Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Atomic Pantoum” does not try to conceal its meaning. It might be possible to imagine Meinke, teeth clenched in anger, stabbing his words into paper with the point of his pen. However, meaning and significance accumulate from many contexts, connections that radiate outward from the poem like rings on water or, more appropriately, shock waves from an explosion.

The effects of the pantoum form become meaningful as they conspire with the subject. Like a chain reaction, repetition, as described earlier, is generative. Some pantoums emphasize circularity, but “Atomic Pantoum” gains complexity as it extends the meanings of the chain reaction. The first stanzas state the theme, while later iterations vary the theme, always focusing on it, until the poem ends in the slamming together of meanings that have been implicit in the images all along. Like the chain reaction itself, the form lets details split and release more energy and meaning. Also, the form establishes a kind of inevitability, the lines necessarily repeating and obligating the poet to devise applications for them, a process that continues as long as the poem requires. By writing a poem about the fission of nuclear weapons, Meinke has kept the pantoum alive, redefined it in relation to this subject, and shown that it can apply to what might seem to be a very unpoetic facet of the contemporary world.

The imagery of “Atomic Pantoum” draws on the poetry of others. The word “choirs,” for instance, recalls William Shakespeare’s “bare...

(The entire section is 624 words.)