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Ghost Riding the Whip

I came late and awkwardly to formal poetry. They say rhythm is in the body but I can’t dance–I’m the one who practiced her wedding waltz for months, in the end memorizing rather than learning. As a grad student I taught a poetry class and still have nightmares about the day I tried to teach them meter, the day I tried to beat out each line’s stresses on my thigh to show the pattern. What pattern, we all wondered, as I would try the lines again and again, students smirking.

I still get shy about meter, but I’ve come to embrace other kinds of formal structures. My favorite: the sestina. The orbit it takes feels human, planetary. My favorite sestina of recent years is Sestina: Bob by Jonah Winter. I love it because it draws the knot even tighter, because it out-obsesses a form specializing in obsession. Ever since this Bob sestina raised the bar, I’ve been wondering what’s next in the land of sestinas. My sixteen-year-old sister, Zoe, found the answer easily on YouTube.

If you think of writing a sestina as putting a vehicle in gear, pointing it in the direction you hope to go and then getting out of the driver’s seat, letting your car roll forward while you try to casually dance alongside it, around it, on the hood, the roof, hoping the driverless wheels stay on the road, a background for you to bust a move while you avoid getting run over by your own dangerous creation:


Then ghost-riding the whip is the new sestina.