Brought to the West by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, the pantoum (or pantun) is derived from a much older Malaysian form of folk poem, usually made up of rhyming couplets. The modern pantoum form is written in interlocking quatrains (four-line stanzas), in which lines 2 and 4 of one stanza are used as lines 1 and 3 of the next. The lines may be of any length, and the poem can go on for an indefinite number of stanzas. Usually the paired lines are also rhymed. The poem may be resolved at the end either by picking up lines 1 and 3 of the first stanza as lines 2 and 4 of the last, thus closing the circle of the poem, or simply by closing with a rhymed couplet.
The interweaving of repeated lines in a pantoum suits the poem particularly well to ruminations on the past, circling around a memory or a mystery to tease out implications and meanings. The change in context that arises from the addition of two new lines in each stanza changes the significance of each repeated line on its second appearance. This gentle back-and-forth motion gives the effect of a series of small waves lapping on a beach, each advancing a bit farther up the sand until the tide turns and the pantoum wraps back around itself.
After Victor Hugo published a translation of a Malay pantun into French in the notes to Les Orientales in 1829, the form was adopted by French and British writers, including Charles Baudelaire and Austin Dobson. More recently, a good number of contemporary American poets have written pantoums, some of which can be found in our library of links to examples, below.