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My Favorite Contemporary Pantoum

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo

What is Pantoum?

Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserables, revived an old Malayasian form of poetry called Pantoum in France in 1829. This is not surprising, French forms like the Villanelle or the Rondeau lean heavily on the use of repitition and the Pantoum is no exception.

Baudelaire studied the Pantoum shortly after Hugo revived the form and soon many french poets began to try their hands at writing one.

The three R's, as I like to call it, Rhyme, Rhythm, and Repititon are tools that can be used within the poem to conjure up emotional reactions in the reader and to help the reader remember themes or ideas that are important to the make up of the poem.

I have talked briefly about repitition in Villanelle and Sestina and how the power of these poems lies in the structured repitition of certain lines or words. Due to the power that repitition holds on our memory and cognition it is difficult to work in these forms and even more difficult to master.

Granted most poets today enjoy the freedom of free verse where their creative energy is allowed to play wherever it likes. This is a good thing. But remembering the three R's and contemplating where these three elements can add depth and character to your poem is important. You will be amazed at how much more power your poetry will have when you add these elements in a thoughtful manner.

What does a Pantoum look like?

Pantoum are made up of multiple quatrains where the 2nd line and 4th line are repeated in the next stanza. The lines can be of any length and metre. This continues throughout the poem until the final stanza is chosen. The final stanza is called the Penultimate stanza in the Pantoum and ends with the 1st line of the poem and includes the 2nd line of the first stanza as the 3rd line of the Penultimate stanza.

Confused yet, here let's give a more visual representation:

Stanza 1 - ABCD

Stanza 2 - BEDF

Stanza 3 - EGFH

Stanza 4 - GIHJ

This would continue for however many stanzas are in the poem. Here is an example of the Pentultimate stanza:

Pentultimate stanza (Last Stanza) - ICJA

The pattern of repitition in the Pantoum lead to subtle shifts in meaning and add depth to the poem. This form works well when writing about cyclic activity or memory.

John Ashberry

John Ashberry

John Ashbery

John Ashbery, a graduate from Harvard, has published over twenty volume of his poetry. He also has published collections of his Art Criticism and spent time at "The Factory" with Andy Warhol in the late seventies.

He was considered a member of the "New York School" of poetry whose members included Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest. His poetry has been controversial and debated over the years due to what some consider an inaccessability to the reader. Yet he has kept his style of writing consistent throughout his collections and makes no apologies for his creations.

In 1956 W.H. Auden collected poems in Ashbery's first collection "Some Trees." In this award winning collection Ashbery wrote a Pantoum simply titled "Pantoum." As Hugo brought the Pantoum to 19th century France, Ashbery brought the Pantoum to contemporary American poetry.

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After his "Pantoum" various other poets began to play with the form. Below I have shared his "Pantoum" with a critical analysis included.

John Ashbery's "Pantoum"

Eyes shining without mystery,
Footprints eager for the past
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes,
And what is in store?

Footprints eager for the past
The usual obtuse blanket.
And what is in store
For those dearest to the king?

The usual obtuse blanket.
Of legless regrets and amplifications
For those dearest to the king.
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion,

Of legless regrets and amplifications,
That is why a watchdog is shy.
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion,
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night.

That is why a watchdog is shy,
Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying.
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night
And that soon gotten over.

Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying
Some blunt pretense to safety we have
And that soon gotten over
For they must have motion.

Some blunt pretense to safety we have
Eyes shining without mystery,
For they must have motion
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes.

John Ashbery from "Some Trees" 1956

A Review of John Ashbery's "Pantoum"

Well let us look at how the repitition leads this poem towards the Pentultimate stanza. First off, I still have many questions to what certain lines may mean but I can establish that each repetitive line drags the reader into the next stanza and brings a new question as to meaning or interpretation.

This continues until the end when the reader is reintroduced to the "Eyes shining without mystery" and "Through the vague snows of many clay pipes." This closes the connections between his images and leads the reader towards a more concrete meaning. Still, though, the meaning is kept a slight distance from where one can see.

It is safe to say that Ashbery wanted the reader to remember these lines and that these lines hold the key to the substance of the poem.

I enjoy how due to the repitition the pace of the poem seems to go quickly and smoothly and how Ashbery realizes this and tells the reader "For they must have motion."

This Pantoum is my favorite of the contemporary Pantoum's I have read simply due to the fact that I have a different idea of meaning every time I glance it over.


Jamie Lee Hamann (author) from Reno NV on April 17, 2015:

This is a sign of good poetry. Thank you. Jamie

manatita44 from london on April 16, 2015:

Yes, a little complicated. But again, it's good that you see something new every time that you read, Jamie. Worth pondering and the hallmarks of great poetry.

Jamie Lee Hamann (author) from Reno NV on April 13, 2015:

The poem does evoke some strong emotions, yet leaves me asking many questions. Good Morning Audrey. We are finding ourselves deeper into the month. Jamie

Audrey Howitt from California on April 12, 2015:

I find the use of repetition quite emotionally evocative--esp in the example you chose--I am not sure why that is

Jamie Lee Hamann (author) from Reno NV on April 12, 2015:

Bill and Theresa probably should be writing papers or working on projects for school but I just can't help writing these hubs. Happy Sunday to you both. Jamie

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on April 11, 2015:

Fascinating Jamie. I have rarely come across a Pantoum and then did not know how the structure informed the poem. Very nice work. Theresa

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 11, 2015:

Nice history lesson, Jamie. One more reason why I don't even consider trying poetry. Way too complicated for this simple writer. :)

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