How to Write a Pantoum

Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to write more formal poetry. Not a lot, mind you, but I’ve tried out a couple of forms and with some success. Awhile back, I described writing a ghazal, and I thought I’d do the same for the pantoum.

This is a form that has stymied me for awhile, yet it is deceptively simple. In English, the lines often don’t rhyme, though in the original Malay form, they did (and I believe there were many more words with rhyming endings to draw on, so rhyme was less pronounced). The form does use repetition of whole lines, often with slight variation, and follows the pattern that the second and fourth line of each quatrain are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. That sounds easy enough, but it’s a little more complicated in practice.

I wanted to follow the original form and start with a quatrain made up of two couplets. Mathematically, that makes sense. The first couplet doesn’t have to be one complete sentence, but I didn’t want two write a couplet where each line was its own sentence. I went for a two-line sentence, where the second line could be the start of a new sentence (thinking ahead to stanza 2). I did the same for the second couplet of the first stanza. Because I had been planning ahead, it wasn’t two hard to start with lines 2 and 4 from stanza 1 as lines 1 and 3 of stanze two, and then add new lines to complete the couplets.

I don’t want to publish the full poem on my blog because I’d like to publish it in a magazine one day, but I know that talking about numbered lines gets pretty vague and hard to follow after awhile, so let me give you the first two stanzas as an example.

     The heavy, deadly scent of nightshade, hangs
     musky-sweet like the smell of the day’s first rain.
     It pervades the hedgerow where we pull invasive
     weeds, bright purple flowers with yellow stamens.

     Musky-sweet like the smell of the day’s first rain,
     the August afternoon hovers in the air, as my love
     weeds bright purple flowers with yellow stamens,
     deemed deadly poisonous, yet eerily beautiful.

You can see that in the second stanza, I chose to let the sentence flow through the entire stanza instead of keeping two distinct couplet sentences. You’ll also notice how the meaning shifts. The smell is now the smell of the afternoon, and “weeds” is no longer a plural noun, but becomes a singular verb for “my love.” This transformation of the meaning of words as the lines are recombined with others is something I wanted to consciously attempt. Pure repetition gets old, but repetition with some variation, even if the words themselves don’t change, adds meaning.

But this is where I got stuck for awhile. Planning ahead for the third stanza wasn’t really possible. I liked stanza two, but wasn’t sure how to connect “my love” and “deadly poisonous.” Nor did I really know what this poem was trying to say.

Incidentally, that is one of the joys of writing poems in form. They can be deliciously unpredictable. It is hard enough to decide where to start, let alone to predetermine where they are going to end. So I saw this as a good challenge, but one that took me weeks to figure out. I won’t claim that I came back to this poem every day during that time, but I did look at it periodically while working on other poems, and nearly got to the point where I thought I would never finish it. Then the insight hit me of a possible solution.

Rather than focusing on “my love,” I let the August afternoon come to the fore, which allowed me to let “my love” become “my love / for this place” and not a person. The deadly poison could still refer back to nightshade, though to mix things up, I focused on the dark berries of the plant, whereas before I had focused on the flowers.

Stanza three is a little more like the traditional pantoum in that the two couplets are not thematically very related. That was a quality of the pantoum that I had broken a bit by allowing myself one sentence for stanze two. Stanza three again had two sentences, and the connection between them was just the place and the plant and the memory of pulling weeds.

Incidentally, I’ve seen different varieties of nightshade. The ones we have in Mississippi are pretty, but don’t have the very strong, pungeant odor of the ones we pulled at my mother’s in Iowa. Those can overwhelm you, and they are very invasive, so we have to throw them in the garbage, not the compost. So if you don’t share my association with the smell, count yourself lucky!

Back to the form, though. I wanted to follow another convention of the form where the pantoum ends with a final stanza that includes lines 2 and 4 of the previous stanza as lines 1 and 3, following the pattern we’ve established, but lines 2 and 4 of the final stanza are lines 1 and 3 from stanza 1.

Sometimes you see the pattern reversed in the final stanza, so line 3 of stanza 1 becomes line 2 of the final stanza, and line 1 becomes the final line of the poem. I chose not to do it that way, but to keep the order from stanza 1 and have line 3 of the first stanza become the final line of the poem. If you look back at my example, you’ll see that this presents a problem, since line 3 would not be the end of a sentence. I allowed myself a slight variation on that line, changing “it pervades” to “pervading” and “we pull invasive” to “we seem invasive,” which allowed the sentence to end and also makes us more like the weeds.

I’m reasonably happy with the way the poem has turned out, though we’ll see if it continues to undergo revisions before it gets published. I’m mostly happy I got past that hurdle of stanza three, and that the poem took some unexpected turns on the way to its conclusion. I think if I write another pantoum, I will give myself a few more stanzas to get to the ending and allow it to wander even further. I’m intrigued by the notion that the couplets in each half of the stanza do not have to be thematically related (like in the ghazal) and the form is what holds them together. This could lead to a wider-ranging poem, though it may take me a few more tries before I let loose and give free reign to the form.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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