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Malaysia - Pantun / Sha'ir /Hikayat

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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry
Southeast Asian Verse

Malaysia is at the most southern tip of Euroasia and is split by the South China Sea. The country borders Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei. The history of poetry in Malaysia goes back to the 14th century and is classified by the language in which it is written, Malay or national poetry, regional (indigenous) poetry and sectional (mostly English or French) poetry. Poetry in Malaysia is highly developed and uses many forms.

  • The Pantun was at one time an integral part of Malaysian life, used to propose marriage, to tell a proverb, or to celebrate just about any occasion, even shared between warriors about to battle. I was surprised at how unlike it is from its French variation the Pantoum, which I had previously believed was synonymous with the 15th century Malaysian form. The Pantun is said to go back much further in oral tradition but I could find no agreement on how far or what source, one refers to it as an ancient fishing song. The Pantun is a poem of two halves almost unrelated. The first half, the pembayan (shadow) sets the rhythm and rhyme of the whole poem, and the second half, the maksud (meaning) delivers the message. The form has been referred to as a riddle. These poems were to be exchanged between individuals, not recited to an audience. The elements of the Pantun are: 
    1. most often a poem in a single quatrain made up of two complete couplets.
    2. syllabic, all lines are of the same length, lines are written in 8 to 12 syllables each.
    3. rhymed, rhyme scheme abab.
    4. written in two complete couplets. The first , the shadow is to set the structure but its focus may be quite different from the second couplet, the meaning in which the message is set.
    5. less commonly written in structural variations, still retaining the shadow and meaning components:
      • The shortest is called Pantun Dua Kerat in 2 unrhymed lines.
      • Also written as a sixain made up of 2 tercets, rhyme abcabc.
      • And an octave rhymed abcdabcd.
      • sometimes written in three quatrains rhymed abab abab abab the poem turned on only 2 rhymes.
      • The longest is Pantun Enam Belas Kerat in 16 lines made up of 2 octaves rhyme abcdabcd abcdabcd.
        The Choices We Make by Judi Van Gorder

        Do I ignore or heed the voices,
        the reminder that often festers?
        We are all a product of choices,
        our own and forgotten ancestors.
  • Empat Empat a Malaysian four by four. A verse form I was only able to find at Poet's Garret where the form is referred to as similar to the Pantoum, but personally, I think the step refrain is closer to the French Quatern. The empat empat is described as a popular Malay form still sung today.The elements of the Emap Empat are:
    1. a verse form written in 4 quatrains.
    2. probably syllabic, probably best when lines are equal length. (no syllable count provided)
    3. rhymed Alternate rhyme Abab cAca adAd eaeA.
    4. composed with L1 repeated as a refrain in a step down pattern of:AbabcAcaadAdeaeA
    5. variable, apparently the UK/American English influence on the form has resulted in an alternate rhyme pattern of Aabb aAcc ddAa eeaA and in a more recent development the rhyme has been eliminated but the line repition in a step pattern has remained Axxx xAxx xxAx xxxA, x being unrhymed.
  • The Sha'ir or Sjair from 17th century, Malysia, not only tells of romantic adventures it also expounds on local conflict and gives religious instruction. The elements of the Sha'ir are:
    1. metric, accentual, folk meter all lines should be similar length.
    2. stanzaic, written in any number of quatrains.
    3. mono-rhymed.
    4. used to communicate romantic adventures, local conflicts, and religious instructions.
  • Hikayat - Arabic for short story, is a popular genre of Malay poetry which goes back to the 14th century. The Hikayat are heavily romanticized adventure stories mostly about national heroes. The frame whether in verse or prose is at the discretion of the poet.

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