Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Pantoums

Everybody loves a good pantoum (except, apparently, the blogger spellchecker which has underlined it in an ugly red squiggly line.  But seeing as how it doesn't even recognise its autobackformed verb 'to spellcheck', I don't think we need to take its opinion very seriously).

Warning: there will be some name-dropping of some British poets in the following paragraphs. 

I was introduced to the pantoum by Simon Armitage in 1994 and wrote maybe a dozen or so over the following decade. Many of the early ones did not survive the infestation of mice in my bedside cabinet while I was away travelling in the late Nineties. But this one (the second I ever wrote, if memory serves) illustrates pretty neatly where I was at, in terms of pantoum composition, at the age of 14 - it's pretty cringey in parts and suffers from the appalling naming problem I lamented here, but ends with a run-on that, half a lifetime later, I'm still absurdly proud of.

Human Rights Frustration

In the dark, with a knife, in the moonlight, it gleams.
'A life for a life,' the Sun headline screams,
'How many killers have had life then gone free?'
How many people executed wrongly?
'A life for a life,' the Sun headline screams.
They all think that's fair (except me, it seems)
How many people executed wrongly?
How many locked up with a thrown away key?
They all think that's fair (except me, it seems)
But who listens to me? My views are extreme.
How many locked up with a thrown away key?
It's an innocent life, but you can't fucking see.
But who listens to me? My views are extreme.
'How many killers have had life then gone free?'
It's an innocent life, but you can't fucking see
In the dark, with a knife, in the moonlight, it gleams.

Those of you who know me can probably see why I'm so drawn to the pantoum format.  The compulsory repetitions make it a bit like solving a crossword puzzle.  The pantoum writer constantly has to ask himself: 'How can I make this make sense in both bits of the poem?' And, as the above example demonstrates, frequently he fails.  But occasionally you get a moment of sublime satisfaction (like the '...can't fucking see / In the dark...' run-on) that makes the whole enterprise thoroughly worthwhile.

Anyway, skip forward 12 years to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in summer 2006.  I was sitting eating my breakfast and had switched on the news to the images of air-raids and bombing runs that precede any modern war.  I was filled with an intense self-loathing for the ennui I felt about war-reporting.  How I wasn't at all shocked by exploding buildings or wailing mothers or refugees.  How it all seemed like a steady repetitive backdrop to the last decade of my life.  From the bombing of Sarajevo, when I really cared and would shout to anybody who would listen about Thomas Deichman, Fikret Ali, and ITN's libel case against left-wing magazine LM.  To that moment when I thought - 'I don't want to watch more war, I wonder if Shipwrecked is on.'  

And then it occurred to me: '...steady repetitive backdrop... a pantoum would be the perfect form to reflect these emotions!'

So here it is:

Live in your Living Room

Now that we can watch them making war
On CNN, Sky News and Channel Four
The missiles don't rain 'Shock and Awe'
Just daily deaths in blood and gore.
On CNN, Sky News and Channel Four,
The journalists are keeping score
Of daily deaths in blood and gore
For us - who've seen it all before.
The journalists are keeping score
Of bodies in a foreign war
For us - who've seen it all before.
But do we ask what the fighting's for?
For bodies in a foreign war
The missiles don't rain 'Shock and Awe'.
But do we ask what the fighting's for
Now that we can watch them making war?

    
  

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