Double sestina


Double metric

And so it was decided: on that day –
Midsummer’s Eve – together they would ride
Two hundred k. A long day on the road,
The double metric; yet the fire inside
Would not be quenched, despite the threat of rain.
The workshop lights burned late: tea cooled, time slowed
As tyres and chains were checked one final time,
The last dust speck removed from frame and wheel,
Until, at length, the moment came to climb
The stairs and sink in dreams. The work and pain
Could wait until tomorrow to be real.

They’d known each other many years. A real
And lasting friendship had been forged one day
When Dave ran through a pothole, smashed a wheel
And crashed, a flailing mass of limbs and pain.
A minute back, Mike saw it all and slowed,
Pulled over, made the calls, then set to ride
Behind the ambulance. Dave healed in time
And when the moment came to take the road
Again, Mike nursed him up each breathless climb
Gave confidence on roads left slick by rain:
They’d ridden countless miles since, side by side.

They knew their plan was on the crazy side:
What looked fine on the map might not, in real
Life, work so well, especially in the rain.
Mike warned: “Two hundred clicks is a long way
If everything goes perfectly; but slowed
By mishaps, weather, it’s a nine-hour day
At least.” But they were still resolved to ride
And serve their time as convicts of the road;
On burning, windswept flat and airless climb,
Legs leaden, stinging eyes fixed on the wheel
In front, tap out the rhythm, block the pain
And narrow down all sense of life and time

To This and Now. Dave woke at six, in time
To get up, dress, eat hugely, crack the side
Gate open with a burglar’s stealth. Mike slowed
And stopped outside. “No sign of rain,”
He grinned. “All set? Grand. Let’s get under way.”
And in that moment, everything was real,
And as they laboured up the day’s first climb
Dave knew that they were truly going to ride
The double metric. No cars on the road
At this ungodly hour; any pain
In joints and muscles quickly gone; the day
Yet fresh and cool; the hum of wheel

And purr of chain the only sounds as, wheel-
To-wheel, they ticked off clicks and time.
With thirty gone, they stopped to stuff their rain-
Proofs into jersey pockets. “That last climb
Was pretty tough,” Dave panted. “And the day
Ain’t over yet,” Mike quipped. “Lot more to ride
Before we stop for lunch.” Both riders slowed.
“Sit on my wheel for now. I know the way:
We’ve got a stretch of fairly easy road
Ahead; it’s rolling – sprinter’s hills – no real
Big climbs.” Dave nodded, then slipped from Mike’s side
Into his slipstream – balm for cyclists’ pain.

At eighty k, another dose of pain:
A hill so steep, each felt that his front wheel
Might rear up any moment. Then the rain
Began, just lightly, as they topped the climb.
“I guess we’re lucky we got all this way
And stayed dry,” Mike remarked. “Ten more to ride
Then lunch.” They rode into the village, slowed
By cars, then found a café as the day
Was turning wet in earnest. “Now the real
Fun starts,” Mike chuckled. Both men took their time
With sandwiches and cake. Meanwhile, outside
The rain lashed down. “Come on, let’s hit the road,”

Dave said. With jackets zipped up high, they rode
Out of the village. In a window pane
Dave saw himself reflected. As he slowed
To look, he thought of all the time
And work that he’d invested, and a real
Pride rose in him. He knew this was the day
He’d finally made it back. “Hey, Mike – let’s ride!”
He yelled, exultant. On the first big climb
He set the pace, bike rocking side to side
Beneath him as he stamped the pedals; rain
Flared up in fantail fountains from each wheel.
He reached the top, looked back, and saw that way

Behind, Mike laboured, trying to find a way
To keep the gear going over. But the road
Is merciless to those who have no wheel
To follow. So Mike struggled through the rain
Alone, until he finally reached Dave’s side.
“I didn’t mean to drop you on that climb,”
Dave said, shame-faced, remembering the day
Mike stopped for him, “I know I should have slowed
And…” “That’s OK,” Mike gasped, “I tried to reel
You in but you were too strong. Dished out pain
Like that when I was your age. Guess that Time
Is catching up with me at last.” The ride

