A Poem for our Times

One of my progeny is investing his intellectual (and student loan) capital in the study of English literature. Young Scholar recently enlightened me about the pantoum, a poetic form comprised of a series of stanzas of four lines each, with the second and fourth line of each stanza becoming the first and third lines of the next. The repeating pattern of the pantoum sets up a circular rhythm, with the repeated lines undergoing subtle shifts in meaning in their fresh juxtapositions. Typically, the words of the repeating lines stay the same while punctuation can be changed.

I knew none of that a few weeks ago, or forgot it a long time ago. Because I have an internet connection, a Google and curiosity, I found this timely pantoum by Donald Justice.

Pantoum of the Great Depression

Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don't remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don't remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows
Thank god no one said anything in verse.
The neighbors were our only chorus,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.

At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story.

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us.
We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
What audience would ever know our story?
Beyond our windows shone the actual world.

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
We did not ourselves know what the end was.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.

But we did not ourselves know what the end was.
People like us simply go on.
We have our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,
But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.

And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.


3 comments:

Allison Harris said...

Having the lines repeated like that gives it a great deal of gravity, wouldn't you say?

MightyToyCannon said...

Agreed. I particularly appreciate the irony of this line:

"Thank god no one said anything in verse."

Bob said...

Thanks for that. I don't recall ever seeing that particular kind of poem before, and I like it. The shifting emphases, like underlines you don't quite see but feel.

And the Margaret Bourke-White photo that goes with it is perfect. Unfortunately.