Reverie Twenty-Six: pangrawit

Fun fact: I enjoy learning scraps of the languages that I have to work with at my job, both because it helps gain a better sense of the texts we deal with, and because they’re endlessly interesting. We’ve been getting a lot of Indonesian lately, which has been one of the gaps in my knowledge for a long while… so I got myself an Indonesian textbook and dictionary, and so armed, I will plow headlong into my first (well, not counting my abortive attempt at learning Tagalog) Austronesian language; and not that I’m going to be fluent or anything, but even bits and pieces always help. As does dealing with poetry!

(Preface: I defer to Margo Roby on pretty much any information in here.)

This week: “pangrawit

I’m a little behind with Reveries, as you know, so there will actually be another one later in the week (probably Saturday, as usual). But I always enjoy doing some research for the world poetry ones, even though I’m sure they elicit a few groans. It’s kind of neat to be at the halfway point of the year, though, and I’m happy that I’ve managed to keep it going. Let’s dive right in…

Java is (one of) the main island(s) of Indonesia, having half of its population, its capital, and most of its important stuff going on. A lot of people are more familiar with Bali, but Java (beyond being a coffee namesake) has significant weight and cachet. The rich history, which is strongly influenced by Indian culture, includes song traditions (associated with gamelan, which might be familiar to you) that we are going to have a peek at here. The usual caveat applies: I am not Javanese, and most of this information is dragged up from the depths of the Internet. Take with a grain of salt and, as always, educate yourself further!

There are three main forms of song-poem-chant:
sekar ageng: these are the Sanskrit-influenced epics for royal courts and grand pronouncements; they are so friggin’ complicated that we’re not going to attempt them
sekar madya: the more common songs that are often performed by gamelan
tembang macapat: similar to sekar madya

I’m not entirely clear on the distinction between the last two, except they have different fixed forms. And really, we shouldn’t think of these as forms, but rather groups of forms. We have three considerations to bear in mind with these:
- First, the poetry is supposed to rhyme, but only by vowel sound (the consonants can be different: you can rhyme sheep with squeal). This is counterbalanced by the fact that the poems have specific vowel sounds that are used, rather than poet’s choice. (If you’re looking for an extra challenge, that is.)
- Second, the lines have particular syllable lengths. Each form within sekar madya or tembang macapat has the number of syllables in each line dictated, as well as the number of lines; so between this and the line, the stanza is essentially built for you already. We’ll leave out some of the Sanskrit metrical things on this go-round, because they surely make my head twist in knots, and I don’t want to do the same to you.
- And third, for tembang macapat at least, there is a specific mood associated with each form. In the same way that we typically think of sonnets as love poems (thanks, Shakespeare), haiku as nature observation poems, and ballads as tragic/comic narratives – and you probably wouldn’t interchange the three – the different forms are consigned to certain spheres of topic. Sekar madya are not, as far as I can tell.

So, those are the complications, but they’re evened out. Let’s talk about the forms themselves. I’ve cribbed this shamelessly from Wikipedia, so you might be able to poke some holes in my descriptions here. Also, although there’s fourteen listed, I’m going to just put a few of each.

Each number+letter indicates for each line the number of syllables and last vowel sound. So a juru demung stanza has eight-syllable lines all the way through, with the vowels in that particular pattern. (Like this: I bought myself a brand new car / and painted it cornflower blue / to match the laces on my shoes… etc.)

Sekar madya:
juru demung: 8a, 8u, 8u, 8a, 8u, 8a, 8u
wirangrong: 8i, 8o, 10u, 6i, 7a, 8a
balabah: 12a, 3e, 12a, 3aa, 12a, 3aa

Macapat:
dhangdhang gula (neutral/used for introducing other poems): 10i, 10a, 8e or 8o, 7u, 9i, 7a, 6u, 8a, 12i, 7a
asmarandana (love poems): 8i, 8a, 8e or 8o, 8a, 7a, 8u, 8a
durma (violence or passion): 12a, 7i, 6a, 7a, 8i, 5a, 7i
mas kumambang (for homesickness):  12i, 6a, 8i, 8a
puchung (neutral/used for riddles): 12u, 6a, 8i, 12a

There are more out there, if you have the courage to seek them out. And on the matter of phonology, note that these are the “pure” vowel sounds like you’d find in Italian. “a” is “ah”, not any other variety of sound that would be paired with the English “a”. The rhymes should be “car” and “bard”, not “hate” or “cat”. But while I’m saying that: if you want to fiddle around with the vowels, go for it. Maybe you think the passion/violence poems should be full of “oh” and “oo” (o and u) instead. Just make sure to keep the syllable count consistent, the rhyme scheme in place, and the number of lines correct.

So here’s my dhangdhang gula. Be merciful.

I found a box of poems in the weeds
as it was growing late. The sleeping stars
didn’t hear what I’m going to say:
the lies, the questions, the truths.
I found a box of poems unseen
and cracked it open. I saw
so much to share with you,
that I want to give, that I want
to spread like wildflowers. But I only carried
what I could: not long, not far.

So that might introduce another poem or three. Which leads me into the greater point I want to make about these: treat them like a musical set rather than just doing one stanza and calling it a day. You can try stringing three or four of the same kind, or maybe changing it up and mixing them together. Be performative! Have some fun and get meta. If you want to really stick to the challenge of rhymes and particular moods, so much the better; and if you want to be really dazzling you can assign yourself a meter (don’t worry about the Sanskrit ones) to keep as lively as possible through the piece. I think you’ll be surprised, and will surprise the rest of us, with how the tone can change. Just like a song that shifts key with sudden minor chords or modulations, take us through as many emotions as you think we can handle: and then bring them to life with words and sounds, design them to bring us to that place with you.

I think you’re all pangrawit, people wise in the ways of creating and performing your art. So do a bit of bending and show us what you’ve got. :)