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What Is the Pantoum?

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  • Written By: Henry Gaudet
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 02 September 2016
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The pantoum is a style of poetry marked by four line stanzas and recurring lines. In a pantoum, the first line of the poem is repeated in the final line, and first and third lines of each stanza reappear in the next stanza. Its origins date back to 15th century Malayan pantun, introduced to the western world in the 19th century.

A pantoum is built on a four line stanza, or a quatrain. Unlike some other forms of poetry, there is no specified length or meter to these lines. While the original Malayan form does have an ABAB rhyming scheme, where the first and third lines rhyme with one another as to the second and forth, this convention is typically abandoned by French and English phantoms.

Instead, the pantoum relies on repetition for structure. In this form of poetry, the first line of the poem is repeated as the last line. Typically the third line of this first quatrain appears in the second line of the last. Additionally, the second and forth lines of a quatrain appear in the first and third lines of the following stanza.

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Often, these refrains undergo minor changes, such as in punctuation or exchanging singular forms for plural, but the line must still be recognizably echoed. In the hands of a skilled poet, these refrains often undergo a subtle change of meaning by changing the lines emphasis or context. Repeated lines give the poem its structure, but they do more than simply providing the rhythm for the pantoum. Echoing lines slow the poems progress, making for a more reflective experience. Repetition also makes the poem easier to take in on a first reading or hearing.

Roots of the pantoum can be traced to the pantun of Malay. The pantun existed as an oral tradition, both sung and recited, for centuries. Typically, the pantun included an ABAB rhyming pattern and a regular rhythm. In 1812, an English translation of a Malayan pantun was published in A Dictionary and Grammar of the Malayan Language, introducing the style to the west.

Ernest Fouinet is typically credited with creating the first modern pantoums, written in French with no rhyming scheme or fixed meter. Fouinet’s work was published by Victor Hugo in 1929. Pantoums became fashionable among poets writing in French and English throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. Charles Baudelaire, John Ashbery, Leconte de Lisle, and Donald Justice are among the celebrated poets to work in the form of the pantoum.

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