Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe would have been perfect for a 3QR table of contents—if 3QR had existed when he wrote it. Defoe had fictionalized the story of a true castaway, Alexander Selkirk, and in doing so gave us the internal world of his journal-writing, if ever-practical, fictional character. One of my favorite poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England,” takes Defoe’s fictionalizing one step further by writing as if she is the sadly rescued Crusoe. There was more than a little autobiography here: in a letter to her friend Robert Lowell, she called herself the loneliest person who ever lived.
But it was W.H. Auden, another of my favorite writers, who was the immediate catalyst for my sestina “Crusoe’s Footprint.” If, as Auden says, the free verse writer is like Crusoe in having to do “all his cooking, laundry, and darning for himself,” then which poetic form would provide the maximum opportunities for mastery? The sestina, I supposed. This form that prescribes which of six words must conclude every line, and in a prescribed order, is a sort of “company” for the poet—whispering in her ear what to write. Oh, wait. Is that mastery or servitude?
The only way the sestina-writer can wriggle out of her confinements is to use the end-words in multiple ways. For instance, in this poem, I make “keys” into typewriter keys, the keys on a map, the keys to happiness, the “quais” in Auden’s elegy to Yeats, as well as the poet Weldon Kees, the Florida Keys (where Bishop lived), and “lackeys,” as in—servants. In a sense, you could say that in sestinas, the meaning of each end word is only “true” for a moment.