Pantoums: Easier Said Than Done

As most of you know, poetry, supposedly dying (see Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry for all the news unfit to print) has inched its way into The New York Times Magazine on Sundays.

This week Rita Dove selected a form I haven’t seen in a while, the pantoum. As Dove explains, it hails from Malaysian oral tradition and seems easy, but isn’t. The easier part is the ABAB rhyme scheme. The more difficult part is the shifting: “Lines 2 and 4 of each quatrain become Lines 1 and 3 in the next stanza.” Hoo, boy. Like working on a 500-piece puzzle some rainy Sunday, that.

As with haiku, it is much easier to write bad pantoums than good ones. It is also a type of writing that appeals to some poets who like a challenge (example: Allison Joseph, pictured) and repels others (example: Ken Craft, seen here hiding from pantoums), who like to control their challenges, thank you.

Here’s the poem Dove offered up this week as an excellent example of the pantoum form. If you want to read Dove’s introduction as well, take a jump down this rabbit hole.


By Allison Joseph

I like my tights electric blue,
my shoes of patent leather.
This dance I dance is meant for you —
I move quick as new weather.

My shoes of patent leather
shine brighter than my skin.
I move, quick as new weather,
to shed the dress I’m in.

Shining brighter than my skin,
my eyes, they say it all.
I’ll shed the dress I’m in,
let summer fabric fall.

My eyes, they see it all.
They see what’s false, what’s true.
Let summer fabric fall.
I know what we can do.

I know what’s false, what’s true.
I dance the dance that’s meant for you.
Show me what you can do.
You like my tights, electric blue.