By Carol Smallwood

The pantoum is a poetry form that originated in 15th century Malaysia and drifted West in the 19th century with French writer Victor Hugo, among others. While it never quite took off like the Haiku, it never fully went away either and has been steadily blossoming among English poets.

Unlike the 14-line sonnet, pantoums do not have to be a certain length. The challenge comes with the repetition of two lines from the first stanza in the following stanza. Additionally, in the traditional Pantoum form that I prefer, the first line becomes the last line and the third line becomes the third from last. The payoff of a well executed pantoum is a picture-like poem that seems to dance in circles outside the boundaries of time.

This is the format I use:
 

Stanza 1:
 
4 lines, ABAB rhyme scheme

Stanza 2:

Line 5 (repeat of line 2 in stanza 1)
Line 6 (new line)
Line 7   (repeat of line 4 in stanza 1)
Line 8 (new line)

Stanza 3:

Last Stanza (This is the format for the last stanza regardless of how many preceding stanzas exist):

Line 9   (line 2 of the previous stanza)
Line 10 (line 3 of the first stanza)
Line 11 (line 4 of the previous stanza)
Line 12 (line 1 of the first stanza)

As with other formal poems, one must not let the form drive the poem and select topics carefully: like when Goldilocks is looking for a bed in three bears’ house, it must be just right. Other types of pantoums can be found here.

My example pantoum, “Near the Porch Rails,” began when I noticed a red weed growing I hadn’t seen before. Curious, I looked at it closely, and smiled as it seemed like beads and tried to find the name of it but couldn’t online. However, names of others were delightful and decided to write about them as summer progressed.
 

Near the Porch Rails
 
New weeds bring surprise—like one with red bead-like leaves this spring
nameless yet; weeds were often used by ancestors for medicine or dye—
secure in ground in sun near the porch rails, green life brings a new zing.
Nearby, white delicate Queen Anne’s Lace (Wild Carrot), stretches to sky.

Nameless yet, weeds were often used by ancestors for medicine or dye;
Calling one, Heal All, is better than Prunella vulgaris, its scientific name.
Nearby, white delicate Queen Anne’s Lace (Wild Carrot) stretches to sky.
Even if families grow next to one another, they’re never exactly the same.

Calling one, Heal All is better than Prunella vulgaris, its scientific name;
Mouseear Chickweed, Bull Thistle, Shepherd’s Purse are common weeds.
Even if families grow next to one another, they’re never exactly the same—
spring arrivals from year to year are capable of sowing many seeds.

Mouseear Chickweed, Bull Thistle, Shepherd’s Purse are common weeds;
secure in ground in sun near the porch rails, green life brings a new zing;
spring arrivals from year to year are capable of sowing many seeds.
New weeds bring surprise—like one with red bead-like leaves this spring.

 
 
Paste your pantoums in the comments sections below.
 
 
One of Carol Smallwood pantoum’s just won an Honorable Mention in the Thirteenth Annual International Ultra-Short Competition sponsored by The Binnacle at The University of Maine at Machias, 2016. Her over four dozen books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, which is on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers. Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences is a 2014 collection from Lamar University Press; Divining the Prime Meridian, is a 2015 collection from WordTech Editions.

Related Post

‘Commie Carcinomas’ and Other Poetry by Don Shoo...   Commie Carcinomas When least expected they arrive, an avant garde of hordes wielding a deadly pestilence like slashing, bloody swords. Di...

12 Responses

  1. Dusty Grein

    Carol,

    Well done! I too love to explore, and use essays like this to teach others how to do the same. My series of how-to essays on classical forms are quite popular with my poetry groups.

    The pantoum, due to its strong cyclic repetition, suits many subjects, and I loved the way you spun a trip through the weeds into a nice circular web. Nothing thrills me quite like seeing different themes explored using classic metering and form.

    I too prefer to create a crown from my pantoums, and use the reverse of lines 1 & 3 from the first stanza, as 2 & 4 in the final one. I find that this refrain style reinforces that opening line and provides the best closure.

    I have written several pantoums in this style as part of my new classic poetry collection, and would love to share and get your opinion on a couple. These two are both written in iambic pentameter, since the subject matter in both cases was enhanced by the soft edges that iambs give, and the cadence falls nicely into a repetitive form.

