“Ask for a leaf, and a leaf I’d give you,
In the leaf the veins concourse;
Ask for a pantun, and a pantun I’d give you,
In the pantun there is discourse.”
The poetic words of national laureate Dr Muhammad Haji Salleh illustrate the passion that has fired him up all these years to undertake long journeys through 64 different countries around the world over a half century of travel. All for the love of the pantun (traditional Malay poem).
“I travel because of poetry, in order to write new things and to learn about other human beings,” says the erudite Professor Emeritus of Penang’s Universiti Sains Malaysia.
“Discovery is the key. The world is open to you. When you stay in your room to ponder certain things, you sometimes forget the background behind it all.”
This 76-year-old method-writer’s illustrious career has seen him author more than 50 books on pantun (especially historical ones), poems, essays, theoretical studies and translations.
Topping it off, the monthly columnist for the Dewan Budaya and Dewan Sastera has transcribed classical Malay texts such as the iconic Sulalat al-Salatin and Hikayat Isma Yatim.
His travels have spanned the globe, covering lands as diverse as Indonesia, the United States, the Netherlands, Japan, Brunei, Fiji, Samoa and Mexico, from which his tapestry of life has flourished.
A writer of poetry ever since he was a trainee teacher in England in 1963, Muhammad is showing absolutely no signs of stopping, saying it is now an intrinsic part of him.
“Writing poetry, I believe, has made me a much better individual. I have become more sensitive to others’ ideals, such as the faith of the orang asli.
“This is a part that we in literature, and novelists, cover; we strive to see and reflect on what is easily missed, and incorporate these ideas into our poetry,” he says reflectively during his candid interview with Star2.
“I don’t write based on emotion alone; we need to go beyond that. We are not mere lovers; we are lovers of ideas and ideals. I make conclusions and gain insights whenever I see people or situations; these are the real beginnings of a poem.”
Muhammad’s strong interest in philosophy, history and language has led him to study French, Arabic, Japanese, German, Dutch and Spanish – all on his own.
“I need to draw from the bigger world so I can share through words with my readers.”
Muhammad has based a lot of his pantun on the ideas, environment and meanings found in the Malay Annals – that is, Sejarah Melayu and the Sulalat al-Salatin (Genealogy Of Kings) – and is currently transcribing the earliest Hang Tuah manuscripts.
“I could write a pantun in three minutes, but I could take a week to translate one poem. I once translated the 600-page book, The Epic Of Hang Tuah, and that took about 15 years. I persevered, though, looking at it as my responsibility to bring this great cultural tale to the world, as one would translate works by Socrates or Freud.”
Most influenced by the works of T.S. Elliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda (whom Muhammad calls a “genius”), Joseph Brodsky and Nikos Kazantzakis, Muhammad says he does not ask much from life, except only for time and good health in order to write and translate.
“When you are younger, you normally idolise certain individuals, but when you are older, you try to catch the brilliance of as many people as possible,” he adds.
His works have been published in several nations and translated into 15 languages, with several of his books claiming pride of place as reference materials in certain countries.
Muhammad recently launched his latest book, Pantun: The Poetry Of Passion, in which he expounds on the history of the pantun and the development of its various forms, as well as the pantun’s importance in Malay and Nusantara life.
And he is far from done.