The pantoum was originally a 15th century Malayan form, brought to the West by Victor Hugo in 1829, taken up in England in the late 19th century. It caught on in America (mostly among the New York poets) in 1956, and on from there.
I am tempted to make a comment about America being four centuries behind the Malayans, but I think I'll forbear. At a party the other night, I mentioned that I was trying to get our writing workshop to do a renga -- a Japanese party game of writing linked haiku. Wes asked a Japanese student who was present if Japanese really played a party game of writing renga. With an amazed look, the young man said, "Sure -- two hundred years ago!" When I began joking about how American literature was just catching up to the Japanese (haiku is *very* popular over here) the young man commented that when he took creative writing in Japan, they were writing American forms -- from 200 years ago.
Back to the pantoum -- the design is simple:
and on ... The final stanza (if you want to get really fancy) then repeats the second and fourth lines of the previous stanza (as its first and third), and also repeats the third line of the first stanza, as its second line, and the first line of the first stanza as its fourth. So the first line of the poem is also the last.
A challenging form to work so that it sounds natural, but when it does work it is hypnotic and musical in its effect. I used the "cheating" method, <g>, altering the form of lines slightly in their repetitions, in my first pantoum:
Seattle Times, May 17, 1997
The pantoum's musical, hypnotic weaving is applicable to light, romantic themes; to lyrics about nature; or it can be used to make a strong theme more subtle and appealing. So if you want to try it, don't feel limited in theme or tone. Explore the variety of it. Have fun.