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Writing

How to Write a Pantoum Poem

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 23, 2020 • 2 min read

A pantoum is a Malaysian form of oral poetry that features repeating lines that change meaning throughout the poem.

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What Is a Pantoum Poem?

A pantoum is a poetic form consisting of any number of rhyming quatrains (four-line stanzas). The traditional Malaysian form is disjunctive: The first two lines (called the pembayang) do not have a straightforward narrative connection with the third and fourth lines (called the maksud), but are connected through rhyming, repeated sounds, or metaphor. In this way, the pantoum is similar to the Arabic poetic form ghazal. The pantoum is also similar to the villanelle, a tercet form, in that alternating lines are repeated.

What Are the Origins of the Pantoum Poem?

Pantoum is the French word from the Malay pantun berkait, a form of rhyming couplets first recorded in fifteenth-century Malaysia but likely transmitted orally before then. The form became popular among French poets with Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales, which includes a version of poet Ernest Fouinet’s French translation of a pantun. Charles Baudelaire’s “Harmonie du Soir” (“Evening Harmony”) is an example of an irregular pantoum, with an ABBA rhyme scheme. American poets have also tried their hand at a modern pantoum, including John Ashbery (“Pantoum”), Carolyn Kizer (“Parent’s Pantoum”), Donald Justice (“Pantoum of the Great Depression”).

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What Is the Structure of a Pantoum?

Each quatrain of a pantoum follows an ABAB rhyme scheme with lines that are eight to twelve syllables long. The second and fourth lines of the first stanza become first and third lines of the next stanza. This pattern continues until the final stanza, in which the last line is usually the same as the first line of the poem.

How to Write a Pantoum Poem

The pantoum is an interesting form because its repeated lines can take on new meaning in different contexts. This echoing effect can bring your reader back to an earlier scene in a new way or show opposing viewpoints. Work closely on individual lines to make sure they’re worth repeating. Your pantoum can be any number of stanzas, but a general outline for a four-stanza pantoum follows:

Stanza 1: ABAB
1 First line (A)
2 Second line (B)
3 Third line rhymes with first (A)
4 Fourth line rhymes with second (B)

Stanza 2: BCBC
5 Repeat the second line (B)
6 Sixth line (C)
7 Repeat the fourth line (B)
8 Eighth line rhymes with sixth (C)

Stanza 3: CDCD
9 Repeat the sixth line (C)
10 Tenth line (D)
11 Repeat the eighth line (C)
12 Twelfth line rhymes with the tenth (D)

Stanza 4: DADA
13 Repeat tenth line (D)
14 Fourteenth line rhymes with first (A)
15 Repeat twelfth line (D)
16 Repeat the first line (A)

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