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Black Tie: A Formal Affair

Poems in classic forms

The pantoum began as a 15th century Malaysian song form and was adapted by the French in the 19th Century—or so they say; but I’m not convinced all the French nationals adapted it.

The form repeats the second and fourth lines of the first quatrain as the first and third of the next, and the two new lines recur in the same position in the next four-line stanza3and so on, through a poem that may be of any length. This particular manner of repetition, where sentences or phrases seem to roll around and echo each other yet maintain a slow progress, can produce a pleasingly soporific effect, or—depending on the poet’s subject matter and intention—an uneasy sense of being trapped in the psyche’s cyclical machineries. 

I’d wanted to contrast Anne Silver’s ultra-uber-contemporary example with an earlier traditional version, but they run rare in these parts.  The following stanzas from Erica Funkhouser’s poem, though, do represent an elegant sober-minded rendering of the form.  She even manages the ABAB rhyme of the original Malaysian form, which is not often rendered in English language pantoums. 

Erica Funkhouser
FIRST PANTOUM OF SUMMER (first three stanzas)

One sleep depletes, another fills the well
Our night's companion shapes the coming day.
My bed this morning grew drafty as a cell
When you took off for town. I couldn't stay.

Our night's companion shapes the coming day,
And where we make our bed can make us weep.
When you took off for town, I couldn't stay.
I fell into these words—a second sleep.

Where we make our bed can make us weep
Or leave us a clean and clear and ravenous.
I fell into these words—a second sleep,
A summer sleep, the windows generous….

(Continued on Atlantic Monthly Online, with audio of the poet.)

But the above can’t prepare you for this next example.  Los Angeles poet Anne Silver realized the pantoum lends itself perfectly to a send-up of the empty headed argot one hears these days from some people in their teens, early 20’s, and the occasional stunted 30-year-old—a primitive speech marked by meaningless syllables and verbal stutters repeated many times. 

Anne Silver

You got to love it,
For sure
it doesn’t get any better than this.

what’s that about?
It doesn’t get any better.
It’s like, you know, I mean.

What’s that about anyway?
It’s like, you know, I mean

Been there, done that!
forget about it.

Been there, done that.
No problem.
Forget about it.
You’re like amazing.

No problemo.
You go, girl.
You’re like amazing.

You go, girl.
That’s some great shit.
Dig where I’m coming from?

That’s some great shit.
dig where I’m coming from?
You gotta love it.


Anne Silver's poetry has appeared in The Atlanta Review, English Journal, Nimrod, Minnesota Review, and other magazines, and in her book Bare Root: A Poet's Journey with Breast Cancer (Terrapin Press, 2002). She is employed by courtroom attorneys as a certified handwriting expert. With Alice Pero, she runs the reading series at Dietrich Coffee in Santa Monica.