Academy Log: Say It Again, Pantoum

The first time I ever heard of this poetic form was at a one-day writer’s retreat I almost didn’t go to. While the poem I wrote that day is buried somewhere deep in my parents’ storage unit today, the form is one I always wanted to play with. 

The pantoum (pronounced pan-tomb) is a verse form of interwoven quatrains derived from the Malay form pantun berkait

This poetic form is all about repetition. Literally every single line of the poem gets repeated word-for-word, but the meaning of those words can be shifted by the punctuation of the line being changed, the recontextualizing that happens when the line is repeated in the next stanza, and how either one or both of those things can be achieved in another line by the repeated line containing a pun or double meaning. 

In their book The Making of a Poem, poets Mark Strand and Eavan Boland described the effect of the poem as “the reader [taking] four steps forward, then two back” in a fashion not dissimilar to an ocean wave with its undertow so that the form can also evoke the dreaded Gatsby quote “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The way all this repetition dances about is this:

  1. You write four lines of verse to make your first stanza.
  2. You take the second and fourth lines from that stanza and use them as the first and third lines of the next stanza.
  3. You repeat this as many times as you like, taking the second and fourth lines of whatever stanza you just finished writing and using them as the first and third lines of the next immediate stanza, writing two new lines for those stanzas to be repeated in the next and on, and on.
  4. When you decide you’ve had enough of this, your final stanza will have the second and fourth lines of the previous stanza as its first and the third lines AND the first and third lines of the very first stanza as its second and fourth lines (either in their original order or switched) bringing the poem full circle.

The result should look something like this:

  • Stanza 1 | A-B-C-D
  • Stanza 2 | B-E-D-F
  • Stanza 3 | E-G-F-H
  • Stanza 4 | G-A-H-C
  • OR Stanza 4 | G-C-H-A

The above technical specifications are for if you only write four stanzas, but you can make a pantoum as long as you want. You could go to 5 stanzas like A. E. Stallings or 18 “ diabolical” stanzas like Allen Curnow (who didn’t know somehow the form started as an oral tradition) or even so far as 150. But who would do that?

Me. I would do that. And I did.

For reasons I wrote about in a previous Communications Log, I visited the Missed Connections website (back when that was still a thing) and clicked the “Random” button until I’d read and written a line of verse in response to 300 different listings, weaving the lines together as I went to create Random Bearings.

One reason I can share now for my having written it is that — at the writing retreat I mentioned — I was told that pantoums are usually lyric poems (though even the examples I’ve linked to are narrative like the one I’d written that day) and between that information and a poetry professor I met later who remarked that all the poems I write skew heavily toward narrative, I wondered if I could teach myself to be better at writing lyric poetry.

I’m a little better at writing lyrical poetry, but I’m a storyteller at heart. And it shows in my poems. Even when I hyperextend a typically-lyrical verse form like the pantoum.