"A pantun is like a hawk with a chicken, it takes its time about striking." – Malay proverb

A pantun is form of verse originating in Malaysia. It was introduced to the west via France by Ernest Fouinet and popularized by Victor Hugo. A number of French and English writers have tried their hands at it, but it still remains a very obscure form of poetry. Along its journey, the form of the pantun evolved (as did the sonnet on its path from Italy to England) and the name was westernized to pantoum.

As it is used in western poetry, the pantoum is composed of a number of quatrains. The second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next, and this is repeated throughout. The last line of the poem is the same as the first. The closest analogue in western poetry is probably the villanelle, though the pantoum does not rhyme like the villanelle, and is even more obscure. The best example of such verse in English I’ve found is by the American poet Peter Mienke, "Atomic Pantoum".

On a personal note, I was once involved in judging a contest of high school art and writing, and one of the entries was a pantoum about, of all things, math. I was the only judge who actually knew what a pantoum was, so that should tell you how obscure it is. Unfortunately, the work only received an honorable mention, over my objections. I thought they should have won first prize just for knowing more than the judges did.
Eleanor, rising early, sees
The mist cupped in the hands of the hills.
Pale, washed-out sun weakly shining
Skimpy, wispy, clouds.

The mists cupped in the hands of the hills
Flowing like treacle into the valley,
Skimpy, wispy clouds
Scooting along the ridge.

Flowing like treacle into the valley,
Cars head towards their work.
Scooting along the ridge,
Children catch school buses.

Cars head towards their work
Pale, washed-out sun weakly shining
Children catch school buses
Eleanor, rising early, sees

I bite my nails
far too often
waiting for the dawn
looking for the Grail

Far too often
my knight rides off
looking for the Grail
I wait behind

My knight rides off
staring through the distance
I wait behind
my time is coming

Staring through the distance
I see the dawn
My time is coming
I bite my nails

Star Girl into the Biased Sky

Un Piece d'infinitude des mirroirs
"Don't write against walls," says Madame,
in French. I pretend not to
understand her admonition.

Don't write against walls, says Madame
I put my journal on my knee.
Understand her admonition,
I could've marred the smooth white paint.

I put my journal on my knee,
She nods and leaves me to my thoughts.
I could've marred the smooth white paint,
In the portal of biased sky

She nods and leaves me to my thoughts
Before me I see galaxies
In the portal of biased sky
A mirrored platform suspends me

Before me I see galaxies
Every wall reflects a hundred stars
A mirrored platform suspends me
In a sea of red yellow blue

Every wall reflects a hundred stars
They hang from the ceiling on strings
In a sea of red yellow blue
Turn, then forget my origin.

They hang from the ceiling on strings.
In French I pretend not to
turn, then forget. My origin,
un piece d'infinitude des mirroirs.

The basic rules for writing a pantoum

In a traditional pantoum, the lines are grouped into any number of quatrains. The first line of the pantoum must be the same as the last line. Lines may be of any length. The pantoum rhymes alternately, since it has a rhyme scheme of abab in each line resulting from the repetition described below.

Repetition

So far as repetition goes: for all quatrains except the first, the first line of the current quatrain repeats the second line in the preceeding quatrain; and the third line of the current quatrain repeats the fourth line of the preceeding quatrain. Moreover, in the final quatrain, the second line repeats the third line in the first quatrain; and its last line repeats the first line of the first quatrain, tying the whole poem neatly together.

For example, if one were to write a pantoum with five quatrains, the line repetition would run as follows:
1 2 3 4 - Lines in first quatrain.
2 5 4 6 - Lines in second quatrain.
5 7 6 8 - Lines in third quatrain.
7 9 8 10 - Lines in fourth quatrain.
9 3 10 1 - Lines in fifth and final quatrain.

During a particularly arduous foray into experimentation with poetic forms, someone set me the challenge of writing a pantoum about Daniel Johnston. I seem to remember there being some sort of ridiculous time limit. Regardless, here it is in its disgusting entirety.


concerning daniel johnston

when you are low the world sings in a different tone:
everything shifts more slowly, like an old dog in the sun.
drainpipes buzz with shit and water. a kind of disquieting moan
shoots through people like the bullet from a jaded gun.

everything shifts more slowly, like an old dog in the sun
lying down to die in the yard. music, like some sort of nasal drone,
shoots through people like the bullet from a jaded gun.
people’s faces fade to the colour of desert-bleached stone.

lying down to die in the yard, music, like some sort of nasal drone,
and humming grotesquely, splays out like the drab habit of a nun.
people’s faces fade to the colour of desert-bleached stone,
and then they bawl as if the universe had only this moment begun.

humming grotesquely, splayed out like the drab habit of a nun,
the sky cuts down deep to the white flashes of bone
and then it bawls as if the universe had only this moment begun.
at the back of my throat, the tap water is as sickly as knockoff cologne.

the sky cuts down deep to the white flashes of bone
drainpipes buzz with shit and water. a kind of disquieting moan
at the back of my throat. the tap water is as sickly as knockoff cologne.
when you are low the world sings in a different tone.

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