Exploring Poetic Form: The Pantoum

How repetition and structure can enhance your poetry’s content.

Aaron Meacham
Jan 5 · 3 min read
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Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

Forms and styles of poetry change over time, just like any other art. Such hallmarks from the genre’s history like metrical feet and rhyme schemes now tend to feel a bit antiquated. And our modern consumption of brief, accessible instapoetry certainly breaks with the longform, narrative origins of historical poetry.

But just like any other fashion, certain trends have a way of coming back in style when the right combination of circumstances arise. And it’s with this consideration in mind that the poetic form of the pantoum comes to mind.

The pantoum was adapted from the Malayan pantun and later Westernized to eliminate the original form’s focus on rhyme. This new form of poem focuses heavily on a repetition pattern of four-line stanzas. For each stanza of the poem, lines 2 and 4 repeat as lines 1 and 3 in the next stanza. This pattern creates a series of interlinked loops, like taking two steps forward and one step back with each new stanza.

Confused? Let’s take a look at the form in action in the opening of Donald Justice’s “Pantoum of the Great Depression”:

Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don’t remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don’t remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

The line “Simply by going on and on” starts as line 2 of the first stanza before repeating as line 1 of the second stanza. And this pattern repeats…on and on.

Looking at the content of the poem, it’s clear just how cleverly Justice leans on the pantoum structure to reinforce the mood of his poem. The repetition of the mundane tragedies of the Great Depression produces a feeling of being stuck in place, a feeling that makes this experience real for any reader who could only ever read about such hardship.

Justice ultimately breaks the repetition at the conclusion of his poem. A powerful feature of repetition is its impact on the writing once it goes away, especially if it leaves suddenly or subverts the reader’s expectations in some way. Another variation of the pantoum includes “wrapping” the poem so that the lines of the final stanza loop back to the top. This creates a sense of a larger loop that all the smaller loops fit within. Again, not always right for every take on the poem, but it’s an option that may be worth exploring.

Justice, as well as other poets who play with the pantoum form, does like to include subtle variations on the repeated lines. And of course it’s seasoned to taste for every poet. Repeating every line verbatim can feel empty for some writers. Whereas reinventing every single line diminishes the impact of the repetition. Play around, try out different approaches, and see what approach works for your style and your topic. Part of the beauty of writing within a given form comes from the tension between allowing the structure to guide your work while also retaining power as the writer to push back against the form when you feel the need.

Topics that tend to work well for the pantoum include explorations of time, loss, love, habits, routines, anxiety, obsession/fixation, and mental health. But don’t feel limited to these topics; explore the pantoum form to write about any topics that you think benefit from the power of repetition.

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Aaron Meacham

Written by

My name anagrams to “a man becomes.” I love movies and Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t understand how anagrams work.

The POM

The POM

Together We Grow in Poetry

Aaron Meacham

Written by

My name anagrams to “a man becomes.” I love movies and Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t understand how anagrams work.

The POM

The POM

Together We Grow in Poetry

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