Pantoum – Hard hard hard: “Overheard on the Esplanade”

I’m tackling a different poetic form today – the pantoum.

Pantoums are sometimes compared to villanelles because they too involve repeating lines.  But pantoums are, to my mind, much harder to write.

As explained previously (see e.g. post comparing villanelles to banana pudding), writing a villanelle is largely a matter of assembly.   It takes preparation time, but once you get two reasonably resonant, flexible, lines (the ones that will be repeated), you can just kind of layer them.   (Like your pudding, your wafers, your bananas, your whipped cream.)

Writing a pantoum is more like setting up a house of cards–a house in which the same cards are used to build both the lower and higher levels.  (My attempts sometimes remind me of a clown stacking boxes to reach some high place; because of a shortage, the clown keeps putting the bottom boxes on top, until, slowly, she realizes she’s just not getting anywhere, at least anywhere transcendent.)

Pantoums also make me think of some Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin schtick in which the same coin or flower is recirculated (tied to his pocket etc.)   My brain here keeps picturing Roberto Benigni as waiter in Life is Beautiful, re-serving a light fish dish (abandoned by another customer) to the Nazi commandant with an ulcer by emphasizing the “fritti fritti fritti” quality of the mushroom omelette previously ordered by the commandant.   (Comparing a pantoum to recycled fish is probably not fair.)

The problem and also the magic of a pantoum is that all the lines are repeated.  The form is made up of quatrains.  Traditionally, it involves a rhyme sequence, though some writers dispense with rhyme.   Frankly, it is a type of poem in which “slant rhyme” or near rhyme works well to avoid a sing-songy quality.

It sounds more complicated than it is.   I’ve included a line-by-line breakdown, after my sample, below.

A note:  in reading, pay close attention to punctuation, which trumps line breaks.  (Meaning that pauses are only to be taken at commas, periods, dashes, etc. and not at line breaks unless punctuated.)  Sorry to sound churlish, but punctuation is particularly important in pantoums as it is one of the few tools for sculpting the repetitions.

(Sorry also for grim subject matter of poem.)

Heard on the Esplanade, a Pantoum

The woman cries
that she doesn’t believe it.
“Don’t tell me lies.”
She pulls away from him.

“That she doesn’t believe it—
Is that what you’re telling me?”
She pulls away from him
in the sun of the walkway.

“Is that what you’re telling me?”
Sky overbright on sleeves
in the sun of the walkway
twists the fall of fall leaves.

Sky overbright on sleeves
he holds onto.  Her, she tries to tear,
twists, the fall of fall leaves.
All pretend not to hear.

He holds onto her.  She tries to tear.
“Tried to rape me,” rings out.
All pretend not to hear.
“How can she, how can she not—”

“Tried to rape me,” rings out.
“Don’t tell me lies.
How can she, how can she not?”
The woman cries.

(All rights reserved, Karin Gustafson)

Now for the truly curious, here’s the breakdown:

For notation purposes, “A” and “B” refer to the end rhyme of the line.   “A1” refers to a specific whole line (which is repeated) and which uses the A rhyme;  “A2” refers to another specific whole line which also uses the A rhyme. “B1” is a specific B rhyming line; “B2” another specific B rhyming line.







A pantoum can have any number of quatrains as long as the patterns are maintained.

If you’d rather count octopi than repeating lines–check out 1 Mississippi at link above or on Amazon.

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18 Comments on “Pantoum – Hard hard hard: “Overheard on the Esplanade””

  1. David Feldman Says:

    (My third try.)

    We mathematicians eat sleep and breath this sort of
    stuff, so it occurred to me that arranging the data
    thus would make it easier to see:

    A1 B1 A2 B2
    …….B1 A3 B2 A4
    …….…….A3 B3 A4 B4
    …….…….…….B3 A5 B4 A6
    …….…….…….…….A5 B5 A6 B6
    …….…….…….…….…….B5 A2 B6 A1

    (Please delete this if the blogging software won’t align my columns, and I’ll try again!)

    You’ll notice that the last line corrects a typo in your original (don’t apologize!).

  2. Jingle Says:

    beautiful job..


    a hard challenge, you made it well.

  3. brian Says:

    very nicely done…and you were able to tell a story as well…first time with this form for me…ugh…hard…and a poignant tale as well…sad two ways…one if true that no one believes her…two if not that she would lie…i like your commentary up front too…makes sense for sure…

  4. Excellent work with the form! I like how you used the punctuation to change lines slightly, yet the repetition remained. After all the Charlie Chaplin talk, though, I wasn’t expecting such a serious subject in your poem. Peace, Linda

  5. claudia Says:

    wow – kudos for telling a story in this form…not an easy task but you mastered it wonderfully…sad tale though..

  6. Gay Says:

    Love your exposition on the pantoum…you only omitted what I did as well … the little addition left on the dverse (comments) bar about the first stanza being the clue and the end the realization – as noted by oceangirl. I should start all over again. But I agree it’s a house of cards, and hard, hard, hard!

    Really wonderful use of the form here. And having stated what you would do, you took it to a higher level than the form itself by building not a story, really as everyone else noted, but IMO a play in one act. The repetitions easing through time, propelling the action, building to climax and then resolving. Excellent work! G.

  7. Jo Bryant Says:

    A poignant story that is made powerful by the use of this form. 🙂

  8. wow you have really worked hard on the concept and theme – an interesting variation and well crafted with weight

  9. Pervagus Says:

    Really good use of the form with the “deviance” coming through the punctuation. Hats off to that! Well done 🙂

  10. Altogether a very interesting, and rather haunting poem. I loved the mystery in the snatches of overheard conversation.

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