The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a short folk poem, typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as the pantoum spread, and Western writers altered and adapted the form, the importance of rhyming and brevity diminished. The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first.

The pantoum was especially popular with French and British writers in the nineteenth-century, including Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo, who is credited with introducing the form to European writers. The pantoum gained popularity among contemporary American writers such as Anne Waldman and Donald Justice after John Ashbery published the form in his 1956 book, Some Trees.

A good example of the pantoum is Carolyn Kizer’s "Parent's Pantoum," the first three stanzas of which are excerpted here:

     Where did these enormous children come from,
     More ladylike than we have ever been?
     Some of ours look older than we feel.
     How did they appear in their long dresses

     More ladylike than we have ever been?
     But they moan about their aging more than we do,
     In their fragile heels and long black dresses.
     They say they admire our youthful spontaneity.

     They moan about their aging more than we do,
     A somber group—why don't they brighten up?
     Though they say they admire our youthful spontaneity
     They beg us to be dignified like them

One exciting aspect of the pantoum is its subtle shifts in meaning that can occur as repeated phrases are revised with different punctuation and thereby given a new context. Consider Ashbery's poem "Pantoum," and how changing the punctuation in one line can radically alter its meaning and tone: "Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying." which, when repeated, becomes, "Why, the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying!"

An incantation is created by a pantoum's interlocking pattern of rhyme and repetition; as lines reverberate between stanzas, they fill the poem with echoes. This intense repetition also slows the poem down, halting its advancement. As Mark Strand and Eavan Boland explained in The Making of a Poem, "the reader takes four steps forward, then two back," making the pantoum a "perfect form for the evocation of a past time."

In his book A Poet's Glossary, former Academy Chancellor Edward Hirsch writes, "The Western pantoum adapts a long-standing form of oral Malayan poetry (pantun) that first entered written literature in the fifteenth century. The most basic form of the pantun is a quatrain with an abab rhyme scheme. Each line contains between eight and twelve syllables. Like the ghazal, it is a disjunctive form, since the sentence that makes up the first pair of lines (ab) has no immediate logical or narrative connection with the second pair of lines (ab)."

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