    Clouds
    ———-
    Clouds drift across the peaceful azure sky.
    As I sit quietly under this tree,
    I think of life’s big questions and I sigh.
    I wonder if someday I’ll truly see.

    As I sit quietly under this tree,
    the sun is warm shining upon my face.
    I wonder if someday I’ll truly see
    the beauty hidden deep inside this place .

    The sun is warm shining upon my face.
    I stretch out, gladly soaking up the light,
    the beauty hidden deep inside this place,
    as arms of golden warmth embrace me tight.

    I stretch out, gladly soaking up the light.
    I think of life’s big questions and I sigh;
    As arms of golden warmth embrace me tight,
    clouds drift across the peaceful azure sky.

    –dustygrein

    First Kiss
    ————-
    I floated home on clouds the day we met;
    that first great kiss changed everything and more.
    My life was full of “Haven’t done that yet,”
    (I’d never tasted someone’s tongue before).

    That first great kiss changed everything and more;
    you taught me what it was to fall in love.
    I’d never tasted someone’s tongue before,
    but kissing, for you, just wasn’t enough.

    You taught me what it was to fall in love.
    My virgin hands were unsure what to do,
    but kissing, for you, just wasn’t enough.
    You made me want to learn the rest from you.

    My virgin hands were unsure what to do –
    my life was full of “Haven’t done that yet.”
    You made me want to learn the rest from you;
    I floated home on clouds the day we met.

    –dustygrein

    Reply
    • Carol Smallwood

      Thank you for asking my opinion, Dusty. I admire your skill with meter which I rather not tackle but hopefully will. You sounded like you enjoyed writing them and hope you will continue and encouraged me to try meter again.

      Reply
  2. Carol Smallwood

    Thank you for the painting to accompany the poem! Classical art and formal poetry go well together and deserve more followers.

    Reply
    • Betty Bellous

      I am not a poet but these pantoums are delightful and so much fun to find the “lines” that are repeated in a subsequent verse. Thank you for introducing me to a form of poetry that I can enjoy.

      Reply
      • Carol Smallwood

        Thank you, Betty, for reading the pantoum. I bet you could easily write one and enjoy, share the results!

  3. chris swanberg

    Carol, Your attention to history and structure in this piece is admirable. Thanks for sharing the interesting morphology and architecture of this unusual and very structured formal poetry. Interesting reading and food for future poems! Chris Swanberg

    Reply
    • Carol Smallwood

      Thank you, Chris. When I first looked at the format I never thought I’d try one but bit by bit it fall into place and now it is my favorite kind because it offers surprise at the end and not too much repetition of lines. I’ve run across many that are written using different rules than those I gave, modern versions perhaps you could say. I started with villanelles but now pantoums are the most fun for me.

      Reply
  4. Carole Mertz

    Carol, I liked your description of the pantoum as being outside the boundaries of time. Your example, “Near the Porch Rails,” so well portrays the pantoum’s circular “dance.” Your listing of Bull Thistle after Mouseear made me smile.

    Thanks for your clear explanation of the pantoum’s form.
    (Sorry, to tease out a pantoum from me in response would put me so far outside the boundaries of time, there’d be no return.)

    Reply
    • Carol Smallwood

      Thank you, Carole. You caught the essential magic of the pantoum when you mentioned boundaries of time. Yes, I used the names of the weeds you mention because they were funny and the scientific names made them sound so serious. I’ve had to struggle getting the last stanza to work and ended up tossing the poems out; sometimes adding another stanza worked.

      Reply
  5. Lorna Davis

    Carol, thank you for taking the time to write this! Pantoums are new to me. What an interesting form. Yes I love the way it circles back around and finishes neatly at its beginning. Dusty Grein, I especially love your “Clouds”.

    Reply
    • Dusty Grein

      Thank you Lorna. ‘Clouds’ was actually the first pantoum I ever wrote, and is still one of my favorites as well. It almost became the lead off poem in my forthcoming collection, but was over-ridden by a terza rima that touched me deeply when I wrote it. 🙂

      Reply
    • Carol Smallwood

      Thank you, Lorna, for reading and sending a comment. Yes, the circling back round is the challenging thing as often I’ve had to either add, remove a stanza or two or toss the poem out when it made no sense.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.