Weekly Poem Project

Tanka you, William Faulkner

And happy birthday! Faulkner would be 117 today. Not an auspicious birthday, but occasion enough to inspire two tanka:

O Caddy why
The idiot’s lament
Echoes still.
But more often than not
Silence greets the question.

Spanish moss, grotesque lives
Fated history;
Lush language beautifies
Base, utter confusion

This week I had a tough time just coming up with something to write about, much less writing the poems themselves. I have a feeling this will not be the first time this happens. I also have been enjoying writing more than one of each example of each kind of poem. Having the two (or three) to bounce off one another helps me see better how the form itself works. So starting this week, I’m going to shift the Weekly Poem Project slightly, posting every other week, with two poems of the same type.

Of this week’s poems, I actually wrote the Yoknapatawpha one first, but thematically it seems to work better as the second. That said, I think the one about Benjy and The Sound and the Fury is a more successful poem. The split between “upper thought” (kaminoku) and “lower thought” (shiminoku) reflected in the short-long-short/long-long structure of the lines, seems to work better. But as always, your comments are welcome.

My friend Jenny Huth, in a comment to a previous post, reminded me that the very first kind of poem I mentioned in introducing the Weekly Poem Project, the snowball poem, is also based in syllable counts. A Tagalog form called the tanaga is also based on syllables– it’s a four-line poem where every line has seven syllables. Other poets, including Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore, have experimented with poems containing lines with various numbers of syllables. However, while I haven’t exhausted the idea of syllables in my year-long study of poetic form, I’m ready to take a break from counting sounds.

So what next? How about repetition? Lots of poetic (and especially song) forms depend on repetition of varying elements, ranging from the repetition of entire stanzas or lines, as in the refrain of a song, to the repetitive sounds of rhyme, alliteration, and so on. Even meter is a form of repetition, of a rhythm, or beat–like music. The repetition can help a work build momentum (Rage, rage, against the dying of the light) or grow wearisome (Bye, bye Miss American Pie …). And it can be used to create additional structures of meaning, as in the sestina or the pantoum.

I only just discovered the pantoum a year or two ago, and thought it was pretty cool. So how about trying that? In this form, which originated in Malaysia, you have stanzas of four lines each, and in each stanza, lines 2 and 4 become lines 1 and 3 of the subsequent stanza. So meaning gets carried from stanza to stanza, but often becomes slightly changed as a result of its new position within the stanza itself.

In their discussion of the pantoum in their book The Making of a Poem, Mark Strand and Eavan Boland describe the effect of this repetition: “the reader takes four steps forward, then two back.” As a result, they claim that the pantoum is a “perfect form for the evocation of a past time.” Here’s a good example of that idea– I’ll use Natasha Trethewey again, since my previous post on her revealed so many fans of her poetry:


We tell the story every year—
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn—
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

Other examples: John Ashbery, “Pantoum“; Carolyn Kizer, “Parents’ Pantoum.” Enjoy! And I will be writing some pantoums in the next few weeks. After that, I may go out on a limb and try a sestina (watch out)!

4 thoughts on “Tanka you, William Faulkner

  1. One of my favorite things about Trethewey’s pantoum is that it’s also a repetition/rewriting of Countee Cullen’s “Incident” from 1925 (not a pantoum). But it’s such a beautiful echo of the poem and sharp commentary on the unfinished business of racial justice.


    1. I’ve always wondered if “Incident” was a reference to Cullen’s “Incident.” What Trethewey describes seems so much more wrapped up in a family history (vs. an individual) experience. And they are describing such different kinds of violence as well. Has Trethewey said anything specifically about this connection? I know the author is dead n all, but I’ve always hesitated from assuming that the connection is explicit. I agree totally though with what you say about unfinished business!


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