How a Pantoum Poem Works

Originating in Malaysia, the pantoum was once a short folk poem recited or sung and consisting of rhyming couplets. As Western writers implemented the form, it became the modern pantoum, with four-line stanzas and less emphasis on short, two-line phrases. The form became popular among French writers but eventually spread to other parts of Europe and America.

Pantoum Structure

The structure of a pantoum serves as its major identifier. Four-line stanzas called quatrains make up a pantoum, and lines repeat in a specific manner. The second and fourth lines of one quatrain become the first and third lines of the following quatrain. The third and first lines of the first stanza make up the second and fourth lines of the final stanza, so the first and last line of the poem are the same.

Restrictions and Freedoms

Pantoums do not have to be in iambic pentameter, but the length of each line must be the same. Often, each stanza by itself rhymes in an ABAB scheme. In the context of the entire poem, the first stanza rhymes ABAB, the second stanza BCBC, the third CDCD and so forth. Not all pantoums follow a rhyme scheme, such as Carolyn Kizer’s “Parent’s Pantoum.” Pantoum poems can have any number of stanzas.

Mood and Themes

The frequent repetition gives pantoum poems a sense of echoing. The repetition also provides a feeling of pulling on the reins, preventing the poem from advancing too quickly. Poets Mark Strand and Eavan Boland describe this feeling as taking “four steps forward, then two back.” They also suggest this form lends itself to recalling a memory.

Using Punctuation

One way to break up the repetition in a pantoum or to give a line a different meaning is to add punctuation. A few select words can change or be omitted to make the new punctuation work. For example, poet Randall Mann changes the line “the perfect word. Boyfriend seems ridiculous” in the second stanza to “The perfect word? Boyfriend? Ridiculous” in the third stanza. While the speaker says the word “boyfriend” seems ridiculous in the second stanza, by the third stanza, the speaker questions the word and calls it ridiculous.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

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