March 2, 2009

Linda Pastan: When will I be most myself?

This month's model poem for our prompt is Linda Pastan's "Something About the Trees." It's a pantoum and I know from doing Poets Online for ten years that form of any kind scares off poets and limits submissions. (From an editing point of view, limiting submissions has its advantages!)

There is a lot more about the pantoum form on my previous post, but we are going to suggest that your submission be a pantoum, but only require a few rules of the form. You'll see that some poems are often described as "imperfect pantoums" and I can live with that.

Pastan's poem talks about her parents and her childhood belief that her father would "always be the surgeon" and that her mother would remain "the perfect surgeon's wife." She had frozen them in time at a place where they seemed just right. She thought that "they both would live forever."

She recalls that her father told her that:
There is an age when you are most yourself.
He was just past fifty then,
Is the father recalling an earlier time? Pastan recalls them at age 30 being perfect. Would they agree with their daughter?

Because the poem is a pantoum, she needs some strong lines that will repeat and possibly carry changed meanings. Two of those are "I used to think" and "I thought they both would live forever."

Pantoums are sometimes described as musical because of the refrains. I think that they also have a circling, lullaby feel because of the interlocking lines.

I had some trouble with the line, "Was it something about the trees that make him speak?" I imagine the poem's setting as winter. The trees are bare. Her father is 50 - hardly old enough to suggest death, but perhaps old enough to be past autumn and into the early part of the winter of life. Is that why the trees made him speak?

She asks, "When will I be most myself?" and that is the line our prompt focuses on. Write a poem that addresses the age in which you, or the voice of your poem, were, or will be, most yourself. Not an easy question.

As far as the form, you certainly could try a pantoum, but otherwise follow these 3 imperfect rules:

  1. You must use quatrains (4 line stanzas)
  2. The first 4 lines must reappear in exactly the same format in some subsequent stanzas at least once more, and
  3. the poem's first line must also be its last.
If you decide to try a true pantoum, take a look at this How-To page - you might find it easier to number your lines, for example.

Our prompts almost always give a print version of the poem, but for this month I really would suggest listening to Pastan read the poem. I think the musicality is much clearer.

There are actually 3 (not 2) poems on the video clip. I recommend that you watch all three. First is the funny "Notes from the Delivery Room," followed by "A Short History of Judaic Thought in the 20th Century" and then the pantoum "Something About the Trees."

To see the poem in print, try this site.

1 comment:

  1. You commented on far fewer submissions when you turn to a classic poetic form as a prompt. Why do you think that is? I've always felt part of being a poet is to learn the craft of poetry, which involves the discipline of forms, meter, rhyme, etc. Periodically it's really good to force yourself to try a new form and push past your comfort zone. What we all know is that while the form determines the shape and pattern of the poem, the content is what must triumph. Who doesn't like a little challenge now and then?

    By the way, I loved listening to Linda Pastan read this poem--thanks for adding the clip.


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