When compared with the sonnet, ballad, or even the villanelle, the pantoum verse form could hardly be called ‘popular’, and examples of pantoums in English literature are not exactly plentiful. Nonetheless, there are some fine instances of the pantoum – a distinctive and strict form which has been summarised here – and below we gather together five of the best poems which utilise the pantoum form to great effect, and to various ends.
The pantoum, thought to be an old Malay form, was revived in the West in the 1820s by Victor Hugo, who popularised it in France. Charles Baudelaire was a notable practitioner. In English, the natural home of the pantoum has probably been the United States, as a number of the following poems attest, although some notable British writers have also offered their take on this strict form.
1. Carolyn Kizer, ‘Parents’ Pantoum’.
Kizer (1925-2014) was an American poet, and one of the leading feminist poets of the late twentieth century. In this poem from 1996, Kizer capitalises on the repeated lines which are a staple feature of the pantoum form, using this device to reveal the gulf between the two different generations.
Ironically, the children’s ‘patronising’ behaviour makes the parents feel like children, while the new generation seems more ‘ladylike’ than the speakers’ generation ever was (and yes, it seems a chorus of parents is speaking to us). By turns comical and insightful, it’s one of the finest pantoums in the English language.
2. John Ashbery, ‘Pantoum’.
Here’s another classic pantoum from a notable twentieth-century American poet. John Ashbery (1927-2017) was the poet laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003.
In this poem, titled simply ‘Pantoum’, Ashbery offers a rather abstract take on the form, providing the reader with a series of loosely connected images which recall the structure and ambiguity of modern art (Ashbery was supposedly influenced by Jackson Pollack and Joseph Cornell).
3. Peter Shaffer, ‘Juggler, Magician, Fool’.
Although many pantoums are written in the tetrameter form, they don’t have to be, and this poem by one of the leading English playwrights of the late twentieth century roams farther and wider than the tetrameter line while still adhering to the structure of the pantoum.
The poem, about a mysterious ‘jongleur’ or juggler seen on the street, might be regarded as a paean to the poet himself, especially the poet who takes on the pantoum form and tries to ‘juggle’ the demands of the poem’s structure against the need to offer a coherent story or impression.
4. Anne Waldman, ‘Baby’s Pantoum’.
We’ve had a parents’ pantoum; now, how about a pantoum ‘spoken’ from the perspective of a baby lying in its crib? Here, the repeated lines of the verse form reflect the repetitive sounds and sights the baby experiences as it gradually learns about the world.
5. Oliver Tearle, ‘The Cashpoint’.
Transactions common passing strange.
Such buttons pressed may yield so much.
Coterminal a gift exchange.
Reciprocal presents as such.
Such buttons pressed may yield so much,
ending in evenings overdrawn.
Reciprocal presents as such.
The number’s up before the dawn …
We hope you’ll forgive us if we conclude this pick of pantoums with an honourable mention of a poem by our own Oliver Tearle, whose ‘The Cashpoint’ might be described as a contemporary example of the pantoum form as well as a modern metaphysical poem.
Using the conceit of the ATM or cashpoint, the poem hints at other kinds of modern-day ‘transactions’ using technology, in which the buttons of machines are pressed in order to push our buttons and feed our (consumerist) desires. The repeated lines of the pantoum create a sense of compulsion to repeat, hinting perhaps at online gambling addiction or addictions to social media. Despite its formal limitations, the pantoum is a copious form, allowing for an exploration of a wide variety of ideas.