Writers Workshop: Pantoum

Poems that sway like a Malay palm

Poems that sway like a Malay palm

PANTOUM

A pantun is a traditional Malay form of quatrain-based poetry. Victor Hugo introduced it to France in 1829, calling it pantoum. The westernized pantoum descended from a specific form: pantun berkait, which repeats whole lines in an interlocking pattern. The second and fourth lines of any stanza become the first and third lines of the stanza that follows. In the pantoum's last stanza, the first and third lines of the opening stanza are finally repeated as the fourth and second lines. The order of those lines can be reversed, but ideally a pantoum will end with the poem's opening line, creating a kind of circle. Pantoums are not required to rhyme, but most do. They can vary from two stanzas to as many as you wish to write.

Composing a pantoum is a great writing warm-up. You first write a stanza of four lines. The pantoum will work best if the lines are fairly intact, evocative phrases of similar length or rhythm -- each expressing just one basic idea or image that can resonate in different ways when placed in a new context, as they will be throughout the poem. Most of your work in setting the tone and sense goes into laying this foundational stanza, because by the second stanza, you’ll see the poem start to take on a life and significance of its own, while you just follow along or nudge it into shape with an additional line here and there. Allow the wave-like quality of the form to carry you along. Be spontaneous. Allow for happy accidents and juxtapositions. Once you get to the end you’ll probably need to go back and edit a couple of lines to fit into the rhythm that’s developed. This form demonstrates the power of the line. If you have an old poem lying about that isn’t working, but some of the lines are keepers, or an orphaned line running through your head, start a pantoum with one of those lines. This works especially well for couplets that start to sound a bit sing-songy; the pantoum form aerates them – giving breathing space between the rhymes and finding depth in the repetitions. This also works in reverse, as your pantoum might generate one perfect line that starts a whole new piece. Writing a poem in any form is a challenge. Give it what you have today. There might be a glaring hole or clunky line that you know you need to come back to. Start a new project and go back to this one next week when you can hear the poem as a whole with fresh ears and respond accordingly. Getting started is as easy as copying and printing the form below. Stuck for a first line? Scroll down further for some ideas there. Make it rhyme ABAB and it will start writing itself after that.

_________________________________________________________________ (Line 1)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 2)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 3)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 4)

_________________________________________________________________ (Line 2)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 5)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 4)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 6)

_________________________________________________________________ (Line 5)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 7)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 6)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 8)

_________________________________________________________________ (Line 7)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 3)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 8)
_________________________________________________________________ (Line 1)

I find this a very meditative form. The wave-like structure encourages movement in place, like something caught in the tide just off shore. The water churns up deeper layers, but by definition you end up where you began. You swirl around a thought until you come to rest. If you have a phrase, mantra, or story that just won't let you go, maybe it's a pantoum.

When I introduced this form at church for a Lenten devotional writing class, I suggested starting with a biblical phrase...

Ideas for opening lines/ texts: 

“Dust you are and to dust you will return”/ Genesis 3

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”/ Matthew 4

“[And afterward] I will pour out my spirit on all people”/ Joel 2

“This inheritance is kept in heaven for you”/ 1 Peter 1

“Revive us, and we will call on your name”/ Psalm 80

“You will be like a well-watered garden”/ Isaiah 58

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling”/ Philippians 2

“It is written about me in the scroll”/ Hebrews 10

“He loved them to the end”/ John 13

“She has done a beautiful thing to me”/ Matthew 26

Give it a try! I’ll post the results of my writing exercise tomorrow, as well as a much finer example.

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