Arts & Culture

Pantoums

We have reached that point in the school year when every week “revolves on a sameness wheel,” as Maya Angelou once said. Some of you may even feel like you’re experiencing déjà vu as the weeks progress. Well, do I have the poetry form for you! While relatively obscure, the pantoum is unique among poetry forms because of the line repetition it features. As the reader progresses through a pantoum, the dizzying repetition contributes to a foreign aura of déjà vu and nostalgia. And foreign they are. Pantoums, originating in Malaysia in the 15th century, were adapted by French poets and are occasionally written in English, and they have now become a truly international art form.

Pantoum in Which Wallace Stevens Gives Me Vertigo
Oli Hazzard

In Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘The Public Square’,
a languid janitor bears his lantern through colonnades
and the architecture swoons. I cannot read this poem
without being struck down with vertigo. I can only read:
‘A languid janitor bears his lantern through colonnades…’
before I start to feel sick, and suddenly aware of the earth’s roundness.
Without being struck down with vertigo, I can only read
whilst strapped into my chair; I will read the poem, and
before I start to feel sick, and suddenly aware of the earth’s roundness,
I can remind myself that it’s only a poem, I’m not going to fall over
whilst strapped into my chair. I will read the poem, and
triumph by making it to the end. But this is not my ultimate goal.
I can remind myself that it’s only a poem. I’m not going to fall over
myself just because of one little achievement. I don’t really
triumph by making it to the end. ‘But this is not my ultimate goal,’
I say – as if that were anything like the truth. Every day I celebrate
myself because of one little achievement (I don’t really!)
and the architecture swoons. I cannot read this poem,
I say, as if it were anything like the truth. Every day I celebrate
Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘The Public Square.’

In this poem, the 1st and 3rd lines of each stanza serve as the 2nd and 4th lines of the next, with the final line of the poem being the first. Hazzard uses the unique format of the pantoum to twist the meaning of each line. For example, in the first stanza, he states that he “cannot read this poem without being struck down with vertigo” and in the second, he says that “without being struck down with vertigo, I can only read whilst strapped into my chair…” Despite using the same words, Hazzard creates new meaning. He repeats this in every stanza, each line echoing throughout the poem. Finally, he ends the poem with the first line, coming full circle and encouraging the reader to re-read the poem. With this poem, Hazzard exploits the pantoum’s ability to transform meaning throughout stanzas and induce vertigo in the confused reader.

Evening Harmony
Charles Baudelaire (translation by Roy Campbell)

Now comes the eve, when on its stem vibrates
Each flower, evaporating like a censer;
When sounds and scents in the dark air grow denser;
Drowsed swoon through which a mournful waltz pulsates!
Each flower evaporates as from a censer;
The fiddle like a hurt heart palpitates;
Drowsed swoon through which a mournful waltz pulsates;
The sad, grand sky grows, altar-like, immenser.
The fiddle, like a hurt heart, palpitates,
A heart that hates oblivion, ruthless censor.
The sad, grand sky grows, altar-like, immenser.
The sun in its own blood coagulates…
A heart that hates oblivion, ruthless censor,
The whole of the bright past resuscitates.
The sun in its own blood coagulates…
And, monstrance-like, your memory flames intenser!

Baudelaire, a French poet, wrote this slightly irregular pantoum; rather than ABAB rhyme, it has ABBA rhyme. Rather than changing the meaning of the lines, Baudelaire employs the repetition to create a slightly fevered and haunting mood to his poem. Like the chords of suspenseful music in a tense movie scene, the lines build tension and lead up to the climax. Baudelaire also uses disturbing imagery: flowers evaporating, a sun coagulating in its own blood, and the sky growing “altar-like, immenser.” How can flowers evaporate? How can the sun bleed? What does it mean when he says the sky is growing “altar-like, immmenser?” Growing increasingly unsettled, the reader reaches the final line and suddenly understands what Baudelaire is getting at: a sense of drowning in nostalgia and memories.

Overnight
John Yau

I did not realize that you were fading from sight
I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition

You most likely would have made a joke of it
Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft

I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition
The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open

Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft
You might call this the first of many red herrings

The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open
The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream

You might call this the first of many red herrings
The shield you were given as a child did not protect you

The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream
One by one the words leave you, even this one

The shield you were given as a child did not protect you
The sword is made of air before you knew it

One by one the words leave you, even this one
I did not realize that you were fading from sight

The sword is made of air before you knew it
You most likely would have made a joke of it

This is the poem that first introduced me to the pantoum. Yau’s decision to structure his poem with couplets rather than quatrains initially disguises the repetition, but as the reader progresses through the poem, the repeated lines seem to swing back like the regular hands of a clock. Each of the lines seems disconnected from the others, some of them sad, others sounding like the set up for a joke, yet together they form a rumination on mortality. Yau dedicated this poem to a late poet named Paul Violi, so it makes sense that he would be pondering death and transition.

Summer Nights

It’s summertime. The days are lengthening
Every night is hot and navy dark

The lizards are out. I hear their skittering
Dogs venture into the heavy heat and bark

Every night is hot and navy dark
The moths beat their lives out on the warm light

Dogs venture into the heavy heat and bark
Awakening to summer, they fill their eyes with bright

The moths beat their lives out on the warm light
The stars twinkle. I watch them through the cool breeze.

Awakening to summer, they fill their eyes with bright
Sweat wells through skin, even under the leaves

The stars twinkle. I watch them through the cool breeze.
Myriad fish swirl through the black waters

Sweat wells through skin, even under the leaves.
Orange peels fall in curls, testament to the summer slaughters

Myriad fish swirl through the black waters
The summer moon shines white on the clear seas

Orange peels fall in curls, testament to the summer slaughters
Leaving behind bloodied fruit. These days, these.

The summer moon shines white on the clear seas
Some parts are deep, others shallow. I dream of crossing.

Leaving behind bloodied fruit. These days, these.
It’s summertime. The days are lengthening.

I wrote this pantoum in a similar style to Yau’s “Overnight,” with couplets and the same rhyming scheme. I aimed to channel the lazy feeling of summer when the hours drag on slowly and repetitively. However, unlike Yau, rather than using many varied non sequiturs, I decided to use images (like Baudelaire) that evoke summer nights.

Now it’s your turn! Try writing a pantoum of your own. Since every line does double duty, you only have to do half the work to end up with a finished poem.

4 Comments

  1. Once tried to write a pantoum and got like two and a half pages before getting so confused I gave up

  2. I love your artwork!

  3. Way to go sis! Love your poetry and art 😉

  4. I love your poem at the end, with it’s vivid imagery! Great job!