Runaway Story Rescued by Ancient Poetic Technique

This week I was the “featured poet of the week” on the inspirational writing/poetry blog, bentlily: the art of noticing your life, by Samantha Reynolds.

My poem, Crush (1976), was based on a true story from my childhood that I had been trying to write (and failing at) for years. The story fell flat in fiction and prose forms. I had a notebook with several false starts . . . though I couldn’t get the story to work, I kept thinking that at some point, the mysterious missing germ that would animate my words would reveal itself in all of those failed attempts.

john_ashbery.some_treesOne day, I discovered the poetic form pantoum. The pantoum began as a 15th-century Malayan folk-poem, with rhyme and repetition that made it popular for story-telling and singing.  It became popular among writers in France and Britain in the 19th century, and John Ashbery popularized it in the United States in the 1950s with his book, Some Trees.

My attraction to the pantoum is summed up well in segment about poetic forms and pantoums:

An incantation is created by a pantoum’s interlocking pattern of rhyme and repetition; as lines reverberate between stanzas, they fill the poem with echoes. This intense repetition also slows the poem down, halting its advancement. As Mark Strand and Eavan Boland explained in The Making of a Poem, “the reader takes four steps forward, then two back,” making the pantoum a “perfect form for the evocation of a past time.”

Naturally, I find myself circling back on themes and points in conversation and generally, in life. Don’t we all, to differing extents, take our new experiences and roll them back over our past experiences? The flow of the pantoum makes perfect sense to me!

In the pantoum, I found the germ that would bring my story to life! Once the story had boundaries and guidance, it took off. The process and the result of writing in pantoum form has been satisfying, revealing, and fun—I’m going to do more of it.

Check out my poem at bentlily. Feel free to comment!

If you are interested in trying out a pantoum yourself, here is a map from my favorite reference book by Ron Padgett, The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms:

The Western version of the pantoum is a poem of indefinite length made up of stanzas whose four lines are repeated in a pattern: lines 2 and lines 4 of each stanza are repeated as lines 1 and 3 of the next stanza, and so on, as shown below:

Line 1
Line 2
Line 3
Line 4

Line 5 – same as line 2
Line 6
Line 7 – same as line 4
Line 8

Line 9 – same as line 6
Line 10
Line 11 – same as line 8
Line 12

And so on.

Sometimes the final stanza has a neat twist: although it fist and third lines are as usual the same as the second and fourth lines in the stanza above it, its second and fourth lines are the same as the third and first lines of the very first stanza. This way, every line in the poem is used twice, and the first line of the poem is the same as the last. Rhyme is optional . . .

If you do write a pantoum—please share in the comment box! I’d love to read what you come up with.