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Poetry

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What Is Syair?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated: May 23, 2024

Syair is a kind of poetry that is made up of four line verses, which are sometimes called “quatrains” in Western descriptions of poetic meter and structure. This kind of poetry originates from the peoples of the Malay peninsula, which includes parts of Thailand and Borneo. The Malay region forms part of the area between Southeast Asia and Australia, where mainland countries including Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam face the greater Australian continent across a body of water that includes smaller islands like Sumatra and Java.

There are debates over the origin of the syair type of poetry. While some believe it came from the Persian region of the Middle East originally, others attribute its origin to some ethnic groups within the island region previously mentioned. Others believe that this form of poetry was more widespread in multiple parts of the world.

Specific poetic structures like syair can serve various purposes within the cultures that adopt them. These types of stanzas can be narrative poetry, or something more instructive that functions as a morality tale within the general religious communities of the Malay region. Syair is an example of a society adopting the idea that poetry in various cultural forms can be a powerful way to communicate within a given civilization.

Some people within the general Indonesian and Malay areas still continue to promote the use of this poetry in their cultures. A specific example is a 2011 address of a royal prince in Brunei, who explained to citizens there how syair is still useful in today’s world. The words of the prince, Abdul Malik, were picked up by regional media.

Malik provides an example of how many believe that the regional poetic form is still very relevant to the idea of modern nations and cultures. This includes the idea that this kind of poetry has been used for many centuries to distribute knowledge in many topic areas throughout subcultures in the region. The Prince’s address included an invitation to citizens to use this poetic form to build local heritage and culture. Essentially, this and other forms of poetry provide a framework for communicating within a culture, to drive the emergence of new ideas about these communities and their places in the world.

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