Now took them through deep woods. There, on a ride
Cut through the beeches, nine deer made their way.
Mike pointed to a doe, her fawn beside
Her. “Love a sight like that: just makes my day.”
The rain eased off, then stopped; and from the road
Steam rose and sunlight glittered. “About time,”
Dave beamed. They didn’t stop but simply slowed
To tear off waterproofs, then hit the climb
That turned them homeward: each spin of the wheel
Now brought them closer to the end. The pain
Could be endured; they’d stepped outside of Real
Life, as it’s called, embraced the cold and rain

And come through smiling. But the summer rain
Had one more snare for some unwary wheel.
The runoff spread sharp grit across the road;
In gutters, flint-shards waited for their time.
Just as Mike said, “We’ve made it through the day
Without a flat,” he heard the hiss, cursed, slowed
And made a gentle stop on the roadside.
Both felt the miles in legs and back. To climb
Off, break out tools and spares, get under way
Again was cruel work. “Man, what a pain,”
Mike groaned; “Why then?” and Dave agreed with real

Warmth, nursing throbbing fingers. Now the real
Fight started. Though the skies were clear of rain
They faced an older, stronger rival: Time.
The hundred miles they’d done began to weigh
On them. The minutes passed, and yet the road
Seemed to stretch longer. Each withdrew inside
A private world, no wider than the wheel
In front but infinitely long. Each climb
Became a Calvary. The will to ride
That had sustained them through their epic day
Now floundered in a rising tide of pain;
Tired muscles cramped, legs stiffened, pedals slowed.

The final forty. By now they had slowed
To touring pace, and nothing seemed quite real:
Bright sun now burned skin soaked and chilled by rain
Not long ago; there was no World, just Road,
And when he closed his eyes, each saw the wheel
In front he’d watched for hours. Then the pain
Was over, finally, as, side by side
They pulled up at Dave’s house. Nine hours the time.
They shook hands, smiled, and Mike was on his way;
A quiet end to their grand Midsummer ride,
But all they’d shared, each minute, mile and climb,
Went deeper than mere words could go that day.

For it’s on life’s hard roads we find our real
Friends, and ourselves. On that steep climb, the time
You couldn’t hold the wheel, but they slowed
And helped you find a way – out on the road
Through wind and rain, however far you ride
You’ll make it through the day, endure the pain
When you’ve a true companion by your side.


Well, I finally did it: the double sestina. I won’t weary you with the prosodic intricacies of this frankly idiotic form; suffice to say it has 12 end-words (the ‘standard’ sestina has six) which are used in a set order to create 12 stanzas of 12 lines each – plus a final stanza, called the envoi, that uses them all, again in a set order. Even for me, 150 lines of iambic pentameter feels like rather too much of a good thing, but I could hardly go through the Year of Living Metrically without giving it a go. And now I have, I feel no need, or desire, to do it again!

The ‘double metric’ of the title refers to a ride of 200 kilometres. (A 100-mile ride is a ‘century’, and 100km is a ‘metric century’.) I’ve ridden the double metric on quite a few occasions, and I have to say it’s a lot less exhausting than the double sestina. N.

17 thoughts on “Double sestina

  1. Well, my first thought was–“this is leagues beyond me”; my 2nd thought was, “maybe I could think about trying it…” You are in that small and revered group which challenges me.

    • I honestly thought this was ‘leagues beyond me’ too! I did some research before I started, and the (almost) unanimous view seemed to be that the double sestina was impossible – and even if it were possible, it was frankly rather pointless! The added complication, which I forgot to mention in my footnote, is that the 12 end-words are actually six pairs of RHYMING words: I knew I had to have ‘road’ as one of them, given my subject, but that left me very short of options for a companion word!

