Sunday, June 03, 2012

A pantoum for Hliza

Hliza said the other day that she thought the nearest thing in Malay to a sonnet might be a 'pantun'.  I remembered there was a form called a pantoum, and that it came from Malay originally, so I said I'd try to write her one.

I'd noticed it in the poet's manual, then it came up in Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty, a book in which I found much to enjoy, where the poem from which the novel takes its title is in the form of a pantoum, supposedly written by one of the characters but in reality written by Smith's husband, Nick Laird.

'It's Malay originally.'
'It travelled.  Victor Hugo did use it, but it's Malay originally. It's basically interlinked quatrains, usually rhyming a-b-a-b, and the second and fourth lines of each stanza go on to be the first and third ... lines of the next stanza.
(Zadie Smith, On Beauty)

I checked again with the Poet's Manual, which said it was a German poet, Adelbert von Chamisso, who first introduced the form to Europe, the 19th century French poets, including Hugo and Baudelaire in their enthusiasm for Orientalism  took it up, and then Austin Dobson in English.

It turns out to be considerably more difficult than a sonnet.  The pattern is as Smith outlines above, quatrains - four-line verses - rhyming a-b-a-b, but then you repeat the second and fourth 'b' lines in the next verse, so they become the 'a' lines, so it's a chain-rhyming poem.  You can have as many quatrains as you like, the lines can be as long as you like, but at the end, you have to cast off the chain neatly by re-using the only unrepeated lines - the first and third ones of the first verse - in reverse.

Sounds horribly complicated as such things always do when you try to spell them out, but it's made considerably easier, especially with the wonders of word-processing, by laying out a template on the page, and copy-and-pasting the repeating lines in the appropriate places, then sliding things about till you get a result you're happy with.  The real difficulty, as with any form with a lot of repeating in it, is stopping the repetitions sounding annoying and/or nonsensical in relation to the lines on either side of them.  This page at an old University of Iowa 'Craft of Poetry' site has some helpful suggestions, such as running sentences over from one line to the next (enjambment) to avoid the repeats clunking too much.  The problem with that is you then have be able to cut-and-shut parts of the different sentences compatibly together.  It also suggests that you don't have to be too fussy about repeating the lines exactly, you can change them a bit, which I have, or about getting your rhymes too perfect, which I haven't.

I've absolutely no idea whether this kind of European pantoum bears any resemblance to its Malay origins.

Hliza, who lives in Malaysia, has been a blogging buddy for ages now, sometimes we don't visit each other's blogs for a long time, but then we do again. The name of hers, 'A Woman, a Mom, a Lover' at first seemed to me a bit over the top, but it turns out it's a take on a classic Malaysian film melodrama about a fallen woman, so that's Hliza having a chuckle.  In fact she's very far from a fallen woman, but a rock-steady one. Our lives, situations, cultures, characters even, couldn't really be much more different, and that's the beauty of it.  But I think we do share a need and desire to look at and note and photograph the things around us, to see the beauty in the ordinary and to try to make it extraordinary, and also to stay open and interested in people and worlds which are different from our own.  I remain very grateful to blogging for giving me opportunities to share a little of other people's lives like this.

In the scene in the Zadie Smith novel above, it says of the rather reserved, not very poetically inclined character who has been shown the pantoum:

Jack was now faced with a task he dreaded, saying something after reading a poem.  Saying something to the poet.

I do know how he feels.

Pantoum, for Hliza

There is no reason actually for you to read, except
I see things. Like how, between the breakfast dark and hungry light
the girl lies quiet, dropping stones like prayer beads into sets,
and the boy who watches, worries, saves and writes.

I see things: how, between the dark and light
he folds the notes up, gives them back and nearly breaks your heart,
the boy who watches, worries, saves and writes,
floating in watery blue, is in a world apart.

He folds the years up, gives them back and nearly breaks your heart,
who carried you as children strongly in his arms,
floating in watery blue, he's in a world apart,
she looks at him with love, and prays to keep him safe from harm.

He carried all his children strongly in his arms,
but asked to wear a suit the Mister says he'd rather not,
She looks at him with love, and thinks about his charms,
he wears his leaf-green silks instead, and my, does he look hot!

Asked to wear a suit the Mister says he'd rather not,
the mother frowns at fruit to start the day,
in gorgeous leaf-green silks he looks so hot...
red chilli spice, now that's the better way.

The mother frowns at fruit to start the day,
to seek time to herself she finds a place,
 - red chilli spice is much the better way -
arcades of coloured space give onto space.

To seek time to herself she finds a place
where patterns, words and pictures hang in rainbows,
arcades of coloured space give onto space
and joyous, loving beauty always flows.

