March 1, 2009

Pantoums

The pantoum is a verse form which is often considered to be "musical." Other forms with refrains, like the triolet, villanelle and paradelles, use refrain and repetition in similar ways.

The pantoum originated in France, but is based on the Malayan pantun form. Pantoums became popular in Europe and moved to North America in the nineteenth and more so in the twentieth century.

In France, the tradition is often credited to the work of Ernest Fouinet, Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire who made the form fashionable. For more on the history and examples, check my source, The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

The Malay pantun uses metonymy and follows the same rhyme and line patterns as are used in the pantoum. Traditionally, in a pantun the first two lines of each quatrain present an image or an allusion, and the second two lines of each quatrain convey the theme and meaning.

Let us focus on the pantoum. Unfortunately, explaining this type of form often sounds like a riddle. That's why Billy Collins was able to parody it so easily in his invented paradelle form.

A pantoum is composed of a series of quatrains (4 line stanzas). The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. This pattern continues and there can be any number of stanzas.

The final stanza usually offers a variation. It may contain the first and third lines of the first stanza as its second and fourth lines. Often, the final stanza's fourth line is the poem's first, and the third line of the poem may or may not appear as the second line of the final stanza.

One desired effect in the pantoum is to have the meaning of lines shift when they are repeated. The idea of words remaining the same and meaning changing is basic to poetry in general. This can be accomplished by punctuation, punning, or by placing the words in a new context.

Another way to look at "the rules"
  • Use 4-line stanzas (as many as needed - usually an odd number).
  • Line lengths can vary.
  • Pantoums say everything twice.
  • The rhyme scheme is abab in each quatrain - lines rhyme alternately.
  • The final line of the pantoum must be the same as its first line.
I'm sure some formalists would have more to say (or correct me), but that's the basics.

It is always helpful to look at examples:

  1. "Pantoum of the Great Depression" by Donald Justice
  2. “Stillbirth” by Laure-Anne Bosselaar
  3. “Baby’s Pantoum” by Anne Waldman
  4. "Parent's Pantoum" by Carolyn Kizer (includes audio)
  5. “Bareback Pantoum” by Cecilia Woloch
  6. "Harmonie du soir" by Charles Baudelaire (imperfect pantoum, in French and in English translations)
and, to emphasize that musical quality, how about "I Am Going to Like It Here" by Oscar Hammerstein - another imperfect pantoum, which is a song from the musical Flower Drum Song.

3 comments:

  1. In looking over the pantoums you listed, many of them don't follow the rule of the last line being the same as the first. How much flexibility do we have in writing to this prompt?

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  2. Anon

    It's a good idea to check the actual prompt on the website. This blog generally goes into greater detail on related poetic issues.

    On the site, we say:
    "You certainly could try a true pantoum form, but we will accept poems that 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."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Have a look at this:
    http://poesysite.com/portals/14/default.aspx

    ReplyDelete