Saturday, 30 June 2018

Malay Pantoum

Crikey, the pantoum! Another prescriptively structured verse form to bend our creative efforts to.

This one has its origins in the scripted pantun berkait of 15th century Malaya, though its roots lie in the earlier oral folklore of the Malay peninsula. The pantoum was first popularised in Europe by French poets exposed to the 'oriental' tradition of that region: Baudelaire, Fouinet and Leconte de Lisle among them.

At its simplest, it is a series of quatrains (the exact number is a matter of choice and creative stamina), with an abab / bcbc / cdcd  etc. rhyme-scheme, where the second and fourth lines of one quatrain become the first and third lines of the following stanza. By convention the first and third lines of the poem appear inverted in the final quatrain as the second and last lines. However, there are many variations on the schema.

This progressively rolling, repetitive structure makes the pantoum somewhat similar to our friend the villanelle; and with its incantatory rhyming form, it is easy to see how its origins lay in the sung or declaimed folk verses of Malaya.

The pantoum still exists in modern-day Malaysia and is particularly popular in rhymes for children (per the illustration below).

That was the easy bit. The challenge this week was to write a pantoum, a poem that both conforms to the metrical rules and makes some kind of sense. This is a first, but here I go, dredging through sludge at the bottom of the imaginarium...

Picture an ex-pat existence in 1950s Penang, for instance - the colonial formality, the stifling humidity and a world about to fall apart one morning:

'Dear Joan'
The plain fact is, she never saw it coming.
His note explained he had a mistress.
She'd always thought her husband kind and loving.
He wrote he didn't mean to cause distress.

His note explained. He had a mistress,
a younger, prettier model she surmised.
He wrote! He didn't mean to cause distress
to himself, she shouldn't be surprised!

A younger, prettier model she surmised,
someone who'd enjoy being devoted
To himself. She shouldn't be surprised,
he wrote, although she hardly noted.

Someone who'd enjoy being devoted...
scant thanks indeed for all she'd sacrificed.
He wrote, although she hardly noted,
the reason why his leaving her was justified.

Scant thanks indeed for all she'd sacrificed!
She ran with blinding tears out through the gate.
The reason why his leaving her was justified?
A lorry swerved but braked too late.

She ran with blinding tears out through the gate,
she'd always thought her husband kind and loving;
a lorry swerved but braked too late.
The plain fact is, she never saw it coming.

Thanks for reading, S ;-)


Anonymous said...

Very good that.

Anonymous said...

Always the cheery one, Mr R!

Anonymous said...

I'm sure this wasn't easy to write. Is it okay to say I found it a bit hard to follow in places? :-(

Steve Rowland said...

Fair comment, anon. I've slightly modified the punctuation. I hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

I agree the pantoum form is quite constricting but I thought you worked it well with your poem which had a pleasing circularity to it at the same time as a linear narrative. Well done that man.

Anonymous said...

Cleverly done, that. I like it.