The Spell of Repetition: Shaking down the Pantoum

malay1Essay, by Meg Eden

Poetry’s closest link with its oral tradition is revealed through forms which are elastic as breath. The pantoum is composed of quatrains where the second and fourth lines of a stanza are repeated as the first and third lines in the stanza to follow. This pattern continues with no minimum or maximum number of stanzas. For the final stanza, the first and third lines of the beginning stanza are taken on as the second and fourth. This rounding creates a sense of balance in the pantoum, since every line is then used twice.

The pantoum started out as the pantun, a form of rhyming Malay folk song couplets, typically recited or sung. The Hikayat Hang Tuah and the Malay Annals document the pantun in early Malay literature. The connection between spoken Malay language which is “proverbial and sententious” and the pantun is something to behold. One wonders if the pantun was informed by the common language of the time, or if the common language was informed by the use of pantuns.

Burton Raffel describes some formal requirements, including a syllable count—ideally 9-10 syllables, no less than 8—to keep the pantun pleasing to the ear. The pantun’s self-contained couplets are organized into quattrains, where they interact with different roles. The first couplet is “usually bold and sweeping” and the second “shifting the focus to some more specific, more personal image, related to that introduced in the first lines, but subtly” (Development of Modern Indonesian Poetry). Some feel the first couplet should contains “an image or allusion” and the second “the theme or meaning” of the pantun. All agree however that the pantun requires a rhyme scheme, which unites the seemingly unrelated couplets (Encycl. Brit. XV 326).

The pantun are focused on historic love tales, which William Marsden compares to “old English ballads.” Deborah J. Brannon describes the pantun themes as often romantic or sentimental, “provoking desire.” The OED shames it by calling it “a verse form tending to the obscene.” They are also proverbial in nature.  In the Annals, pantuns “are used to demonstrate how historical narratives are clothed in the allusive properties of the form.”

The modern “pantoum” as we know it is most closely related to the Malay form pantun berkait, a series of pantuns forming interlocking quatrains. The pantun berkait that created the “pantoum” was a translation of what is called the “Pantoum Malai.” The poem was first translated into English by William Marsden in 1812, then a few years later in French by Ernest Fouinet. Victor Hugo then discovered Fouinet’s translation and included it into his Les Orientales, prompting French poets to create their own pantoums in the 1850s.

Twenty years later, English writers began taking on the pantoum as well. Though there have been “resurgences” of the pantoum in English, it’s never reached the same popularity as in France. In fact, “frenchness” became so inherent to the pantoum that in 1913, Vietnamese poets used the form as a political statement, calling the act “colonial mimicry.” The very mistranslation of the pantun into “pantoum” is what has made the form distinctly French, and Georges Voisset points out the “lack of interest…for the genuine Malay form in the French-speaking world.” He contrasts this attitude to that of the Japanese haiku, a form that has maintained a relatively similar form despite translation.

John Ashbery

John Ashbery

What causes some forms to be transformed, and others to stay relatively intact when forms are appropriated? If this form had been properly translated, would the pantun be as popular with the French as the pantoum? Would the pantun have found a more successful audience with the English, or not? What I find odd in all of this is that despite the modern pantoum’s flexible form and its discarding of a rhyme scheme, the form has yet to find an identity in the English language. While there has been a revival of the pantoum after John Ashbery’s release of Some Trees, it is still not a widely used form.


What is it about the pantoum that refuses to stick?

While the pantoum relies on repetition, there is a certain act of recycling that happens: the lines do not remain the same as they were when first used, but are transformed to propel the poem forward. In loose pantoums, the repetition may not be exact, even to the point of holding little semblance to the original line except for the final word. Traditional pantoums require that the repetitions are ad-verbatim except for punctuation. This allows for subtle yet dramatic transformations of the meaning of the line when reiterated. John Asbery’s poem Pantoums a good example of how punctuation can be used to change the meaning of a repeated line.

The repetitions should not only change in meaning, but should create momentum. This movement of “going backward” through repetition, then forward through semantic change and new lines makes many describe the pantoum as a “dance”. The repetitions in the context of memory also allow for a recreation of memory—for the same memory to be recontextualized, and looked at in new and different lights.

That said, the pantoum as a form is very flexible—Deborah J. Brannon describes: “Indeed, from its very inception in Western poetry, the pantoum has been characterized by its adherents breaking the suggested rules as much as following them,” and that “ the pantoum is more a collection of characteristics than an inflexible form.”

Mark Strand and Eavan Boland describe the pantoum as making “the reader take four steps forward, then two back,” and that the pantoum makes “a perfect form for the evocation of a past time.” Poet Sarah Browning uses David Trinidad’s pantoum “Movin’ With Nancy” to discuss how the pantoum mimics music, particularly pop music, which “relies on the repeated chorus, the catchy melody.” Of the Trinidad poem, she says, “The poem also evokes the role that popular music plays in our growing up, repeated over and over on the radio, the soundtrack looping through adolescence.”

It makes sense that the pantoum originated from a form based in oral tradition. The pantoum’s repetitions are reminiscent of the way a speaker tells a story, returning to moments in the narrative and transforming them as he re-remembers what happened. Kirun Kapur talks about this idea of memory in storytelling in her interview with Beloit Poetry Journal. When working with the material of her family history, she says: “I came away thinking about repetition: a word or phrase paced and repeated becomes an incantation, a ritual, a structure. Isn’t that exactly how the telling of these stories had worked in my family? And what about variation, the breaking of expected repetitions? Might it enact retelling, misremembering, the rupture of family structures and rituals?” She describes the pantoum as a “spell of repeated lines”, that it creates “a way to build up information organically, to create an intimate world and then break it.”

This “spell” of repetition also indicates a certain obsessiveness. Stuard Dischell uses the form in his poem “She Put on Her Lipstick in the Darkto recreate an obsession the speaker has over a blind girl he meets. In the final stanza, instead of drawing the pattern from the penultimate and first stanzas, he draws lines from the other stanzas, recreating the way the mind might draw upon sporadic memories. Like the pantoum, our mind return to the same ideas; we get fixated on certain memories, regrets, and questions.  The pantoum creates a form that allows for obsessiveness, yet attempts to organize the experience into a structured narrative. Because of this, there is a tension between the repetitions and the new lines. It’s as if the form itself isn’t sure of whether it is trying to move forward or backwards through memory, which is what makes it so seductive.



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