The Form Behind " Pantoum of the Great Depression " by Donald Justice


In "The Making of a Poem", authors Mark Strand and Eavan Boland call the pantoum, like the villanelle and sestina, "game-like forms that circle in on themselves, changing the event as they narrate it" (53). The pantoum requires repetition, as do the villanelle and sestina, but where the villanelle demands the frequent repetition of two particular lines and the sestina repeats six end-words in a pattern called "lexical repetition", the pantoum gives us a rolling pattern of repetition which results in a rhythm reminiscent of an incantation.

In "Pantoum of the Great Depression" by Donald Justice, these rolling patterns result in a feeling of forward movement, almost against our will. Each repetition digs to uncover yet another layer of meaning in the poem’s opening statement, "Our lives avoided tragedy simply by going on and on". Then after nine stanzas of four lines each Justice gives us a single-line stanza to complete the opening line's thought, "And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry."

Justice adheres somewhat to the pantoum's structural constraints; the second and fourth lines of each stanza are dutifully repeated as the next stanza's first and third lines. However, the expected "a-b-a-b" rhyming pattern of each quatrain is ignored entirely. Justice for the most part ignored the rule that says the pantoum must begin and end with the same line, instead closing the final complete stanza with an expanded paraphrase of the poem's opening line. Justice used varying line lengths of varying rhythm throughout the piece, possibly to echo the varied and unordered events of life during the Great Depression.

Strand and Boland said Justice used the game-like pantoum form to create a feeling of irony against a powerful and menacing event. It also seems pairing this poetic form against America's Great Depression served to minimize this tragic event much like many of its survivors will downplay that tragedy in their lives. The fourth stanza says:

"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."

A former student of Donald Justice, the poet and critic Tad Richards, said "Donald Justice is likely to be remembered as a poet who gave his age a quiet but compelling insight into loss and distance, and who set a standard for craftsmanship, attention to detail, and subtleties of rhythm." (Richards, Tad. "Donald Justice". Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry. Greenwood Press, 2005.)

In this pantoum, the narrator's voice comes across as a stout survivor of the Great Depression, but as Richards found in Justice's writing in general, we do find some insight into the profound feeling of loss experienced by the narrator. The slow-moving incantation of the pantoum form, forced upon it by stringent repetition, creates a perfect marriage with how the text speaks about life plodding along without color or event.

"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."

It feels as though if not for the Depression the narrator believes life would have been a more colorful place. There was nothing said in verse. There was a fog in our souls. But we managed, "simply by going on and on".