Pantoum

The pantoum is a Malay verse form that reached us via France. (The original Malay word is pantun, but the verse form of that name in present-day Malaysia is different from the one described here. Or perhaps the Malay word just means "poem".)

In a pantoum, whole lines are repeated. In fact, every line is repeated. Here's an example, from Old Wossname's Book of Assorted Swine:

from Da Porci, the Renaissance Pig
Da Porci, Sage of Padua, I sing
(Come, Muse, this form is hard, give me a hand!)
The one who is the best at everything,
A polymath, the greatest in his land.

(Come, Muse, this form is hard, give me a hand -
I've never tried to write pantoums before.)
A polymath, the greatest in his land;
Da Porci is the most tremendous boar.

I've never tried to write pantoums before,
I know a pig who surely will have done.
Da Porci is the most tremendous boar,
And his will be the greatest 'neath the sun.

I know a pig who surely will have done
Whatever arty feat you care to name
And his will be the greatest 'neath the sun,
All others are eclipsed and put to shame.

Whatever arty feat you care to name,
In sculpture, music, painting, poetry,
All others are eclipsed and put to shame;
Da Porci's are the works to hear and see.
 
In sculpture, music, painting, poetry,
In mathematics, ballet, football, chess,
Da Porci's are the works to hear and see;
He's mastered all of culture, more or less.

In mathematics, ballet, football, chess,
He's probably the greatest of all time.
He's mastered all of culture, more or less -
For a pig to be so gifted is a crime.

He's probably the greatest of all time,
An all-round genius without parallel.
For a pig to be so gifted is a crime.
The smellicopterís his design as well!

And so on... The stanzas rhyme abab, with the second and fourth lines of each stanza reappearing as the first and third lines of the next. To complete the loop, the second and fourth lines of the final stanza are the same as the first and third lines of the first stanza. (The example above is not the complete poem.)

With the possible exception of the englyn (a Welsh verse form that I am now convinced should not be attempted in English), I rate the pantoum as the hardest verse form I have tackled so far. (This just my opinion, and there are plenty of people who disagree with me. Perhaps I'm trying to use pantoums for the wrong kind of poem. A more impressionistic, descriptive poem in which each line was a sentence in its own right would probably fit into this form much more easily than the above account of the exploits of the sage Da Porci.) 

An even harder form

However, the above is not in fact the strictest, most classical definition of the pantoum. That uses a rhyming scheme of abba and insists that each line shall have precisely 8 syllables. With such a rhyming scheme, and lines repeating according to the rule already given, it will be seen that the poem uses only two rhymes throughout. The writing of such a poem should be undertaken only as a penance, in my opinion. (I may write an example for this site when I feel I deserve it.)

According to another source, the classical pantoum must have exactly 4 stanzas (16 lines), but need not rhyme. I must see if I can make some Malaysian or Indonesian friends, and get definitive information on this.

A neat idea

You can take a lot of the hassle out of writing pantoums by the artful use of a spreadsheet program. The program can keep track of what needs to rhyme with what, and repeat lines in the appropriate places so that you don't have to retype them (or even cut and paste). The same approach could be used for other verse forms that use a lot of whole-line repetitions (rime en kyrielle), such as the villanelle, or have complex rhyming schemes, such as the sestina. I'll play around with this idea, and maybe give some sample spreadsheets here if they turn out well.   

Notable Pantoums

Most Western pantoums appear to have been written in French, by people like BaudelaireVictor Hugo helped to popularise the form and translated at least one pantoum, but it is not clear whether he actually wrote any of his own.

There's a good one by Donald Justice called Pantoum of the Great Depression. A Pantoum after Gauguin by Mimi Khalvati appeared in Velocity, the 21st anniversary anthology of Apples & Snakes.

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© Bob Newman 2004, 2005, 2006. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 31/05/2006