Where patterns, words and pictures hang in rainbows
the girl lies quiet, dropping stones like prayer beads into sets,
and loving, joyous beauty always flows.

There is no reason actually for you to read.  Except...


Anonymous said...

Oh, this is wonderful. I love pantoums, and "form" poetry in general, the jigsaw puzzle nature of them. This is a haunting and beautiful piece of writing.
- alison

Anonymous said...

P.S. Try a sestina next! Then a kyrielle. And a ghazal!

(It's dawn here where I'm typing and I have now set myself the task of writing a villanelle before I get up from this table.)

- alison (again)

HLiza said...

oh my god lucy, this is the most wonderful piece of pantoum ever! thank you for arranging those words so beautifully..i'm touched that i can recignize most of them are things you had read from my blog. i didn't know much about poems and their origins; i think you did a wonderful job looking for pantoum history! i did come across very old version of 'pantun' when i was small.. they do bear the repetitions like this which we can hardly find in modern malay form of 'pantuns'. thank you lucy for this special post dedicated to me! i'm blessed with our friendship and the magical blogworld.

Lucy said...

Thanks both.

Alison - I get a thing about writing form poems sometimes, then I run out of steam on them. Villanelles and sestinas have previously defeated me, but I had a ghazal craze a few years ago. Kyrielles I'll look up! Tight forms can be a good prompt when inspiration dries up, which mine very much has for poems for a while now.

Hliza - it was really a pleasure, I'm glad you like it. It was kind of inspiring to draw on images and stories from memory from someone else's life, and your blog and comments are always so full of vivid little details. I hope I did them justice. Thanks for the ideas!

Anne said...

Lucy, that's amazing. I could no more do that than fly. Can you fly too?

Lucy said...

Thanks Anne! No, I can't fly, I sometimes bob along at about head height...

foam said...

Wow, this is truly amazing. I see so much of hliza in this. She's been a blogging buddy of mine for several years now.

marja-leena said...

Beautiful, and amazing! Like Anne, I could not do this, I don't think I've ever written poetry. I studied it in English Lit way back when but have forgotten much. I just admire others.

Plutarch said...

A stranger to pantoums (though I hope not for long) I am greatly moved by this one. "He folds the years up and nearly breaks your heart..." It just goes to show that writing to fulfill the requirements of a particular form seems to squeeze out poetry where none might have been. For this is poetry. "Where patterns, words and pictures hang in rainbows the girl lies quiet, dropping stones like prayer beads into sets... " But I mustn't jump the gun. May I ask? Did the thoughts and images in this poem precede your approach to the pantoum form or did the form the most part arise from trying to fulfill its demands? It doesn't matter. This is a poem!

christopher said...

I love your pantoum, but I love more the image of you bobbing along at head height! You tame my heart.

Lucy said...

Thanks again.

Foam, nice to see you here, I've seen you there!

ML - I shouldn't worry about not writing poetry, if I could make pictures like you can I certainly wouldn't.

Plutarch - you might be the very man to seek out the Victor Hugo pantoum, it's in Les Orientales apparently. Hliza tells me though that modern Malay pantuns no longer have this repeating form.
The interleaving of the lines in this way makes for interesting juxtapositions, which is what poems are about, I suppose. I didn't have any particular plans to write a pantoum, or to draw the images from impressions and elements of someone else's life as she has shared them, but the two ideas came together and it seemed to work. I suppose the way that one reads another's blog, a series of accumulated vignettes which create a kind of consistently woven texture, suits this form. Traditionally, it was meant to be a string of pictures of human action and detail against a landscape background, which in a way is rather what we create in recording our everyday lives like this.

Lucy said...

Christopher - sorry, left you off. Flying dreams, mine have settled to this level. You'll always be wild at heart!

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

In Auden's The Dyer's Hand he defines a poet as one who, inter alia, can't stop testing him/her-self with exotic verse forms. Then rather let's down this assertion by offering the villanelle as an example: I mean, I've done one myself, albeit with Plutarch's help.

Since it's clear you're a poet, and are incapable of resisting the my-next-trick-is-impossible challenge, why not try the triolet, summarised in R.F.Brewer's The Art of Versification and the Technicalities of Poetry as: "a poetic morsel with rigid rules and very little room to expand even a single thought."

Of course, you're going to tell me you've already done dozens.

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

let's = lets

marly youmans said...

I have done pantoums, though I never kept any--I think this a useful way to go about trying new forms, plucking magpie bits from another person's life. You'll have to try some of those weird Welsh forms some time. (I haven't had the courage.)

the polish chick said...

gorgeous and incredibly visual. thank you.