No rhyme scheme in free verse

  • Education
  • Sunday, 19 Oct 2003


I hope you had no difficulty with the questions set last week. How about comparing my answers with yours? 

The Lotus Eater 

a) Why did Wilson have no qualms about moving to Capri? 

Wilson had no qualms about moving to Capri because he had no family. His wife and daughter were dead and he had no close friends or relations. Besides, he did not want to continue working as a banker till he died. 

b) What did he regret about his decision? 

He regretted that he had wasted a year on banking, thus delaying his move to Capri. 

The Sound Machine 

a) Why do you think there is “tension in the room”? 

The doctor probably feels that he is intruding, especially as Klausner seems to be concentrating on his experiments. 

b) Why does Klausner say he is “just fooling around”? 

He says this probably because he is not yet able to confide in the doctor, afraid that Dr Scott might scoff at his sound machine. 


Looking for a Rain God 

a) Why did Mokgobja “come alive” at the memory of the ceremony? What would happen after it was observed? 

Mokgobja thought that he had found a solution to ensure that his family would suffer no more hardship or drought because there was “a certain rain god who accepted the sacrifice of the bodies of children”, and the rains would definitely come after this sacrifice. 

b) Why was it difficult for him to “recall the details of the ritual”? 

He could not remember these details clearly because the last rain-making ceremony had taken place a long time ago. Also, as a practising Christian for many years, Mokgobja would have buried these superstitions in shame and embarrassment.  

We now come to the last two of our short texts. Unlike the other poems we’ve covered so far, the two poems by our Malaysian writers are in free verse. Free verse is different from conventional verse in that it has no rhyme scheme because there are no rhyming lines while the stanzas tend to be of varying lengths. Also, the punctuation sometimes tends to be idiosyncratic, as we can see in Muhammad Hj. Salleh’s poem which eschews the use of capital letters. 

si tenggang’s homecoming is, as the title suggests, a return home (those of you doing The Return might want to compare the emotions and frustrations felt by si tenggang in this poem with those of KS Maniam’s protagonist) on the part of the persona and what changes he sees in himself after being abroad. 

What themes are presented in this poem? Definitely we must mention the journey of self-discovery and growth when one lives in an overseas environment which is totally different in culture and traditions from the one has grown up with. As explicitly mentioned in the two opening lines, the physical journey (travelling overseas) has wrought spiritual changes in the persona. 

In the original legend, Si Tenggang returns home a rich sea captain who has married a princess; he refuses to recognise his mother because he is embarrassed by his humble beginnings. However, Muhammad’s si tenggang is no such ingrate and is very much aware of his Malay roots. Despite what others may think, he protests that he is “still malay, sensitive to what I believe is good.” 

It is also important to stress that, unlike the arrogant Si Tenggang in the legend, this si tenggang considers himself “humble” in stanza five. As such, he probably doesn’t want to stress his sense of self, a fact he underlines by using small letters throughout the poem. Perhaps, too, he wishes to suggest the idea that, however much he has “found himself”, he is only a tiny part of a greater universe. 

Another important theme is that travel increases the range of one’s experiences and as such, it makes people who have lived abroad less provincial in their outlook. An open-minded traveller like si tenggang can thus evaluate “the differences between people” and choose beliefs which are worth keeping. He becomes wiser and more confident and is willing to share his knowledge with others who have not had the chance of going abroad. 

Shirley Lim’s poem also uses the first person approach as she recalls her childhood “forty years ago” in Malacca, but unlike Muhammad’s poem, there is a very definite sense of local colour. For one thing, Lim creates a distinctly tropical scene when she uses insect imagery to link the pervasively damp monsoon air (“its hundred feet”) with the sunlight on the Straits of Malacca (“the glare of tropical water”). 

I think the title of this poem (incidentally taken from her first anthology of poems called Crossing the Peninsula for which she won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1980) is apt: The word “monsoon” is both denotative because it refers to a specific season, as well as connotative because it evokes ideas of damp, danger and disaster, while the word “history” implies the past as well as the present. 

Put together, the two words give a vivid sense of time (“history”) and place (“monsoon” which of course occurs in the tropics) and create feelings of nostalgia. This nostalgia is made more poignant when we realise that Lim now lives and works overseas, isolated from the rich cultural background in which she grew up, both by physical distance and by time because it is probable that her parents are long deceased. 

The poet uses a number of literary devices with striking images. These create vivid pictures which appeal to our sense of sight, sound and touch. For example, we can almost feel the damp air, see her sarong-wrapped nyonya and baba as they drink Milo and hear the hustle and bustle of the insects (they “fly”, they “sweep”, they “zoom”). 

It is also interesting to notice that Lim “blends” her family reading Tennyson with the great activity of the insects in the second last stanza. Maybe she wishes to show that these creatures, far from being “creepy-crawlies” that people are usually afraid of, are fondly etched in her memories of growing up, and that they are very much a part of nature. 

Now, how about tackling questions on both our Malaysian poets? 

Read the extracts (boxed) and answer the questions that follow, basing your answer on your knowledge of the whole poem.  


si tenggang’s homecoming 

a) What does the poet mean by saying that “the knowledge that sweats from it/is a stranger’s knowledge”? 

b) Briefly summarise what the “predicament” he faced when he returned from overseas. 

Monsoon History 

a) What do we learn of the culture and traditions of “nyonya and baba” in this stanza? 

b) Comment on the use of verbs for the various insects in the lines after “the down-pouring rain”.  

si tenggang’s homecoming 

the physical journey that I traverse is a journey of the soul transport of the self from a fatherland to a country collected by sight and mind, the knowledge that sweats from it is a stranger’s knowledge, from one who has learnt to see, think and choose between the changing realities. 

it’s true I have growled at my mother and grandmother but only after having told of my predicament that they have never brought to reason. the wife that I began to love in my loneliness, in the country that alienated me, they took to their predecisions, I have not entirely returned, I know, having been changed by time and place, coarsened by problems, estranged by absence.


Monsoon History 

Drinking Milo, Nyonya and baba sit at home. This was forty years ago. Sarong-wrapped they counted Silver paper for the dead. Portraits of grandfathers Hung always in the parlour. Reading Tennyson, at six p.m. in just pajamas, listening to the down-pouring rain: the air ticks With gnats, black spiders fly, Moths sweep out of our rooms Where termites built Their hills of eggs and queens zoom In heat.  

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