Monday, February 3, 2014

Pantoum of the Opera

You may have missed a recent interview with Daniel Radcliffe (né Harry Potter) in which he confessed that he secretly indulges in pantoum. No, it’s not an illicit drug or a kinky bedroom antic. It’s a verse form, and budding poet Radcliffe is an avid practitioner.

The pantoum is derived from a Malay form of verse called a pantun berkait, which means a series of interwoven quatrains.  It’s similar to a villanelle, which also has lines that repeat throughout the poem. In a pantoum, the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. In the final stanza, the second line is the third line of the first stanza, and the final line of the poem is the same as the first line of the first stanza.  Got that?

If the poet is on his toes—and young Radcliffe, being a wizard, is bound to be—the meaning of the words changes slightly when they are repeated.  There’s a subtle shade of new meaning or different punctuation or a different context in which the word is used.

The usual rhyme scheme is ABAB, BCBC, CDCD, and so on.

Pantoums appeared  in Europe in the early 19th century.  Introduced by Victor Hugo, the form was taken up by French poets, as in Charles Baudelaire’s “Harmonie du soir” (although it varies slightly from true pantoum form).

A well-known popular example of the pantoum is the lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II of “I Am Going to Like It Here” from Flower Drum Song:

I'm going to like it here.
There is something about the place,
An encouraging atmosphere,
Like a smile on a friendly face.

There is something about the place,
So caressing and warm it is.
Like a smile on a friendly face,
Like a port in a storm it is.

So caressing and warm it is.
All the people are so sincere.
Like a port in a storm it is.
I am going to like here.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never heard of a pantoum, but he is a great fan of Harry Potter, whose wizardry he tries to emulate on days that he’s sober.  Evidently, from the following, today is not one of them:

                        There once was a dashing young wizard
                        Who was chilled to the bone in a blizzard.
                                    His body was numb,
                                    Except for his thumb  
                        And certain parts of his gizzard.

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