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Malaysia - Pantun / Syair or Sha'ir /Hikayat / Kōel


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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. It is originally folk verse.   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 rhythm of the verse attempted to emulate the rhythm of the oars of the fishermen rowing out in unison.  One thing every source seems to agree on, this is the most popular of all Malaysian forms, used for lullabies, children's tales, courting, labor, proverbs and even laws.

    It is a poem of two halves almost unrelated. Each half is a complete couplet. 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.

      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.
    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.
  • 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 Empat 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: L1, L6, L11, and L16. 
    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 repetition in a step pattern has remained Axxx xAxx xxAx xxxA, x being unrhymed.
  • The Sha'ir or Syair or Sjair from 17th century, Malaysia, is a poetic narrative that not only tells the human story, often in romantic adventures, but also expounds on local conflict and gives religious instruction.  Because this form originated in a maritime trading center, the characters are often cosmopolitan.  Shorter versions are known to use birds, fish, animals in allegory.  The form originally performed, presenters would sit before an audience with an open book and sing the verses out loud.  

     The elements of the Sha'ir are:
    1. metric, accentual, folk meter often using 4 stresses with the beginning syllable stressed and ending in an unstressed syllable.  More important than stress is, all lines should be similar length.
    2. stanzaic, written in any number of quatrains.
    3. mono-rhymed.  aaaa bbbb cccc etc
    4. used to communicate romantic adventures, local conflicts, allegories and religious instructions.
      Weekend Camping

      Here's to the scavengers of the campground.
      Those black  bear who lumber in, to scout around,                                                    
      stealing an unattended watermelon, unbound
      by civility or fear of the weekend camper's frown.

      They trash the trash, leave behind their debris
      and in their wake, a mess for everyone to see.
      The sounds outside my tent, I admit, scare me
      but it is their home where they can run free.
                                          ~~Judi Van Gorder,
      From Syair Sinyor Kosta,
      by Sultan Muhammad Baharuddin,
      trans. Muhammad Haji Salleh

      She is the mountain of his life
      The pulse that beats in his very strife
      Sinyor Kosta desires her for himself
      For without her he may not survive.


  • Hikayat - Arabic for short story, is a popular genre of Malay poetry that goes back to the 14th century. The Hikayat is heavily romanticized adventure stories mostly about national heroes. The frame whether in verse or prose is at the discretion of the poet.
  • Kōel a descendant of the Sandskrit kakuhb, is an onomatopoeia form patterned after the caw of the bird of the same name. The male bird makes a Coo coO sound while the female makes a sharp kik kik kik.  The bird, kōel is often found in the poetry of Southeast Asia in myth and folklore.  It is known to raise its young in the nests of other birds and was a one time a popular caged bird. They are found in poetry as far back as the Indian Vedas.  The poetic form is credited to Southeast Asia and has roots in to India, Malaysia, China and Singapore. 

    The elements of the Kōel are:
    1. stanzaic, written in any number of tercets.
    2. syllabic at the discretion of the poet.
    3. rhymed, rhyme scheme axa bxb cxc etc. Rhyme should have strong vowel sounds.  x being unrhymed  
    4. in its strictest form the kōel kokila, L1 and L2 are assonant and must carry the same vowel sound in each word in the line.
    5. L2 is always alliterated. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs must all begin with the same consonant.  Articles and connectors need not alliterate.

~~ © ~~ Poems by Judi Van Gorder ~~

For permission to use this work you can write to Tinker1111@icloud.com

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  • 1 year later...

This form is not the French Pantoum,
the Maylay Pantun is four lines long.
With no refrain, only South Sea spume, 
why not write a fisherman's song?
                          ~~Judi Van Gorder

~~ © ~~ Poems by Judi Van Gorder ~~

For permission to use this work you can write to Tinker1111@icloud.com

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