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Violet Nesdoly PhotoPantoum—A Dance With Words
Copyright©2010 by Violet Nesdoly

This is our twentieth column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.

Snow comes down, a multitude in feather
Across the valley snow fills every pine.
Julian sits improvising on her zither,
Under a wallhanging of the tree of life.

Across the valley snow fills every pine.
Faith and joy have always been my weather.
Under a wallhanging of the tree of life.
I have come the archetypal father.

These stanzas begin the first pantoum I ever read, "Julian at Ten,” by Nelson Bentley.1 At the time I had no clue what kind of poem it was; I only knew that it had cast a spell over me, even in these few lines. I thought, how does a poet do that? I want to write something with that power!

“Julian at Ten” is a type of form poem called a pantoum. In this month’s column we’ll take a look at the history, definition and characteristics of the pantoum. We’ll link examples to read, and give instructions on how you can write one of these magical poems of your own.

History

The pantoum (also sometimes called pantoun, pantoon and pantun) originated in Malaysia in the 15th century. The first pantoums were folk poems consisting of two rhyming couplets that were sung or recited. They commenced with an image or allusion in the first two lines, followed by the theme or meaning in the last two. The sections didn’t always have an obvious connection but were linked by a rhyme scheme (usually abab).

Victor Hugo introduced the form to the West in his notes to Les Orientales in the 1800s. The form soon became popular among French, English and American poets. Some famous pantoum writers are Charles Baudelaire, Theodore de Banville, Austin Dobbs and John Ashbery.

(A snippet of a “Malay Pantoum” translated from the French by John Drury illustrates the image/theme sections of the early pantoum.)

Modern pantoum

The modern pantoum is composed in quatrains (four-line stanzas). It adheres to the following pattern of repeating lines (or repetons):

1. Lines 2 and 4 of each stanza are repeated in lines 1 and 3 of the next.

2. There is no limit to how many stanzas a pantoum can have.

3. The last stanza repeats the two lines from the poem that have not yet been repeated (lines 1 and 3 of the first stanza). However, the order is typically reversed from the established pattern, so that line 3 becomes line 2 of the last stanza, line 1 becomes line 4 of the last stanza (or the last line of the poem, causing it to come full circle).

Here’s a template for a four-stanza pantoum:

line 1 (new line)
line 2 (new line)
line 3 (new line)
line 4 (new line)

line 2
line 5 (new line)
line 4
line 6 (new line)

line 5
line 7 (new line)
line 6
line 8 (new line)

line 7
line 3
line 8
line 1

In the modern pantoum “repeat” is taken loosely. Usually poets will change some of the wording of repeated lines to add meaning and to fit with surrounding lines. Sometimes they will retain only one word from the original line (often the last word).

Pantoums can rhyme but they don’t have to. If rhyme is used, the pattern is usually abab etc. In our four-stanza example the rhyme scheme would work out to:

Stanza 1: abab
Stanza 2: bcbc
Stanza 3: cdcd
Stanza 4: dada

Another Lullaby for Insomniacs” by A. E. Stallings is a rhyming pantoum.

Some poets also write pantoums in rhythm, or in lines with similar numbers of syllables.

Pantoum examples:

As you read the pantoums listed below, look for the following:

• Words that work in several ways so that even though they are repeated the word’s breadth of meaning along with variations in punctuation make for more than strict repetition.
• Changes in the wording of repeated lines. Sometimes all wording is changed but the last word or a word that sticks out as a reminder or echo of the original line.
• Pantoums that don’t stick to the pattern above – e.g. where the first line is not repeated in the last.
Enjambment.

Parent’s Pantoum” by Carolyn Kizer. Notice the extra line at the end that echoes the first line.

The Dirty Thirties” by Lorna Crozier (the poem is buried inside the article). Crozier sticks to a rhyme scheme and maintains a five stresses-to-the-line rhythm.

Pantoum of the Great Depression” by Donald Justice

Something About the Trees” by Linda Pastan (also read here by Pastan at the 2006 Dodge Festival).

How to write a pantoum

1. Choose a topic
The effect of the pantoum with its repeated lines and back-and-forth motion may suggest a topic. Here are some ways people describe its effect: hypnotic, doom-laden, wading in treacle, dreamy, evocation of time past, relentless, inevitable, incantation. According to Joyce Carol Oates, it is a form which communicates “extreme states of mind: mania, paranoia, delusion.”2 Additionally, the poem’s repeating lines may suggest something that recurs as a subject (“Calendar” is a pantoum about the cycling seasons).

2. Do an idea-generating exercise
Write a list, do a word cluster, and / or a free write to come up with raw material for your poem.

3. Choose a first line.
If you like crosswords or anagrams you may be especially attracted to the pantoum. At least in the planning stages you’ll want to draw on your talents in this area as you compose the poem’s opening line, which will eventually also become its last.

4. Write the form structure of the pantoum (above) on a piece of paper. As you compose lines, plug them into the template where they first occur and where they repeat – and watch how your poem comes to life as the juxtaposed lines feed and reverberate off each other.

5. Vary the wording of repeated lines to fit with and add meaning to the lines before and after them.

6. To keep your pantoum from sounding stiff and stately do things like incorporating enjambment, changing statements to questions and using punctuation to change the inflection and pace of a line.

All done? Share your pantoum with others. Then don’t be surprised if someone comes up to you and says, “How did you do that? I want to write something like that!”

Coming April 1:
We’ll talk about writing poems about faith and how to make them come alive.

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2010 by Violet Nesdoly


Endnotes:

[1] Nelson Bentley, quoted in Writing Personal Poetry by Sheila Bender (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1998), 36.
[2] Joyce Carol Oates, quoted in The Art and Craft of Poetry by Michael Bugeja (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1994), 306.