Apart from literary epics and romances, usually collectively termed Hikayat, which may be written in prose or poetry, the principal forms of traditional Malay poetry take the form of pantun, syair and gurindam.
Of these the pantun is by far the best known and the most popular, finding a place in many everyday situations in Malay life, formal or informal. Particularly notable is the use of pantun in situations involving the formalisation of a marriage proposal. Pantun may also be seen presented in contests or verse debates. Despite its importance, however, the origins of the Malay pantun remain obscure. Usually described as a Malay “quatrain,” a pantun is generally made up of four rhyming lines with the abab rhyme scheme, the first line rhyming with the third and the second with the fourth. Less common forms of pantun appear in two, six or eight line versions. The pantun is divisible into two parts, the first half being called the “pembayang” (shadow) while the second half termed the maksud (meaning or intention). The pembayang serves as a preamble, and may have little to do directly with the maksud. In terms of the structure of a pantun, however the pembayang is vital, as it is also in establishing the rhyme scheme. The essence or essential meaning of a pantun is, however, contained in the maksud. This is the part that conveys the intention of the pantun reciter. This, again, is not a firm rule, however, and pantun do exist in which all four lines are connected in terms of the development of an idea. Apart from literary epics and romances, usually collectively termed Hikayat, which may be written in prose or poetry, the principal forms of traditional Malay poetry take the form of pantun, syair and gurindam.
While a pantun is complete in a matter of four lines or so, a syair is a much longer piece, often an extended narrative poem which thus contains a story, attempts to present some sort of teaching or message, possibly moral in character. Each of the stanzas of a syair, however, is still made up of four lines. In the syair, however, all four lines of a quatrain rhyme. Again, while the pantun is meant to be recited, a syair is meant to be sung with or without musical accompaniment. There are in Malay literature many well-known syair, including Syair Ken Tambohan and Syair Perahu, the latter written by Amir Hamzah, the mystic poet of Sumatra, in the seventeenth century. Gurindam A gurindam is a two-line piece, with a single rhyme. Each gurindam is complete in terms of idea or theme presented. It differs from the two-line pantun, however, for while such a pantun presents the pembayang in the first line and its maksud in the second, in its first line a gurindam presents what is called a syarat (or “condition”) while the second line presents the jawab or answer, developing the idea contained in the first. In terms of idea or theme, then, both the lines of a gurindam are connected. The gurindam generally contains advice or teaching, presented through elegant similes or metaphors. Humorous gurindam also exist. Variations of gurindam in three, four, six or more lines may also be encountered. The essential function of providing advice or guidance is maintained