informal talk about forms: the pantoum

by Tom Adam

Repetition is one of the pillars of poetry. Sometimes the repetition is of words and phrases (as in sestinas, ghazals, or villanelles), sometimes it’s a repetition of sound (rhyme, alliteration, assonance), sometimes the rhythm of the words (which we most clearly see in formal meters like iambic pentameter). All these types of repetition are used to reinforce certain elements in the poem or to bring greater cohesiveness.

Most poetic forms are based on some form of repetition and use it to create specific movements through the poem. Along with the villanelle, the pantoum is one of the most highly repetitive poetic forms.

Harmony of Evening by Charles Baudelaire
Translated by A. S. Kline

Now those days arrive when, stem throbbing,
each flower sheds its fragrance like a censer:
sounds and scents twine in the evening air:
languorous dizziness, Melancholy dancing!

Each flower sheds its fragrance like a censer:
the violin quivers, a heart that’s suffering:
languorous dizziness, Melancholy dancing!
the sky is lovely, sad like a huge altar.

The violin quivers, a heart that’s suffering:
a heart, hating the vast black void, so tender!
the sky is lovely, sad like a huge altar:
the sun is drowned, in its own blood congealing.

A heart, hating the vast black void, so tender:
each trace of the luminous past it’s gathering!
The sun is drowned, in its own blood congealing…
A vessel of the host, your memory shines there.

The pantoum is a series of quatrains rhyming A-B-A-B where the second and fourth lines of one stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. As in “Harmony of Evening,” pantoum traditionally feature lines that are fully end-stopped (the poem above does not rhyme because it is a translation from French, but it does rhyme in French!) and the repeated lines are repeated verbatim. They can be of any length and generally just end without any special envoy or closure. Some modern authors of the Pantoum have loosened these constraints, as they have with most forms, but it is often written in the traditional way.

But, why write a pantoum at all? What is a pantoum going to do for my poem? What makes it special? I had said the villanelle was an excellent form to use when writing about obsession because the constant refrains always bring you back to the beginning of the poem, leading to a circular form. The pantoum, on the other hand, continues making forward progress throughout the poem. Each stanza brings new lines and new rhymes but the close repetition has a constant backwards pull. This makes the pantoum have a feel of “two steps forward, one step back.” Some poets use this halting progress to generate a feeling of ambivalence, some use it nostalgically. Regardless of the feeling it is used to generate, the constant repetition does force the pantoum to stay close to one idea; it has very little room for divergence.

The pantoum, though it often is, does not have to be ambivalent or dark or depressing or blah blah blah. Cecilia Woloch’s “Bareback Pantoum” has a wild exuberance to it. But Donald Justice’s “Pantoum of the Great Depression” is one of the most iconic pantoums in the English language.

Learn more at the poets.org page on the pantoum and A.E. Stallings “Another Lullaby for Insomniacs” at poetryfoundation.org.

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13 comments to informal talk about forms: the pantoum

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