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.
It is always helpful to look at examples:
- "Pantoum of the Great Depression" by Donald Justice
- “Stillbirth” by Laure-Anne Bosselaar
- “Baby’s Pantoum” by Anne Waldman
- "Parent's Pantoum" by Carolyn Kizer (includes audio)
- “Bareback Pantoum” by Cecilia Woloch
- "Harmonie du soir" by Charles Baudelaire (imperfect pantoum, in French and in English translations)