From Abecedarian to Zuhdiyyah: Poetry Around the Globe

May 31, 2011 by Lauren Kerr
Category: "Spot" on Language, Culture

poem on wall

There’s nothing harder to translate than a poem, which might be why we’re so fascinated with poetry in all its many forms here at Acclaro.

In the Western world, we know of sonnets, odes, and blank verse. Most of us learned a limerick or two as children. Yet nearly every culture on every continent has produced its own unique poetic form, whether it comes in the form of song, spoken word, or printed literature.

Here’s a quick round-the-world tour of some not-so-familiar poetic forms. It’s an amazing roundup of human creativity.


You’ve probably read — or even written — a haiku.  But what about a Burmese climbing rhyme? This poem in English by writer and professor Larry Gross (who also writes classical Korean sijo poems) shows off the tricky internal rhymes of this stairstep verse form:

Each In His Time
Living’s merely the stage
untutored actors age on—
nothing sage, nothing profound
happens, only drowned emotions
some uncrowned king inside
continues to hide, refuses
to stride the world
unfettered, flag unfurled against
fate’s hurled arrows, cannot
invent his plot, must
speak what is penned
for him, suspend himself,
amend, pretend until he
becomes someone free, someone
striding Galilee, crowned messiah
in a world he never meant to be.

The Arab World

The Arab world has produced a wealth of literary forms. One of the most enduring is the ghazal, which traces its roots back to the 6th century, when Persian mystics like Rumi used this form. Each ghazal contains five or more couplets, and the second line ends with a repeated refrain known as a radif. It’s a fun form to play around with in English, as this example by poet Chris Green shows. 

Blue Ghazal #1

The small acts of love nurture my love for you,
and I am warmed by the cool breezes your silk fan blew.

Sometimes the small and light questions do
cast a light on what makes a man blue.

Was there a time when time was new
when this ancient muddy river ran blue?

Is it a sign of some sorrow in Nature\'s hue
that oxygen makes the sky scan blue?

The truth of colours is fleeting as a faint morning dew,
is this green light more a yellow light than blue?

Latin America

The décima originated in 15th-century Spain and North Africa. Today, the form flourishes in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico, sometimes improvised on the spot as a song, accompanied by cuatro, guitar, and güiro. Also known as “the little sonnet,” the [décima] is one of the most complex forms of popular poetry, consisting of ten-line stanzas with a difficult rhyme scheme.  

It’s hard to narrow down Africa’s contributions to world poetry to just one — there are so many dazzling forms to choose from. So we’re highlighting praise poetry and insult poetry, since they’re really two sides of the same coin.

Praise poetry is a popular oral tradition in Southern Africa, and can be compared to the odes and paeans of Europe. The form once celebrated national heroes and royalty, but has evolved to laud the common folk, too — including South African mine laborers and freedom fighters.

On the flip side is insult poetry. Good insult poetry is specific, clever, good-humored, and personal, directed at a real person, place, or event. These poems have a chant-like, repetitive structure. Here’s the oldest recorded African insult poem. The author is unknown.

You really resemble
An old man who has no teeth
And who wants to eat elephant hide,
Or a woman without a backside
Who sits down on a hard wooden stool.
You also resemble a stupid dolt
Who while hunting lets an antelope pass by
And who knows that his father is sick at home.


Hainteny is a form of musical, rhythmic oral poetry unique to the Merina people of Madagascar, and it is rich in metaphors known as kennings. Hainteny often includes ancient philosophical proverbs, or obahalana.

The hainteny excerpt here was written by an unknown poet and translated by Leonard Fox.

There are many trees,

 But it is the sugar cane that is sweet.

There are many grasshoppers,

 But it is the ambolo that has beautiful colors.

There are many people,

 But it is in you that my spirit reposes.


Australian Aboriginal poetry is the oldest continuing poetic form in the world, dating back more than 60,000 years. These rich, lyrical, complex song cycles dwarf the longevity of Western poetry. Narratives that date back to the “dreamtime” of human history meld with modern-day works, such as those by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, the best-known aboriginal poet.

There are hundreds more poetic forms to explore. If you’ve got a favorite, please share it with us.

And now, back to our limericks.

Photo attribution: eperales

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