      I’ve been working on it, on and off, for a couple of months now; it wasn’t something I could just sit down and write in one go. At over 1,200 words, it’s easily the longest poem I’ve ever written – but my admiration for Will Shakespeare has increased even more after doing this. The double sestina is 151 lines of, effectively, blank verse, and it’s a killer. But this would be a single scene in some of his plays – and within it, he would have created some of the most glorious and enduring poetry of all time. Humbling.

      All that said, I’d definitely encourage you to have a stab at the ‘double’. It’s patently ridiculous, but immensely satisfying. I’m going to need to lie down in a darkened rom for a while now, though! N. x

  2. Hi Nick,
    Wow! and congratulations! It seems like it quite the marathon to write this poem and your efforts as always have produced a marvelous work.
    It leaves me wondering if one day I’ll put aside my free expression for the more formal application of verse. Poetic metre just fills me with an irrational dread. So I greatly admire all the more your skill and ability to tackle such challenges.

    To that end your subject of the “Double metric” is most fitting and more than that it really captures the heart of friendship and companionship for me.
    I could relate too, to that zone where it’s just you and the road and that inner place you go to when you’re determinded to make your goal. I’ve experianced it a few times in other pursuits as well.
    I’ve only ridden one epic journey in my life which was almost 300 km. I was a teenager then so distance held a different meaning. It’s not something I intend to repeat! *lol*

    Thank you for sharing this piece. I found it inspiring and heart warming on several levels.

    Tikarma. xx

    • Hey Tikarma

      Lovely to hear from you – hope it’s a sign that you’re feeling better.

      You’re right, it was quite a marathon; I started it a couple of months ago and I’ve been slowly chipping away at it, line by line, stanza by stanza, ever since. It’s completely nuts, of course, but I got to the point where I simply HAD to finish it for pride’s sake – like the double metric itself.

      I haven’t ridden 200km for a couple of seasons – I have arthritis in my knees, so I have to be a bit careful these days – but this poem draws on the experiences of riding double metrics, summer and winter, with a friend (called Mike!) all over this part of England. Our most ambitious ride was a ‘double-double’, ie 400km: we started at noon on the Saturday, rode right through the night and finished at about nine the next morning. That was enough for me, but Mike’s gone on to greater (and crazier) things: he rode his first Paris-Brest-Paris this summer – 1,200km in 70 hours!

      To me, metrical verse just feels natural and familiar, but I know it isn’t for everyone. Blank verse (iambic pentameter, but without rhyme – pretty much what this piece is) is a good way to get into it. Once you get that basic ‘da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM’ pattern of stressed syllables running in your head, you’ll be away.

      Thank you so much for even reading this piece – I honestly wasn’t sure if anyone would bother, it’s so long! – and for your uplifting response; it makes all the pain and effort worthwhile. N.xx

      • I personally love a good long poem. Short poems leave me often cold. The emotion or story is too condensed to allow a reader to truely relate and connect. I know I’m in the minority on that point, but different things for different people as I find myself saying often. 🙂
        It takes a lot of talent to sustain a story in poetry especially within these more formal frames of poetic verse and that makes it all the more enjoyable for myself personally.

        I’m am bubbling along like the proverbial turtle I’ve had a few good days so I must make the best of them. 🙂

        Tikarma. xx

      • I’m with you on short poems, Tikarma: one form I’ve never got my head round is the haiku, which is about as compact as they come. For me, the sonnet is just about the perfect length; you have three lots of four lines in which to a) introduce the idea, b) develop it a bit, then c) look at it from another angle, with the final couplet wrapping it all up in a neat 14-line package. But I first fell in love with poetry, aged about 11, when my English teacher read (most of) John Masefield’s narrative epic ‘Reynard the Fox; or The Ghost Heath Run’, which fills 76 pages in my copy of the Collected Poems, aloud to us over the course of half-a-dozen lessons. There are lines in there that still make me shiver: ‘The earth was stopped. It was barred with stakes.’ Another of my all-time favourites is ‘Night Mail’ by WH Auden; and I love the bush ballads written by your countrymen Henry Lawson and AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Robert Service’s Yukon ballads (‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ etc) and the original long-haul poems like ‘Beowulf’, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green knight’ and ‘The Canterbury Tales’. These are the great monuments of our craft; I know I still have a long, long way to go yet!

