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The pantun is a Malay poetic form. The pantun originated as a traditional oral form of expression. The first examples to be recorded appear in the 15th century in the Malay Annals and the Hikayat Hang Tuah. The most common theme is love.
In its most basic form the pantun consists of a quatrain which employs an abab rhyme scheme. A pantun is traditionally recited according to a fixed rhythm and as a rule of thumb, in order not to deviate from the rhythm, every line should contain between eight and 12 syllables. “The pantun is a four-lined verse consisting of alternating, roughly rhyming lines. The first and second lines sometimes appear completely disconnected in meaning from the third and fourth, but there is almost invariably a link of some sort. Whether it be a mere association of ideas, or of feeling, expressed through assonance or through the faintest nuance of a thought, it is nearly always traceable” (Sim, page 12). The pantun is highly allusive and in order to understand it readers generally need to know the traditional meaning of the symbols the poem employs. An example (followed by a translation by Katharine Sim):
Tanam selasih di tengah padang,
Sudah bertangkai diurung semut,
Kita kasih orang tak sayang,
Halai-balai tempurung hanyut. <—jiwang juga ya!
I planted sweet-basil in mid-field
Grown, it swarmed with ants,
I loved but am not loved,
I am all confused and helpless.
According to Sim, halai-balai tempurung hanyut literally means "a floating coconut shell at sixes and sevens". Selasih (sweet basil) means "lover", because it rhymes with kekasih. Other frequently recurring symbols are the flower and the bee meaning the girl and her lover, the squirrel (tupai) meaning a seducer, and the water hyacinth (bunga kiambang) meaning love that will not take root. Pantuns often make use of proverbs as well as geographical and historical allusions, for example the following poem by Munshi Abdullah:
Singapura negeri baharu,
Tuan Raffles menjadi raja,
Bunga melur, cempaka biru,
Kembang sekuntum di mulut naga. <—Wow! bahaya ni!
Singapore is a new country,
Tuan Raffles has become its lord,
Indian jasmine, frangipanni,
Blossoms one flower in the dragon's mouth.
(Translated by Sim, p.40)
This alludes to the foundation of Singapore in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles. The last line means a girl who is protected by a powerful man and Sim suggests this may refer to Raffles' wife Olivia.
Sometimes a pantun may consist of a series of interwoven quatrains, in which case it is known as a pantun berkait. This follows the abab rhyme scheme with the second and fourth lines of each stanza becoming the first and third lines of the following stanza. Finally, the first and third lines of the first stanza become the second and fourth lines of the last stanza, usually in reverse order so that the first and last lines of the poem are identical. This form of pantun has exercised the most influence on Western literature where it is known as the pantoum.
According to one Eddin Khoo, a Malaysian artist who is known for how he documents the traditional arts of Malaysia, such as dikir-barat and the art of wayang kulit : " The pantun is one of the most sophisticated achievements of Malaysian cultural life. The pantun was admired by Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire. It was recently made famous by the poet John Ashburrey. The pantun has a very strict abab rhyme scheme. The first 2 lines are embellishments; the 3rd contains a message. The pantun contains a community element to it; spontaneous and people even hold pantun championships."
(Eddin Khoo's translation of a pantun that is " banned" from the official pantun catalogs; because the " banned" pantun(s) are erotic. ) Mr. Khoo's English translations of these Malaysian pantun(s) are in the form of English off-rhymes which maintain the 4 line quatraine form and these off-rhymes have a theme to them.
Small house with a door to the sea
House where the fiddlers play
Your fine body; so thin and so free
Where my wild heart wants to stray.
Translated from the recording of the original:
Rumah kecil pintu kalaut
Tampat orang mengasi di olah
Tubo kecil bagai di raut
Besitu tampat hati 'ku jila <— patutlah :)
Katharine Sim More than a Pantun: Understanding Malay Verse (Times Publishing International, Singapore, 1987 edition)
François-René Daillie La lune et les étoiles: le pantoun malais (Les Belles Lettres, 2000)
Agus R. Sarjono, Eddin Khoo, Sutandji Calzaren Bachri, Poezie uit Maleisie en Indonesie, audiotape of presentation for the Winternachten Festival, Denmark, January, 2005.
 External links
Poetics of the Pantun
USM Pantun Homepage
Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia
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