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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Vroom Vroom, A Pantoum

I've been stuck in the middle of three different poems for weeks. I don't usually have this many poems going at once, and being stuck in such an array of them at the same time is not a pleasant feeling. So much so that I have found myself recently avoiding writing by doing anything but.

So it was time to pull out the big guns: my secret weapon for resistance to writing. And here it is: Form. Yes, that's right. The less I feel like writing, the more constraints I put on the writing. I turn the poem into a puzzle, a problem to solve. I take myself out of my feelings and put myself into my head; it's a distraction. It almost always works.

This week I needed a lot of formal constraints, a lot of distraction, so I went for the pantoum. (Rules for the pantoum can be found here.) Villanelles, sestinastriolets and sonnets work fine too, in decreasing order of need for formal distraction. But this week I needed the mother of all formal distractions, the pantoum.

Every line in a pantoum is used twice, according to a strict ordering. For example, the second line of the first stanza is the first line of the second stanza, and on an on (see the rules above). The last stanza is especially tricky, since it is made up of two lines from the pentultimate stanza and two lines from the very first stanza, and they have to fit together. Going backwards and making a change here or there means making two changes, and it can get complicated. Very good distraction, don't you think?

Here are a few things that I do to have even more fun with a pantoum, to make the game even more versatile and the poem not quite as repetitive, but still keep the distraction level high.

1) I like to use homophones so that the words sound the same but have different meanings and spellings in the two corresponding lines. For example, this week I used "hear" in one line and "here" in the same line when it was repeated later. It takes a little manipulation to make such different words fit in the same line, but it's all in the name of distraction.

2) I experiment with words that are near rhymes or simply similarly sounding words in the paired lines, instead of directly repeating a line. For example, in this pantoum of mine (first published in the Beloit Poetry Journal, and also in my book The Insomniac's Weather Report,") called "Flood," the fourth line in the second stanza, "who were washed away and never seen again." becomes in the following stanza "who were wished away and never seen again." If you keep many of the key words and maintain the rhythm, you can change quite a lot of words to similar-sounding ones, as in the second line in the third stanza of "Flood", "the thundering churn and thrust of the Broken Arrow River", which recurs as the first line in the fourth stanza as "The wandering Sturm und Drang of the Spoken Sorrow River". Although very few words are directly repeated, it's clear that these are paired lines.

3) I also like to break sentences  in different places in each line, often mid-line, so that the word that ends a sentence in one place becomes the beginning of a sentence in the repeated line. For example, from the poem I worked on this week, the line "is overkill for remembering embers in the snow, balance of fantasy" becomes later "is overkill for remembering. Embers in the snow balance fallacy". Embers is the object in one sentence and the subject in the echoing line.

4) I also add and subtract small words in lines, keeping the bigger, more powerful, attention-getting words. From "Flood," the last line in the pentultimate stanza, "like father’s trombone-emptied basement, like the heart." goes from being a comparison to being full sentences in the final stanza, as "We like father’s trombone-empty basement. We like the heart".

The trouble with the pantoum is that it screams out to be admired for its cleverness. For that reason, writing a pantoum is a lot more fun than reading one.

But that's okay. You don't have to go all the way to the extreme of a pantoum when you are dreading writing. Setting your own arbitrary constraints will do. For example, you might choose to write a poem that is composed entirely of one-syllable words. Or you might mention a color in every stanza. You could even put a bunch of these random constraints on yourself. The point is to distract yourself with rules and constraints, making the poem word play, a way of playing, making it enjoyable to write again.

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