Process: The pantoum

As of late, I’ve gotten super into pantoums. The pantoum is a poem of any length composed of four-line stanzas where in each stanza, the second and fourth lines serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. I’ve been using four line stanzas using the repeating pattern ABCD BEDF EGFH GCHA (or GAHC).

I’m a narrative poet primarily, and this form does wonders for narrative. Each line as it is retold can be shifted a little bit (change the verb tense, a little of the order, maybe remove this word or replace it), which gives some freedom in how we retell stories. The lines can also just be repeated verbatim to show greater emphasis, change of meaning, etc.

“Incident” by Natasha Trethewey is a great example.

We tell the story every year—
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn—
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

What’s particularly nice about this form is that the story sort of builds on itself, and you can’t write a story in a very linear fashion since you’re always having to go back and include what was included before.

I also find word-mapping an incredibly useful skill in working with the pantoum. Not only does the repetition of the form make you re-think lines, but word-mapping can force you to focus on the lyricism at the line level as well. It also forces you to make jumps you might not be willing to make yourself.

For a recent pantoum I wrote titled “Pantoum for Still Life,” I first word-mapped from several of Molly Sutton Kiefer‘s poems. I recently became familiar with her work, and I simply jumped around and read what poems she had available online and wrote down words that jumped out to me and also words I associated with those words. For example, when I saw river, I wanted something that had a slightly different sound to it, so I looked up synonyms for river instead and wrote down “runnel.” When I saw “lurking,” I also immediately thought of “lark” because of the similarity of sound, so I wrote that down as well. I came away with this word list:

ribboned organ tilted scars burrowed swallow shuck runnel lurking lark

crabapple ossuary scaffold darling kettle low-slung birds buried blood

A lot of Molly Sutton Kiefer’s poems deal with fertility, so I used that as a conceptual basis for this poem.

The structure followed for this one was ABCD BEDF EGFH GCHA. I like this structure particularly for the reason why I like it in “Incident.” Beginning and closing with the same line allows us to feel differently about it the second time around, especially after what has occurred between them.

Here’s line B and C from the first stanza and how B changed in the second:

B…No darling
C made in me a low-slung home.

to

B…No, darling,
E it was the season of white peony and ginger

Ending a line on “no darling” opens it up to potentially be an address, which it does become in the second stanza, while in the first, it is a descriptive noun for a child. The focus also shifts from the potential child to either the reader or a specific person, and it does become a specific person in the third stanza with the introduction of a “you.”

Word mapping allowed me to play with where I would stick the phrase “low-slung.” It’s such a lovely phrase, and in thinking about fertility as a subject, it then made sense to make it the physical place where a woman holds a child: taking the meaning of low-slung as “cut to fit low on the hips rather than the waist.”

Play with writing a poem in the pantoum form or re-write one that already has a similar narrative structure or would benefit from repeating patterns, slight changes, etc. You won’t regret it.

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