Not a true blog entry here so much as an attempt at auxiliary crowdsourcing: other than the ghazal, what poetic forms-- oral or written-- from non-European languages feature prominent repeated stanzas, "choruses," or refrains?
(If the post title baffles you, click here.)

Originally Published: February 13th, 2008

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. February 13, 2008
     Tim Upperton

    Um, the pantoum? Though I don't think the Western form bears much resemblance o the Malaysian original.

  2. February 14, 2008

    You know, I don't think the Western version of the pantoum counts as a poem with refrains, since there's no specially repeated part of the poem: every line appears exactly twice. If you want to say more about the Malaysian original, please go ahead.

  3. February 14, 2008

    The Chant Royal has one line repeated (with variations) as the last line of each of its 6 stanzas (5 are 11 lines ababccbbdbd and the final 7 line stanza is ccbbdbd.)
    The Rondeau, typically in tetrameter, uses its opening two feet as a refrain at the end of its second and third stanzas (Rhyme scheme aabba aabx aabbax where x is the refrain
    That's all I can think of for now.

  4. February 14, 2008
     Tim Upperton

    I guess you're right about the pantoum: the repetition doesn't really count as a refrain, though I think it works structurally in similar ways to one, with its regularity and readerly expectation (compared with the refrains in a villanelle, for example). I know little about the Malaysian original other than its primary characteristic of tension, or seeming non-relation, between the first and the second couplet of each quatrain, and its abab rhyme scheme (the latter sensibly dropped in English pantoums).

  5. February 14, 2008
     Vivek Narayanan

    Hi Stephen, the kriti ( see for instance ) is one form central to South Indian art music that is built up from a refrain (pallavi) and also, in its later evolution, incorporates a kind of "response" to the pallavi, the anupallavi.
    But my question here is not so much what but why? Why do you ask for this information? Surely you're not asking just for an ethnographic enumeration of "traditional" forms, simply emphasizing their discrete and composite aspects in a static way-- starting quaint societies in their honour-- which would probably be a turn away from historicising them, or seeing their interrelation and exchange of properties. I'm interested in asking you, for instance, about the reasons and the process by which a nonce form suddenly starts to "stick", become a craze, maybe even a whole couple of centuries after the first trial (as with the villanelle, a thoroughly modern form)-- a process that would have to do both with the internal structural properties of the form that makes it sexy, transferable, and the social context it lives through?

  6. February 15, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    Interesting question... and I'm sure there must be plenty, but have no knowledge of non-European languages.
    For Tim--there are pantoums in English that do keep the rhyme.

  7. February 15, 2008

    In the Mandinka oral epic tradition of West Africa, refrains recur in competing, very different versions of the same story, by different poets. Penguin published two versions of the epic of Sunjata in a book.
    Several Native American oral-poetry (or song) traditions as represented in "Shaking the Pumpkin" (Jerome Rothenberg, ed.) have prominent repeated phrases, some of them nonsense syllables, apparently employed for incantatory effect.

  8. February 15, 2008

    Of course, nonsense syllables play a prominent role in the Anglophonic refrain too.
    Lullay lullay.
    Fa la la la la.
    Doo-dah, doo-dah.
    Sh-boom, sh-boom.

  9. February 15, 2008
     Don Share

    I've been making everybody I know crazy about the recent Robert Bringhurst book, The Tree of Meaning, which is reviewed by D.H. Tracy in the Feb. issue of Poetry - Bringhurst is a poet, typographer, and specialist in Native American literature. He makes the case that we are culturally illiterate when it comes to recognizing the how form works in Native American poetic traditions. Here's a snippet of what he says:
    "Metaphor, as Paul Ricoeur reminds us, is an informative kind of deviant predication. (The informative kind of deviant nomination is called metonymy.) But in Native American narrative, the metaphors, the deviant predications, are usually stated so directly, with so little rhetorical fanfare, that readers trained on European literature don't notice them as literary figures. They are perfectly embedded in the narrative. They are what I like to call declarative metaphors. Take them out and there is not only no poetry left; there is no narrative, either. So I don't suppose these metaphors are literary figures. I suppose they are structural components, each one syntatically related to the rest of the components of the poem where they appear...
    When you come down to elemental things - earth, air, fire, water, wind, sun, moon, a flake of lichen on the rock, a scrap of birdsong, Orion in the clear, winter sky - you find that metaphor - or poetry, to call it by its other name - is a fundamental property of things. You find that things are deviant predicates of themselves."

  10. February 15, 2008

    Vivek, it's for a reference book entry-- a short entry, alas. Can you say more about kritis? Do they exist in English translation? Do people read the lyrics as poems on the page? I know nothing about them, and the literature on refrains and song-forms in European languages, which acknowledges the ghazal, doesn't seem to go as far south as Karnataka... A.K. Ramanujan, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

  11. February 21, 2008
     Vivek Narayanan

    Steve-- sorry to take so long to get back. I've been "caught up in an algorithm", as a friend likes to say. Kritis have been published since the mid-19th century, but they're not really read as poems (although Thyagaraja is considered by many to be among the greatest of Telugu poets, since his phrases have entered everyday language)-- rather, the point is that they were passed on, with painstaking accuracy, from mouth to ear to mouth. Probably refrains help in this regard.
    As for translation-- well, you've touched a sore place there, since overall the existing translations from the Indian languages are very bad, and this is no exception: it's hard to find versions that don't sound like Victorian schoolmarms. William Jackson ("Thyagaraja: Life and Lyrics"-- published by OUP more than a decade ago) is not a bad place to start, but his translations give more of a feel for the mood of the songs than the form. Actually, brilliant and deep and influential as even AKR's translations are, they also to some extent sidestep the question of form-- one might even think, from reading them, that Nammalvar or the Sangam poets wrote something like William Carlos Williams, or the Pound of the Chinese translations! Whereas their actual formal patterns and designs might point in a very different direction.
    It is very sad that AKR isn't here to illumine shadowed places; but if you do want that more detailed ethnographic enumeration of refrain-laden forms (I'm more interested in the building blocks than the fetishised forms themselves, but--) then you might get in touch with the living specialists who have a background in both scholarship and in poetic practice-- for instance, R. Parthasarathy at Skidmore (a friend of Poetry's and author of brilliant translation of the Cillapathikaram) for Tamil, Velcheru Narayana Rao (who I believe is still at U. of Wisconsin) for Telugu, K. Satchidanandan, the major poet in Malayalam, whose I email I can send you via backchannel, and others. I wonder if any of the Sanskrit literary theorists had anything to say about the refrain-- I can look into it. And my colleague who writes on Hindi literature sitting next to me points to what is known as the "geet" in Hindi, which can be sung or recited, and has entered written poetry, including modern Hindi poetry.