Two Halves Make a Whole

BY IRWAN ABU BAKAR

Here’s how you can write your own four-line pantun, the beautiful form of Malay poetry where the moral and the lyric are clearly separated

The pantun (pronounced pun-tone) is believed to be uniquely Malay in origin. It is the most popular Malay traditional poetry genre and is still very much alive, playing important roles at occasions like weddings and other formal functions. Many age-old pantuns are learned by heart and can be fluently quoted by the Malays.

 

Pandan Island is far from land

     Three peaks has the Daik Mountain

Though the body has rotted in the sand

     Good deeds are never forgotten.

 

The pantun is different and interesting because of its unique structure. Pantuns have even number of lines, the most popular being four-line pantuns.

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 Two-line pantuns are generally old pantuns which has been passed down for generations. Here are also six-line pantuns and eight-line ones (both not very common and seldom written nowadays). For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the four-line pantuns.

The pantun must satisfy the following structural conditions:

(a) The lines of the pantun must rhyme in alternate line position and on the last word, i.e. the last word of the first line must rhyme with the last word of the third line; the last word of the second line must rhyme with the last word of the fourth line. The rhyme is described as a-b-a-b.

(b) Each line must be made of 8 to 12 syllabi or words parts (the best being 9 or 10). The number of words is immaterial.

Here is an example (a traditional love pantun in Malay). Note the rhyming alternate lines:

 

Dua tiga kucing berlari

     Manakan sama kucing belang

Dua tiga boleh kucari

     Manakan sama puan seorang

 

This is the English translation (not retaining the rhyme):

 

Two or three cats a running

     They are not comparable to the cat with stripes

Two or three (people) I can find

     But there are not comparable to you.

 

The message that the pantun carries is contained in the second half, i.e. the last two lines. The first two lines simply act as the lead (or indicator) as to what is coming. The most important role of the indicator is simply to serve as the "rhymer". In the better pantuns, it also provides an indication of what message is contained in the last two lines.

The first two lines do make sense in themselves but have no relationship in meaning with the second half of the pantun.

Let us try to write a proper pantun (with the necessary rhyme) out of this:

 

Two or three cats are running on the land

The cat with stripes is superior

     Two or three (people)

I can easily find

     But not comparable to you, my dear.

 

Now let’s compose a pantun.You start by writing the last two lines to make your point (the message), thereafter you compose the first two lines to rhyme with the last two lines (normally you would use elements of nature for this). The first half and the second half of the pantun must not be continuous in meaning.

Eg., I want to tell a girl that I like her because of her sweet smile. I would start by writing the last two sentences of the pantun. This would be the "message" part of the pantun:

 

I like you, girl, you're beautiful 

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     Your smile is heaven to my two eyes. 

 

Then I would compose the first two "indicator" or "rhymer" lines. Say, I use flowers:

 

Roses and daisies are plentiful

     Their beauties would in the morning rise

 

Then I get the complete pantun by joining the rhymer and the message:

Roses and daisies are plentiful

     Their beauties would in the morning rise

I like you, girl, you're beautiful

     Your smile is heaven to my two eyes.

 

What about visual presentation? Well, pantuns are usually written as shown in the examples above, ie. left-justified with the second and fourth lines indented.

 

Dr Irwan Abu Bakar runs the website www.pantun.com.my.

 

Do you want to see your pantun, or any other form of poetry, published? Asia! is looking for original poetry. Write to poetry@theasiamag.com