The Pantoum

Roses are red...
Roses are red...

The Structure of a Pantoum

The pantoum is a very interesting form of poetry. It uses a lot of repetition. Actually, pantoums are completely based on repetition. Pantoums consist of a number of quatrains (four-line stanzas) with the second and fourth lines of any given quatrain appearing as the first and third lines of the following stanza. So, for example, the second and fourth lines of


Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Sugar is sweet,

And so are you.


would be seen again as the first and third lines of the next stanza, which might look something like this:


Violets are blue,

Deeper than the sky,

And so are you

Whenever you cry.


Pantoums can have any number of quatrains as the author sees fit to write, but they generally have more than two. The last quatrain follows a different pattern than all the others, with the unrepeated first and third lines of the first stanza returning. The third line of the opening stanza becomes the second line of the final, and the first line of the opening becomes the last line of the final. So, to continue with the (rather horrible) example, if the third quatrain was this poem’s last, it would look like this:


Deeper than the sky,

Sugar is sweet

Whenever you cry.

Roses are red.


So altogether, the pantoum would look like this:


Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Sugar is sweet,

And so are you.


Violets are blue,

Deeper than the sky.

And so are you

Whenever you cry.


Deeper than the sky,

Sugar is sweet

Whenever you cry.

Roses are red.


Ignoring the fact that the last stanza makes absolutely no sense whatsoever (but manages to seem rather mean), that is the basic set-up for a pantoum. There is, however, a problem with this particular example (aside from the unoriginality of the first stanza and the subsequent nonsense): it does not follow the expected rhyme scheme. Pantoums generally follow an abab rhyme pattern, so either the line “roses are red” or “and so are you” would need to be changed in order to truly fit the structure of a pantoum. To modify the example a bit and make it a tad better (and much more morbid):


Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Chivalry is dead,

And so are you.


Violets are blue,

Deeper than the sky.

And so are you

Whenever you cry.


Deeper than the sky,

Chivalry is dead

Whenever you cry.

Roses are red.


It still makes absolutely no sense and has a very gloomy opening (the result of trying to rhyme while suffering from a cold… I would advise against trying this yourself), but it fits the abab rhyme scheme now and has the basic structure.

Keeping the Content Fresh

The repetition of lines has the possibility to make a pantoum a bit boring and awkward if copied verbatim. To get around this, the punctuation of lines can be played with. This will change the rhythm of the poem depending on what kind of punctuation is used. Commas, periods, semicolons, and dashes will all slow up the rhythm and give readers the chance to pause. These are good to play with as they help set the tone of the poem and provide some variation. You can see in the example above that commas and periods have been substituted for each other or even for nothing at all. This changes the way the lines are read and makes them different, even though they are repeated word-for-word.

A note to make on the repetition of the lines, however, is that they do not actually have to be copied word-for-word from one stanza to the next, although you typically do not want to do this unless you have longer lines. Pantoums have lines that are as long or as short as the author wants them to be. Pieces with longer lines might have some small variations in their content. For example, the line


And the soldiers came running home through the rain…


might later appear as this:


The soldiers will come running home through the rain…


The lines are obviously not identical and they have different meanings, but in context they would be the same line repeated. Poets will make small changes like this in order to keep the piece from becoming monotonous… and to keep the poem from lapsing into gibberish, depending on the context of the lines. Playing with the words falls under the umbrella of “Poetic License” in this instance. So have fun with them.

Final Notes

Pantoums can be very challenging to write, but as with pretty much everything else in the known universe, practice will make the form easier to handle. They can be as long or as short as you want them to be, but remember to stay true to the content of the poem as you write. Don’t let the form govern the poem if you have a specific purpose in mind. If you find your poem losing its original meaning and are not happy with the direction it's taking, consider playing with the structure or even changing forms. Poets often take liberties with the structure and make it fit the meaning of their piece rather than the other way around. Some will leave the first and third lines of the first stanza unrepeated in the end. Others will change the pattern of the rhyme scheme while others still will completely do away with the rhyme. Nothing is truly set in stone, but if you simply wish to write a pantoum and are willing to be flexible with your content, then you can stick to the rules and let the form take you where it will.

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Comments 7 comments

bogpan profile image

bogpan 6 years ago from Bulgaria Sofia

Pantoum - interesting article. The form is not distributed or required to Baudelaire, to not sound artificial and tight frames in a rhyme, which is already a distant modern sensibility.

http://fleursdumal.org/poem/142


krissalus profile image

krissalus 6 years ago Author

That's an interesting link you provided. Nice to see the different translations, although most of them ruin the original rhyme scheme. Baudelaire definitely took liberties with the form, but when you look at someone like Shakespeare (who decided to rework the traditional Petrarchan / Italian sonnet and create his own form), you can't really argue against Baudelaire's decision, even if it deviates from what you would traditionally expect from a pantoum. Goes back to Poetic License, I believe.


bogpan profile image

bogpan 6 years ago from Bulgaria Sofia

"Goes back to Poetic License, I believe."

I also believe. But modern sensibility involves more breaking form. In this respect, this form is more interesting from the perspective of the history of poetry.

What is the dominant form in your view?


krissalus profile image

krissalus 6 years ago Author

It's funny you should ask that, actually. I spent most of Wednesday night writing a paper about how form should not govern a poem, but personally, I think that if you set out to write a specific kind of poem, you should do just that. If you sit down with the intent to write a pantoum, then a pantoum is what you will (hopefully) produce. On the other hand, if you have a topic in mind and are simply looking for a form to fit it, then you might want to be a bit more flexible. A rigid form might take away from the poem's meaning. If that ends up being the case, you might consider changing forms or even writing in blank verse rather than forcing the content to conform to the structure. Or, like in Baudelaire's pantoum, you can play with the form a bit and make it fit your poem rather than the other way around. So, I guess for me the dominant form depends entirely on what you want from your poem, and I think I will edit the last section of the hub a bit to make that more clear.

I hope this all makes sense... I'm still suffering from a cold so you'll have to forgive me if it does not.


bogpan profile image

bogpan 6 years ago from Bulgaria Sofia

I apologize if it gets a little obscurity, but English is not my mother. The emergence of some form of versification is ultimately the product of a historical era. On determined tuning and sensory Having perception. Baudelaire not accidentally infringes form. It just does not meet its rhythm and sensibility. Attempts to flow content in some form as a product of the mind game, not the naturally occurring form, usually leads to ridiculous results or exotic stands. The very fact that almost does not occur rhymed verse at the expense of the dominant free verse suggests that the current sensibility and spirit lives with other beats. I wish you quick recovery and success of the book. The theory always comes after the practice.


krissalus profile image

krissalus 6 years ago Author

You bring up good points about Baudelaire's work. But just to clarify a bit, when I said that Baudelaire "played with the form" and made it fit his poem, I did mean that he broke the form intentionally and not accidentally. I like the way you explained it, though, and I agree that the break in form supports the piece's ability to draw out an emotional response from readers and sets it apart from a traditional pantoum. I think (hope) that I grasped your meaning there and if not, I apologize. Your English is very good, but I may be misunderstanding you nonetheless. It's sometimes difficult to have a discussion like this via the Internet since tone and the like are lost in transition.

P.S.: Thank you very much for the well-wishes. My health seems to be looking up. Hopefully my luck with the book will follow a similar pattern. Thanks again!


ExoticHippieQueen 5 years ago

I enjoyed your explanation of the pantoum, but personally,the strict rules would drive the creativity right out of me! Voted up and interesting!

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