What Kind of Poem Is a Pantoum?

This Form Is Characterized by Interlocking Stanzas

Brought to the West by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, the pantoum, or pantun, is derived from a much older Malaysian form of a folk poem, usually made up of rhyming couplets.

The modern pantoum form is written in interlocking quatrains (four-line stanzas), in which lines two and four of one stanza are used as lines one and three of the next. The lines can be of any length, and the poem can go on for an indefinite number of stanzas.

Usually, the paired lines are also rhymed.

The poem can be resolved at the end either by picking up lines one and three of the first stanza as lines two and four of the last, thus closing the circle of the poem, or simply by closing with a rhymed couplet.

The interweaving of repeated lines in a pantoum suits the poem particularly well to ruminations on the past, circling around a memory or a mystery to tease out implications and meanings. The change in context that arises from the addition of two new lines in each stanza changes the significance of each repeated line on its second appearance. This gentle back-and-forth motion gives the effect of a series of small waves lapping on a beach, each advancing a bit farther up the sand until the tide turns, and the pantoum wraps back around itself.

After Victor Hugo published a translation of a Malay pantun into French in the notes to "Les Orientales" in 1829, the form was adopted by French and British writers that include Charles Baudelaire and Austin Dobson.

More recently, a good number of contemporary American poets have written pantoums.

A Straightforward Example

Often, the best way to understand a poetic form is to look at a typical and straightforward example.

The lyrics to the song "I Am Going to Like It Here," from the musical "Flower Drum Song" by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, is a familiar and accessible example.

Notice how the second and fourth lines of the first stanza are repeated in the first and third lines of the second stanza, where the context is expanded. Then the form is continued throughout, for a pleasing effect of rhyme and rhythm.

"I'm going to like it here.
There is something about the place,
An encouraging atmosphere,
Like a smile on a friendly face.

There is something about the place,
So caressing and warm it is.
Like a smile on a friendly face,
Like a port in a storm it is.

So caressing and warm it is.
All the people are so sincere.
Like a port in a storm it is.
I am going to like here.

All the people are so sincere.
There's especially one I like.
I am going to like here.
It's the father's first son I like.

There's especially one I like.
There is something about his face.
It's the father's first son I like.
He's the reason I love the place.

There is something about his face.
I would follow him anywhere.
If he goes to another place,
I am going to like it there."