        So glad to hear you’ve had some better days: all good wishes and lots of positive energy whizzing round the world to you. N.xx

  3. Hi Nick,

    I read this with my first morning coffee and it is great, what a wonderful job you did! I like the discussions between the cycling friends you have woven in this fabric 🙂 More than just a ride, those 200 km are about friendship and life. The marvel of this poem, is that it doesn’t sound forced in any way, in spite of the tour de force it must have been to write it!

    Did you start thinking up the 12 ending words or with the first stanza?

    I tried sestina’s a few times, they were on my blog, it is a great challenge, especially to find rhyming words to replace the original ones! Like road – rode, real -reel. Maybe I will try a double one 🙂 I think it will keep me occupied for a while. I don’t have any illusion of doing such a great job as you did here though.

    I wish you a nice day and many great cycling adventures.
    Ina xx

    • I should imagine you needed more than one coffee to get through this, Ina – it’s a bit of an epic. But thank you for taking the time to read it; I felt I was asking a lot (too much?) of my readers to stick with something this long!

      I started with the title, actually: I’ve always liked the phrase ‘double metric’ and it seemed like a good title for a poem. It was only when I typed it into a blank document that the idea of trying it as a double sestina first came to me. Next I had to pick the end-words: some were fairly obvious, but as I’ve said elsewhere, the fact that they’re meant to be six rhyming pairs caused me a few problems, especially with ‘road’. After that it was a case of seeing if I could actually make it work over one, then two, then three stanzas; once done, I was reasonably confident I’d get to the end (eventually!) The easiest bit was the envoi, which surprised me. The best part of having done this is that the ‘normal’ sestina will seem a lot more manageable now!

      I think you’d make a great job of a ‘double’. Go on, you know you want to. N.xx

  4. This is a beautiful story. Now I know why my husband and my son sometimes go on cycling escapades (nothing as well thought out and trying as that described in this sestina), and return home with glow on their faces.

    I also couldn’t resist writing a sestina table to work out the end-word patterns, leaving me quite giddy but fully satisfied! It may be an impossibly tough challenge for the poets but is certainly a great fun for those who read it. Thank you.

    Ayano xxx.

    • Thank you Ayano – not only for your wonderfully warm and generous comment, but also for reading the thing in the first place! 150 lines is a lot to write but it’s even more to plough through as a reader (especially on-screen) so I really do appreciate it.

      It’s a while since I last rode a double metric, but I’ve done it many times and this poem is based on the memories and experience of long days on the road with the real Mike. Our finest performance was when we rode 210km at an average speed of 30km/hr; not exactly Tour de France pace, but not bad for a couple of old blokes. We were in bits afterwards, of course, but it was great – on the way back, we even overtook some guys who were riding the 100km alternative route!

      The double-sestina end-word pattern is crazy, but at least it makes the ‘normal’ sestina seem a bit easier! For me the sestina is what Liszt is to pianists, or Everest to mountaineers: something to be approached with trepdiation, but very satisfying when it’s over! N.xx

    • I’ve never ridden anywhere as exotic as that! Pleased to have brought back some memories; just hope they were pleasant ones…epic bike trips are a thing of the past for me too, I fear, but I must admit there are aspects I really DON’T miss all that much. I was always good up to about 150 km (90 miles or so) but the last 50 km of a double metric were usually a torment; something I tried to capture in this piece. N.

