Hainteny: Traditional Poetry of Madagascar

Hainteny  is the traditional poetry of Madagascar. Hainteny means ‘knowledge of words’ in Malagasy language. It is part of traditional oral literature of Madagascar, which is mostly in the form of a dialogue between a female and a male, and strongly reminds me of poems of Tamil Sangam literature and Gatha Saptasati of India.

Leonard Fox, who has translated the largest corpus of available Hainteny into English, wrote in his foreword to his book Hainteny: Traditional Poetry of Madagascar -“On the most basic level, Hainteny gives us an incomparable insight into a society characterized by exceptional refinement and subtlety, deep appreciation of beauty, delight in sensual enjoyment, and profound respect for the spiritual realities of life. Through the lens of these poems we observe men and women- both young and old, experiencing the entire range of human emotions and conditions, and expressing that experience in a language of exquisite sensitivity and in metaphors that are transparent, sometimes highly enigmatic- or rather hermetic- but which are always striking. Hainteny- are like Malagasy people, their culture, and their island- original and unique.”

The book contains 457 Hainteny poems which are divided into three parts: The Course of Love, The Course of Life and Variants.  The Course of Love has poems on Desire, Consent and Union, Refusal, Rivals, Separation and Abandonment, Regrets, Reproaches and Indifference. The Course of Life has poems on Good and Evil, Wisdom and Foolishness, Parents and Children, Poverty and Wealth, Pride, Mockery and Humour, Prayers and Imprecations, War, and Death.  Variants include variations on the Hainteny poems already categorized under the two sections mentioned above.

Here I present a selection of Hainteny poems translated into English from Malagasy by Leonard Fox from his book Hainteny: Traditional Poetry of Madagascar:

Blue-rooted onion

Blue-leaved sugar cane.

Even the shadow of her lamba is perfumed;

How much more, then, the lamba she wears.   1

The sage spreads its scent over the hill.

The onion is perfumed with citron.

-When I perceived the scent spread by love,

I wanted to buy it, I wanted to barter for it.

Beautiful speech is like a meal.                                  3

Desire causes one to climb high mountains;

Love causes one to fall into abysses.

Draw me on homewards, my spirit,

For I am mad about the wife of another.                   18

Who is that comes from the south?

It is the daughter of Him-who-is-rich-in-large-cattle,

She-who-shades-herself-with silver, She-who-shades-herself-with-coral.

Both her hands are full of citrons.

If I ask, I am ashamed;

If I do not ask, I regret it.

If one is restrained by shame,

         will one have a beloved?                     20

I am the rice and you’re the water:

They do not forsake each other in the country,

They do not part in the town;

But each time they meet,

There is truly new love.                                         29

The finch is wistful, the sun-bird is sad.

There, to the east,

Are two banana trees facing each other.

Even if they do not marry, they are lovers.            32

The finch flew through the waterfall:

Its tail feathers were not wet,

Its feet did not touch the water.

You are a bridge of gold,

a watered rice-field,

you are difficult to love, like soft silk:

as soon as it is loved, it tangles.                            35

May I die, Ramatoa!

I passed near your husband’s house,

I greeted him, he did not reply.

I asked his leave to go by, he did not speak.

What does this mean?

-Don’t be concerned.

I will divide the day and the night:

The night will be his,

The full day yours.                            46

At the water-jar I was silent,

at the mango tree I was surprised.

-You are surprised, I am amazed;

I passed to the west of your wife’s house,

I was pelted with stones, but did not look back;

I was reviled, but did not speak.

Love your wife

but do not abandon me.                                   119

The fig tree’s leaves have returned

Return, return, Ramatoa.

The strangers who pass love to talk,

and marriage is like a chapped feet

that hurt and cause shame.

-Your love is almost exhausted,

Your caresses are ceasing.

If you love me a little, I am a lotus

        In a beautiful pool;

If you do not love me, I am a bird that shakes

                the water from its wings and flies away.    121

I stand up on The-Last-Love-Song

my last love song- mine and yours

I stand up on The-rock-of-ravishment :

You are ravished by love, I am ravished by desire.

And if parting comes,

I stand up on The-rock-of-surprise,

for you are surprised and I’m amazed.

Slipping slowly, one falls slowly:

You have had enough and I, too, have had enough.  179

I’m a friendless child

Who plays alone with the dust,

A chick that has fallen into a ditch:

If it calls out, its voice is small;

If it flies its wings are weak;

If it waits, it fears the savage cat.

Do not make our love a love of stones,

Broken, they cannot be joined.

But make it a love of lips:

Although angry, they approach each other.   203

Many eat bruised rice,

many  accept importunate love;

give me a word that will not be a lie,

for I am tired of constant tomorrows.  247

A wild onion, but without blue leaves;

rice, but it could not hold money;

I do not love him, for he could not hold me.  248

I am not the winter that dulls

or the spring that wearies

For only those who do not love are dull,

those unable to arouse desire, weary.    342

Hainteny: Traditional Poetry of Madagascar

Bucknell University Press

ISBN: 978-0838751756

464 pages

Leonard Fox is a well-known translator of Malagasy literature. His book of translations of Hainteny: the traditional poetry of Madagascar, is the largest corpus of work available in English language. He has also translated the complete late poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, considered the greatest twentieth century Malagasy poet.  He taught linguistics and Sanskrit at New York University.

#MadagascarLitMonth is curated by Abhay K.

Abhay K.

Abhay K. is the author of nine poetry collections including The Magic of Madagascar (L’Harmattan Paris, 2021), The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury India, 2020), and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins, 2022), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian PoemsCAPITALS, New Brazilian Poems and The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems. His poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines including Poetry Salzburg Review, Asia Literary Review among others. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into over 140 languages. He received SAARC Literary Award 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington DC in 2018.  His forthcoming book length poem is titled Monsoon. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta  (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara  (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit, have won KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21.

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