A few days after the bombings in Boston I introduced my Creative Writing students to the pantoum, an old poetic form that goes back to the Malays in the 1400s.  This poem takes shape as a series of quatrains, interwoven and repeating, so that the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third of the next.  Lines from the first stanza can be repeated in the final; there are more strict rules and ways to play with the form, but that’s the gist.

The first pantoum I read was November 22, 1963 by Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair, a deeply affecting poem that narrates the immediate uncertainty of President Kennedy’s assassination.  McNair’s poem seemed like a great portal to begin a bigger discussion with my students about tragedy and anxiety, and I read it to them before we began our work. The pantoum is an exquisite form to coax out and formally articulate on the page deep psychic concerns, as well as hard-won emotional keepsakes.  In the pantoum, the tingling, ineffable work of the mind turning over thought after thought, trying to arrive at something, some kind of meaning, can be voiced.

So much of what we do in Creative Writing is try to make meaning out of the world through words, and the Boston bombing is no different.  I gave them roughly half of the class session to work on these poems and then we shared our pantoums and discussed them.  I even wrote one along with my students.

During our discussion I tried to encourage them to feel openly, even if it was clumsy, cynical, scared, or kneejerk.  I tried to steer them away from the pornography of violence rolling across their tvs, computers, and smartphones toward something (anything) else.  Mostly, I tried to get out of their way.  Many of my students are runners themselves or they have loved ones who run.  We had all been to races.

And as we discussed in class that day, when we go to these races, as runners or spectators, we all cheer and clap for the runners we know, but we also root, and cheer, and scream for the others–all of the strangers whose names we’ll never know.  We’re all clapping together, rooting together, screaming our runners across the finish line.

Presented here are some of the poems that came out of this class session, including some non-pantoums inspired by our class discussions.

Jesse Miller

Banner photo by Tim Sackton

Background image: 1871 Boston map by H. F. Walling & Orm Gray.