  5. Well, two people in my life have written double sestinas, you and me, Nick, and no matter how hard you found it to write, I have to admit that what you have done is magnificent. The topic is perfect for the form. A marathon bike ride for a marathon form of writing! The physical torment described matched by the deep companionship woven during the ride and described so effectively in the envoi is magnificent.
    I may write another double sestine someday. When I wrote mine I found it a magnificent puzzle of craftsmanship that challenged my ability with language over and over again. I was pretty determined to not make it seem as if I was struggling to come up with the proper end word, but to make the whole thing flow like music. I believe you achieved that, probably better than I did, here. Your craft is superb, one line following another in the complex, almost double helix pattern, with logic and story and an emotion that woke up the poetry out of the words and lines.
    The whole things reads well too. It does not bog down into the strain of creating 12 stanzas of 12 lines, which it seemed to me to be one of the dangers of writing one of these things. When Swinburne wrote “The Complaint of Lisa” and created the form, I thought part of the poem, though a magnificent accomplishment, bogged down a bit here and there. I do not have that same sense here. Rather, the story and your involvement with the story in a context not experienced by the average reader, and especially me, kept each stanza wheeling after another like your were on a long bike ride. You sustained the poem from beginning to end, a large accomplishment indeed.
    The sestinas you and John Stevens wrote set me off trying to write a sestina, followed by writing a double sestina, and this inspires me almost enough to try my hand at a second double sestina. The problem is I’m trying my hand at an epic poem at the moment, and that has more than a little working through to go.
    I do not see a comment from John yet, but I’m looking forward to what he will say.
    My final comment, at least for the moment is this, that this just proves you are a master 21st century poet. I have no idea what will happen with the wordpress content–whether it has any life beyond the now, but there are certainly a few poets, you being one, some of which comment on your site, that deserve a readership that stretches out into time.
    Congratulations on this, my friend. Keep writing.

    • Well, Tom, it was you, and your extraordinary double, that inspired me to take on this epic adventure. In some ways, I feel it’s not as hard as the sestina, in that there’s more space and time to play with; but like you, I found the biggest challenge was maintaining the forward impulse, making it a real poem and story, not just a long slog, a series of awkward contrivances, or mere metrical showboating. I think (think!) I’d like to try another one now, having proved to myself that it’s actually possible, but I’m not sure what the subject would be yet. Maybe I’ll revisit the ‘standard’ sestina first and break myself in gently!

      You’ve been a tremendous support and champion of my work, for which I’m forever grateful. Should these verses ever reach the printed page and a wider audience, much of the credit will belong to you. Thank you, my friend; hope all is going well. N.

      • I’ve been thinking about your comment about the double being, perhaps, a bit easier to write than a sestina. I think I agree, although I’m not totally sure. The sestina was certainly challenging, and I think I found it more difficult to do, but what I wonder is if the act of doing a sestina and getting the craft of the form down was not what made the double a bit easier to do. I wonder if we did a sestina again if it would not flow a little easier from my pen?
        I hope you do put together a collection one of these days and find a publisher. I’m not sure how important publishers are these days with the electronic revolution roaring along. I suspect it is still in its infancy, but if I know anyone who I would like to see published, it would be Nick Moore. I would add a name or two beyond you, but certainly you are the first I would champion. Of course, some of the wordpress poets, like David Agnew and Ethel, are already published.

  6. I’m catching up with my wordpress reading, and somehow I’d missed this one Nick. I’m glad to find it now and to pay tribute to your skill – as well as your endurance! – in writing it. I think your doctor should put you on a strict regime of haiku writing for a short while!
    As Tikarma has pointed out, the double sestina form is most appropriate for your subject of the double 100k ride. I like that neatness of fit! And of course there’s room, within the length of this challenging form, for the telling of a proper story.
    Your comments are interesting – especially about the manner in which you chose your pairs of rhyming words. I avoided rhyme when I wrote my own sestina, although I did pair up the end-words.
    I also like the naturalness of your lines. The syntax is not at all strained, despite the very restrictive parameters of metric and rhyme. As Thomas says: the whole thing reads well. I know how very hard this is to achieve, so warm congratulations!

    • Thank you, John – it’s entirely down to you that I tried the ‘standard’ sestina in the first place; although quite what possessed me to try the double escapes me now! I’m not sure whether the double counts as a legitimate poetic form, since there appears to be only one published example, by Swinburne, and even that doesn’t seem very highly thought-of! But anyway, ’tis done – and thank you very much, as always, for your interest and thoughtful comments. N.

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