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Pantoum: From A Poet's Glossary

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Edward Hirsch


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March 10, 2015

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Poetic Terms/Forms
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pantoum, pantun: 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). The prefatory couplet is called the pembayang and the closing couplet the maksud. The rhymes and other verbal associations, such as puns and repeating sounds (assonance, consonance), connect them. But there is also an oblique but necessary relationship, and the first statement often turns out to be a metaphor for the second one. John Hollander summarizes: “Pantuns in the original Malay / Are quatrains of two thoughts, but of one mind.” The most famous pantuns are learned by heart and interconnected by refrains, which serve as an aid to memory for both the oral poet and his audience. The pantun is sung very slowly according to a fixed rhythm. As R. J. Wilkinson described it in Malay Literature (1924):

To an English reader the quatrains seem overcrowded with meaning; they force him continually to stop and think. But the pantun is not intended to be read. Slowly sung, with a long chorus or refrain after each line, it gains in merit by occupying the mind during the chorus instead of being dismissed as too transparent in its meaning. A verse, written to be read and to carry its meaning on the surface, would not stand the test of pantun-singing; it would make the chorus intolerably monotonous. This fact again makes it difficult to reproduce the attractiveness of the Malay quatrain through the medium of a foreign language and in the plain black-and-white of a printed page.

In Tradition and Change in Contemporary Malay-Indonesian Poetry (1977), Muhammad Haji Salleh provides an example of a well-known pantun “intense and compact”:

Tinggi, tinggi simatahari,
     Anak kerbau mati tertambat,
Dari dahulu sasya mencari
     Baru ini saya mendapat.

Higher and higher climbs the sun,
     The young buffalo dies at its peg,
So long have I waited my only one,
     Only now are you found.

The Malayan pantun berkait is what we know as the pantoum. It is a highly repetitive form of indefinite length that inscribes something of its oral quality. It unfolds in interweaving quatrains and often rhymes abab. Lines two and four of each stanza repeat as lines one and three of the following stanza. The reader always takes four steps forward and two back. A pantoum typically begins:

Line 1:     A
Line 2:    B
Line 3:    C
Line 4:    D

Line 5:    B
Line 6:    E
Line 7:    D
Line 8:    F

Line 9:    E
Line 10:  G
Line 11:   F
Line 12:  H

It is customary for the second and fourth lines in the last stanza of the poem to repeat the first and third lines of the initial stanza, so that the whole poem circles back to the beginning, like a snake eating its tail. This slow and highly balanced repetitive form was introduced to Western poetry in the nineteenth century by the French Orientalist Ernest Fouinet (the malais pantun) and popularized by Victor Hugo in his book Les Orientales (1829). It was a recognizable form in nineteenth-century French poetry (Théodore de Banville, Louisa Siefert, Leconte de Lisle, Charles Baudelaire) and entered English poetry through the vogue for songlike French forms, such as the villanelle and the ballade. As a form, the pantoum is always looking back over its shoulder, and thus it is well-suited to evoke a sense of times past. It is always turning back while moving forward; that’s why it works so well for poignant poems of loss, such as Donald Justice’s “Pantoum of the Great Depression” (1995), and poems of departure, such as Louis MacNeice’s “Leaving Barra” (1937), which calls the sea “A carpet of brilliance taking / My leave forever of the island.”

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Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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