“Pantoum” is the Western word for the Malayan pantun, a poetic form that first appeared in the fifteenth century in Malayan literature.

The contemporary Western version of the pantoum is a poem made up of stanzas whose four lines repeat in a pattern: lines 2 and 4 of each stanza are repeated, whole, as lines 1 and 3 of the next stanza, and so on. The poem can be of any length. Sometimes the final stanza has a neat twist: lines 1 and 3 are as usual the same as lines 2 and 4 in the stanza above it, but lines 2 and 4 are in fact lines 1 and 3 (or 3 and 1—the order reversed) of the very first stanza. This creates a tidy closing of the circle.

This poem uses an extreme version of repetition with change.

Here are some of the possibilities you can use to solve the problem of repeating whole lines:

• Change nothing
• Change only the punctuation
• Change the verb tense
• Change a noun from singular to plural
• Change pronoun (I to you)
• Substitute words
• Change the order of the words
• Use homonyms (hear to here)
• Or, or, or…

Here’s the pattern:

Line 1
Line 2
Line 3
Line 4

Line 5 – repeat 2
Line 6
Line 7 – repeat 4
Line 8

9 – repeat 6
11 – repeat 8

13 – repeat 10
15 – repeat 12

Etc….and so on, for however many stanzas,(although I like to stop at line 20).

17 – repeat 14
18 – repeat 1 or 3
19 – repeat 16
20 – repeat 3 or 1

(This guide was originally prepared by Hillary Plattner of Brooklyn Writers via Alison Hicks, the Greater Philadelphia Writers Wordshop Studio)

Need help getting started?

Click here for an example of how to write your poem.

Want to know even more?

If you’re an information junkie like me and you want to expand your understanding of the Pantoum and Malaysian literature, there’s plenty about it by searching the internet, but I found this article from Stone Telling particularly enlightening.