The Pantoum

I confess that I am drawn to the repeating poetic forms in the same way, perhaps, that as a child I stared in fascination at M.C. Escher's "Ascending and Descending" trying to determine a logical start point. It is probably not a coincidence that one of my earliest published poems was called "Mobius Strip." I have occasionally wondered if my undergraduate training in engineering was at least partially responsible for my obsession with complex and interlocking forms. Poems which hinge on their repetends can be visualized as problems requiring an ingenious solution, and while this may sound cold to the uninitiated, any mathematician who has ever derived a formula from first principles knows how great the appeal and beauty of such patterns can be.

All the repeating forms can be fiendishly difficult to wrestle into a shape that not only obeys the rules sufficiently to earn the appropriate label, but also offers a poem uniquely satisfying because the form feels genuine and earned. The reader has to believe that no other form would have fulfilled the requirements of the poem. Too many sestinas deteriorate into repetitive boredom; too many villanelles feel flabby and forced.

The pantoum's most common flaw, by contrast, is illogicality: bad pantoums simply don't make sense. To understand this, consider the rules of the pantoum, a Malaysian song form adapted into verse by nineteenth century French poets. Pantoums are written in a minimum of five quatrains, and the second and fourth lines of each quatrain become the first and third lines of the following quatrain. In the final quatrain the first and third lines of the first quatrain are often taken as the second and fourth lines.

Hence in a pantoum every line has to work logically in two contexts. The simplest way of achieving this is to end stop all or most of the lines such that every line is itself a complete syntax unit. While I would not recommend end stopping most lines as a general poetic tactic, there is no doubt that it can produce a simple and effective pantoum—one of the best examples of this is Donald Justice's "Pantoum of the Great Depression." Of course, the reason this works is because it is so eminently suited to the voice of the speaker—a stoic retelling a tale of great suffering in a tone of quiet realism.

Another technique, which has gained favor in recent times along with other relaxations of formal requirements, is to vary the line liberally on the second repeating. This can either be a simple matter of changing punctuation, or the line can be completely recast to play a different syntactic role. Judy Dowd exercises this choice in "Oblique Eulogy II," where the third line of the poem is "Like sleep, I venture, like not waking?" This reappears in the final quatrain as "In sleep, never waking,/ above my bed her face was young," which allows the poet to enjamb and end with the first line of the poem starkly and effectively repeated as the last line: "What is death like, she asks."

The challenge with any form involving repetition is to have the line resound more deeply on its second appearance. If the poet fails to achieve this, the pantoum will generate a series of anti-climaxes. See how effectively Steven Wingate uses repetition in "Lonesome Cowboy River Pantoum":

and sees it still standing, alive
like he is, he reminds himself

that once made children and milk but has gone dry
like he has, he reminds himself

In its first appearance the line is positive and self-affirming, but in its second incarnation it speaks to a deeper sadness and awareness of the human condition—the subject matter of the poem and perhaps the most appropriate subject matter of the pantoum.

Neither meter nor end rhyme is a requirement for a pantoum, and indeed, none of the pantoums mentioned so far utilize these devices. However, using meter in a pantoum, similar to in a sestina, may help control the tendency to achieve the form simply through the use of very long lines. My only published pantoum, "Marriage, Sunset" uses both meter and end-rhyme:

We lean on what we know. A peaceful life:
for this we huddle round a fire burned low.
This tests our mettle now as man and wife:
we swore to stay but instinct bids us go.

Like many repeating forms, a risk of the pantoum is that it can easily cross the line between surrealism and absurdity. Marilyn Hacker avoids this by a fine margin in her famous "Iva’s Pantoum." Meanwhile Kathleen Flenniken exploits it in "Pantoum for Jane Goodall."

Of course, like many of the more outré poem forms, pantoums have their detractors as well as their fans. I have no doubt that there are many current literary journals whose readers run screaming from the room at the sight of a pantoum. Here at the Barefoot Muse, on the other hand, we welcome all forms when done well, and we hope that reading the excellent pantoums published in this issue, along with the others referenced herein, will encourage our readers to try out the conundrum of this exasperating and rewarding form for themselves.

Anna Evans’ poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Harvard Review, Atlanta Review, Rattle, and Measure. She gained her MFA from Bennington College, and is the new Editor of the Raintown Review. Her chapbooks Swimming and Selected Sonnets are available from Maverick Duck Press.

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