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Playing with a pantoum

Sunday 28 September 2008

Wahay! I have just completed Draft One of my first ever pantoum. Even though it’s very clunky, this is a great feeling as i have tried writing pantoums several times before and never got further than 3½ stanzas.

WHAT IS A PANTOUM?

A classical pantoum (from the Malay pantun berkait form) consists of quatrains (four-line stanzas) rhymed abab. The second and fourth lines of the first stanza appear as the first and third of the second stanza; the second and fourth lines of stanza 2 appear as the first and third of stanza 3; and so on. The first and third lines from stanza 1 are re-used as the fourth and second lines of the last stanza – in reverse order, so that the first line of the whole poem is also its last line.

Confusing? Try a more visual explanation if it helps:

A1
B1
A2
B2

B1
C1
B2
C2

C1
D1
C2
D2

D1
A2
D2
A1

And yes, that’s whole lines being repeated, not just rhyming.

There exist variations depending on how strictly the form is adhered to, the length of lines, and the precise scheme (the last stanza can go D1 A1 D2 A2, for instance). And it’s acceptable to make small changes when repeating a line, usually for impact in its new context. In fact different punctuation can cast a whole different colour over the line which can be beautifully effective.

I’d agree with Bob Newman, writing in his very useful Guide to Verse Forms, that it’s the hardest form, not that i’ve attempted as many as he has – i don’t usually ‘do’ poetic forms.

I can’t agree, though, with his suggestion of using a spreadsheet to help. The inward-turning structure lends itself to intense, claustrophobic subjects. Surely mechanical writing, and form-led writing, can only produce doggerel. (On consideration, the definition of ‘doggerel’ includes ‘irregular in measure’ which isn’t how i’m using it here – i’m getting at ‘low in style’ or ‘mean or undignified verse’.) Nothing wrong with doggerel when you’re telling a bawdy comic story but pantoums are more suited to tragedy or questioning the universe.

That’s why my pantoum is, in a way, mournful. Its mournfulness doesn’t reflect my current state of mind, and it is so mauled and wrenched from the autobiographical that it can’t count as autobiographical at all either.

It’s in iambic pentameter (not being posey, it just is) and i’ve taken more liberties than most when it comes to varying the lines as they repeat. Apparently the classical pantoum would be in tetrameter – well, sorry – and consist of four stanzas – mine has eight. I did see a recent Writers’ News winner with eight pentameter stanzas so it seems to be allowed!

I’m airing it even though it’s only a first draft and very clunky, breaking the rule of putting only your best work ‘out there’, because i’m proud of myself. And because i want to share the approach that suddenly, after (on and off) years of dead ends, let me into writing this form.

And if anyone can tell me the correct spelling of ‘wahay’ i’d be grateful. Or ‘posey’.

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