Hainteny Poetry Form: Ignite Uplifting Tributes

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Here is what the Hainteny poetry form is:

Hainteny or “knowledge of words” is one of several forms of poetry native to the Merina people of Madagascar.

This form tends to be told through dialogue between one or two characters, with an emphasis on praise, dispraise, and metaphor.

The use of special proverbs called ohabalona is a noteworthy feature.

So if you want to learn all about the Hainteny poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s get right to it!

Hainteny Poem Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: Hainteny

What Is Hainteny

Hainteny, meaning roughly “knowledge of words,” is a dialogue-based type of poetry traditionally associated with the Merina people of Madagascar.

Hainteny, as a poem form, is almost impossible to find consistent English documentation on, much less really explain to a western audience.

Nonetheless, let’s try our best to break it down.

Note that there are several closely related forms from the same region, so if anyone native to Madagascar is reading this, hopefully they’ll be patient with any confusion that may have happened as research traveled into the west and from scholar to scholar.

Remember that information about foreign forms is ultimately one long, long telephone game.

Basic Properties of Hainteny

Hainteny Basic Properties
Rhyme StructureNone
PopularityTraditional among the Merina people; documentation is scarce elsewhere
ThemeVaries; praise and dispraise are especially common

How Is Hainteny Structured?

Hainteny Structure

Hainteny leans into dialogue as its main means of discourse, though it has a strong tendency to paint vibrant images with metaphor and language, even more so than a typical poem.

It’s not uncommon for the tone to be lyrical, mocking, or even confrontational.

Question and answer poems, particularly portrayed as a conflict between two characters, are particularly popular.

Think of these as a sort of highbrow ‘rap battle’ except that the appeal comes from how tight and clever the metaphors are, rather than how snappy the rhymes are.

One person might make a statement in metaphor, only to be rebuked with an extension of their own metaphor by the other, for example.

This doesn’t have to be the only way for hainteny to be written, however.

Self-praise is another common theme, and there are examples of such poems in the Ibonia, an epic from the region.

from The Ibonia

I am an edible arum in the chink of a rock
uncrushed by any foot
its leaves not eaten.

Above is a short excerpt taken from a long passage in which the character praises himself repeatedly.

Breaking them down, it seems that most hainteny passages are either designed around building up the speaker or tearing down their opposition.

The obsessive use of metaphor is a trademark of the form but is not its only calling card.

Structure Hainteny

Double meanings of words and phrases are another common thread, not just for hainteny but among many African forms in general.

Ohabalona (roughly translated as proverbs) and kabary (roughly translated as public discourse) are both important concepts to the form.

Ohabalona are a set of thousands of proverbs, preserved in their original forms since ancient times, that are essentially shared property.

Think of them as a precursor to the modern concept of “in the public domain.”

Any poet may incorporate ohabalona whenever they feel thematically appropriate.

Kabary is a method of speaking heavily dependent on a mastery of ohabolona, and its practitioners are referred to as mpikabary.

A person’s social standing and sense of prestige can be heavily influenced by how well they speak, with kabary being a way to prove a person’s thoughtfulness and intelligence.

Something as seemingly trivial as misquoting an ohabalona can result in a loss of face.

Direct confrontations are seen as a lowbrow means of communication, whereas the ability to communicate using only proverbs shows class and sophistication.

It’s seen as a mental exercise that requires more careful and deliberate thought than simply throwing words.

Tips for Writing Hainteny

Tips Hainteny

Bluntly, don’t.

You can write poems and say they were inspired by hainteny, but ultimately poems written in English aren’t hainteny.

They can’t be. 

Let’s give a quick example.

Let’s say that you looked up a list of English translations of ohabalona and incorporated them into your own poetry.

By virtue of being translations, they’re automatically inaccurate to the originals.

They may have every intention of being as accurate to the original concepts as possible, but they’re not word-for-word representations of the original ohabalona.

Another problem is that you would be missing the cultural context necessary to use those ohabalona as they were originally intended.

Do you think someone who had never heard the phrase “apples to oranges” is likely to just guess the correct usage when plugging it into a poem at random?

If you MUST write hainteny, or rather a poem inspired by the concepts of hainteny, then do extensive, dedicated research.

Find translations from the The Ibonia and read them religiously.

Look up the works of Elie Rajaonarison, Jean Joseph Rabearivelo, and especially the translations by Leonard Fox.

Personally, my main piece of advice for any poet looking to dip their toes into a form this old, this established, and this rooted to one particular culture would be to just stay in their lane, as brutal as that may sound.

Call your works “a western reinterpretation of hainteny” if you have to, but absolutely do not proclaim, “I write hainteny.”

If you don’t know enough about Malagasy culture to really be certain that your interpretations are accurate, then make sure your statements about your own poetry are honest.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.


Just sit on that word for a while.

Seriously think about it.

Don’t look it up right away.

Try to guess how it would be pronounced.

Enjoy the mystery.

Is the ‘M’ silent? Perhaps the ‘P’ is silent?

Do the two combined represent some specific sound?

Also, stop to wonder if every vowel is actually pronounced how you would pronounce them.

Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.

Okay, now you can go look it up.

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