, bar, eat, right, way

Today’s poem follows the form faithfully until the envoi or last stanza, which arranges its end words in a slightly different sequence: BECAFD. 

The repetitions of end words in sestinas create a pattern that stands in for a formal rhyme scheme. If you study the diagram above, you’ll notice that in each new stanza, the end word of the first line mirrors the end word of the previous stanza’s last line, and then fills in the rest of the stanza by borrowing end words from the preceding one ping-pong fashion, starting at each end and working its way back towards the middle. The movement is like a pendulum swinging back and forth—or as Annie Finch so aptly puts it, like braiding hair—and it is hypnotic. I hope you will try reading today’s poem out loud because the repetitions and pattern are more striking to the ear than they are to the eye. 

But they are striking to the eye and to the mind, which register a definite, if elusive pattern. The movement is elliptical and circular, making this form not the best for storytelling. In fact, one of the risks of writing sestinas is that the form can have a deadening effect, especially when the end words are repeated verbatim and without variation. Some poets have converted this inherent weakness into a strength, using the form to re-create situations in which it is desirable to have a numbing, repetitive effect, such as Ted Kooser’s “Weather Central,” a poem he says he wrote to convey the deadly dullness of TV weathermen voices as well as “how very tedious the sestina form can be.” (Ted Kooser, Poetry Home Repair Manual, Bison Books 2007.) Another poet I know relied on the same effect to write a very effective sestina whose subject was Imelda Marcos’ vast collection of shoes. What the sestina can do extremely well is establish a scene, and one of the best I’ve read is Marilyn Hacker’s “Untoward Occurrence at an Embassy Poetry Reading,” found in Annie Finch’s A Poet’s Craft (University of Michigan Press 2012).

Ezra Pound and John Ashbery are among the many poets who have written sestinas, and Elisabeth Bishop wrote at least two spectacular examples, “Sestina” and “A Miracle for Breakfast,” which you can read here and here. My own favorite master of the form is James Cummins, and I highly recommend his book—part Greek tragedy and part hilarious parody of the “Perry Mason” TV series—The Whole Truth (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2003), available for order here. And, for some wonderful skewerings of contemporary poets and the po-biz scene, check out the book of sestinas Cummins wrote with David Lehman, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (Soft Skull Press 2006). The sestina suits the contemporary taste for repetitions that are subtle but still haunting and is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in literary journals. 

I’ve heard the key to writing sestinas is choosing the “right” or “flexible” end words—that is, commonplace words with naturally occurring homonyms or other variant forms. You’ll note from today’s poem that substitutions like plural for singular and vice versa are permissible (“ticket” for “tickets”), as are homophones (“write” for “right”) and related words such as “freeway” for “way.” In “Crab Feed,” the word “bar” does some grammatical shapeshifting, functioning sometimes as a noun designating your local watering hole or a device for locking the steering wheel of a car, and sometimes as an adjective modifying “code.” I especially like the way the adverb “across” morphs into a noun in “the cross / unsways in the twilight.”

One way to write a sestina is to choose the end words, fill them in at the ends of 39 lines according to the pattern, and then write “towards” those end words, as described here. I haven’t had luck with that, but I hope you will have a hand in trying the form, if for no other reason than to gain an appreciation for just how difficult it is to do well. Readers interested in sestinas may also want to take a look at the anthology, Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century (Dartmouth College Press 2014), edited by Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl.

A great example of what some call organic form, today’s sestina seems to arise from the poem’s subject matter rather than being arbitrarily imposed upon it and takes advantage of the form’s special abilities to capture the repetitive elements of a scene. Here we not only see and understand the speaker’s experience of attending a church crab feed, but also powerfully feel it in the complex and almost subliminal repetitions knitted into the sestina form. Think about a community meal like the one being described, something that spins familiar routines around such meals—which utensils are used, trivial conversations and banter, visits to the bar, etc.—into the fullness of a real, lived experience. 

“Crab Feed” is a plainspoken poem describing a homespun experience, and the poet is careful to adhere to the patterns of ordinary speech. Syntax and punctuation are regular, and friends are referred to by first names, as if they are our friends, too. The room is warm with camaraderie and redolent with the smell and taste of hearty food and drink. In the accordion-like expanding and contracting pattern of the poem, a story un-pleats and unfolds. It’s a tale driven more by setting and atmosphere than plot, about an ordinary event in ordinary lives, and the narrative has a cyclical quality. The last lines extend the poem into something more abstract. “We are doing the right / thing, the three of us,” the speaker says, using “right” this time not to indicate a direction (left or right) but to impart a sense of morality. “Worship takes all forms,” she says next, making it clear that although the event being described is an everyday one, it means something more to her and to others at the dinner. For me, the poem captures the relaxed, meandering qualities of still-light-at-night community meals in high summer, and what could be better than that? Community, family, plenty, gratitude—we feel all this in the poem, and understand, maybe, the way ordinary experiences can sometimes transcend themselves. 

 

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