Personal Pantoum Fest (A Poetry Prompt)

I’ve been reading my fair share of pantoums lately. If I’m honest, my personal pantoum-fest was fueled singularly by the editorial staff here at Tweetspeak, who decided that the theme for March would center around the poetic form. When they informed me of theme, I acted excited, perhaps even emphatically typed, “let’s do this!” The truth was, though, I had no idea what a pantoum was.

Rather than confess my ignorance, I carried my dirty little secret to Google and typed, “what in the heck is a pantoum?” Allow me to share the fruits of my labor.

The pantoum form originated in Malaysia around the fifteenth century. Originally, pantoums were short folk-poems composed of rhyming couplets. But as the style spread west, the rhyming component became less pronounced and the stanzas lengthened. Now, the typical pantoum comprises four line stanzas. The second and fourth lines of each stanza repeat as the first and third lines in the stanza that follows. 

I began to devour pantoums, listening for the rhythmic refrains, noting how meanings shifted with the reuse of every line. And just when I thought I’d devoured every pantoum memorialized on the internet, Maureen Doallas posted “Open-Armed, Gathering Sky.” In the opening stanzas, Maureen uses bold imagery and rhythmic language.

Open-armed, gathering sky,
the wind talks into ears like blue jays
bidding for ruffled feathers. Fiery cardinal
flowers spark a set-to among hummingbirds.

The wind talks into ears like blue jays
miming mouths full of gossip.
Flowers spark a set-to among hummingbirds.
Stems bend, their clusters of flaming red spires their love charms.

(For the entirety of “Open-Armed, Gathering Sky,” visit Maureen’s website, Writing Without Paper.)

Inspired, and armed with a budding understanding of the form, I decided to put my hand to the task and penned my own folk-poem. It’s a dirge of sorts, the retelling of a story I once heard on the plateaus of northern Mozambique.

Goat Herder’s Widow

Under the lightning struck thatch,
a goat lies with smoking eyes
streaking blood. Death on the cobbled porch
running through a rain-stream live-wire.

A goat lies with smoking eyes,
shaking, trembling to thunder thud.
Running through a rain-stream live-wire,
rivers run red through spent sclera.

Shaking, trembling to thunder thud,
plateau people mourn like Baobab bent.
Rivers run red through spent sclera.
Shrieks rise under medicine man spells.

Plateau people mourn like Baobab bent,
bow to discover another live-wire touching–Shepherd
streaking blood. Death on the cobbled porch
touches naked new widow, now lamenting

under the lightning struck thatch.*

Writing the poem was an exercise in discipline, in sticking to the strictures of a form. And like it or not, I found that the poetic form assisted in maintaining and conveying the chaotic sense of the story. Yes, the pantoum is a useful form, indeed. Would you join me in penning a pantoum this week?

Writing Prompt: It may seem like a daunting task, but start simple. Start by penning a two-stanza pantoum on any subject. And yes, you will receive bonus points if you work in references to either goats or Bon Jovi. And if you’re more ambitious, feel free to stretch beyond two stanzas. Share it with us and we’ll tweet it to the world!

*The above pantoum was written in response to managing editor L.L. Barkat’s challenge that I write a goat poem.


Tweetspeak’s March Pantoum Prompt:

This month’s poetry theme at Tweetspeak is Pantoum, and we’ll be composing poems that fit the genre. This is an open month as far as thematic content goes, so be creative. How do you participate?

1. Study up on the Pantoum style, the form and theory.

2. Compose your own pantoum.

3. Tweet your poems to us. Add a #TSPantoum hashtag so we can find it and maybe share it with the world.

4. If you aren’t a twitter user, leave your poem here in the comment box.

5. At the end of the month, we’ll choose a winning poem and feature it in one of our upcoming Weekly Top 10 Poetic Picks.

This week’s winner, Maureen Doallas, is featured above. Thanks for sharing your pantoum with us, Maureen.

Now, let’s get to down to working out our pantoums. Who’s first?

Photo by Frank.Vassen, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Seth Haines


Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In February we’re exploring the theme The Pantoum.

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  1. says

    Thank you so much, Seth, for highlighting my contemporary pantoum. I posted a new one yesterday for Magpie Tales. I made it a bit more challenging not only by having to respond to the prompt at Magpie Tales (a photo) but also incorporating that Shel Silverstein line from WordCandy. I take my inspiration where I find it.

    You more than acquitted yourself with ‘Goat Herder’s Widow’. Talk about strong images! Well-done!

    You make a great point about using poetic forms, and that is, learning to write within their confines. It’s not just the discipline of the forms; in some odd way, they free the imagination. Also, the more you use them, the easier they seem to become to write.

  2. says

    “[T]hey free the imagination.”

    Yes… this.

    I also found that as I came back to the repeating lines, I uncovered new emotional truths about the story that I hadn’t explored before. Of course, I wasn’t able to really explain all of those in the piece, but it actually helped me process this story from the plateau. I suppose that’s why folks say that art therapy is worth its weight in gold?

    Thanks again for giving me a more clear reference point for the pantoum. Your work is very helpful.

  3. L. L. Barkat says

    Interesting note about uncovering new emotional truths with each repetition. I was just discussing that with someone recently… about how writing our life stories again does the same thing… each circling back bringing another level of understanding.

    I like the idea that the pantoum does this in miniature.

    • says

      I’m actually writing about this idea this week. Would love your input on it. I think that you’re spot on, that writing the stories again uncovers something, another level of understanding.

    • says

      I’m a little late on getting back to comments this week, Megan. I really liked this pantoum. Maybe it’s my stage of life, but it really really resonated. With 4 children, bills to pay, etc… sometimes it feels like all we can do is try.

      Thanks for putting in here, Megan. It’s good.


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