I’ve always had a soft spot for classical poetry. Whether it’s playing with iambic pentameter or crafting the perfect sonnet, poetic form is like a puzzle that has the potential to reveal fascinating connections in otherwise overworked or overthought stanzas. One type of classical poetry I’ve always been interested (and a little hesitant) to try is the pantoum, a form adapted from Malaysian folk poetry.
Traditionally, pantoums follow an ABAB rhyme scheme, although rhyming is no longer integral to the form and has fallen slightly out of vogue in the past half-century. The real crux of a pantoum lies in its stanza structure. Here’s a step-by-step guide to crafting a basic pantoum:
First, write a four-line stanza. It’ll be easier on you down the line if the lines in this first stanzas are all standalone sentences, but if you’re up for a challenge (or just love torturing yourself, like me), feel free to employ line breaks and sentence fragments.
Next, number the lines in your stanza (1, 2, 3, 4). In your next stanza, line 2 will become line 1, and line 4 will become line 3. Keep repeating this structure for as long as you choose (some advise 5-7 stanzas, others believe pantoums should be longer). The structure will end up looking something like this:
(1) There are those who suffer in plain sight,
(2) there are those who suffer in private.
(3) Nothing but secondhand details:
(4) a last shower, a request for a pen, a tall red oak.
(2) There are those who suffer in private.
(5) The one in Tehachapi, aged 13.
(4) A last shower, a request for a pen, a tall red oak:
(6) he had had enough torment, so he hanged himself.
Finally, when you feel like your poem has come to a close, take lines 1 and 3 from your first stanza and make them lines 2 and four of your final stanza. In the poem above, “September Elegies” by Randall Mann, it looks like this:
(15) Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.
(1) There are those who suffer in plain sight
(16) like the one in New Brunswick, aged 18.
(3) Nothing but secondhand details.
After going through this process, my biggest tip to budding pantoumers is to let the form propel you forward, not hold you back. The lines should provide the scaffolding you need to build a story, and if a line feels out of place, feel free to alter it a bit! Great examples of this can be found throughout Carolyn Kizer’s “Parent’s Pantoum.” Here’s a taste, her third and fourth stanzas:
They moan about their aging more than we do,
A somber group—why don’t they brighten up?
Though they say they admire our youthful spontaneity
They beg us to be dignified like them
As they ignore our pleas to brighten up.
Someday perhaps we’ll capture their attention
Then we won’t try to be dignified like them
Nor they to be so gently patronizing.
Kizer uses the last few words of the lines to connect the stanzas, rather than copying and pasting the whole line in place. That’s okay! The right move is whatever flows best in your pantoum. In today’s post-form poetic landscape, it’s all about what suits the poet’s narrative best. Make the form work for you, don’t just slave away to fulfill the demands of the form.
This is a fun poetic process that has the potential to surprise both poet and reader. I urge you to give it a try—happy pantouming!