When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Born to be Digital?

With the exception of the recently published Dīwān of Ḥājj Dākōn (American Institute for Yemeni Studies, 2011), poetry in the Mahri language is an oral art form and the experience of writing does not intrude upon the composition and transmission of Mahri poetry.  From a metapoetic standpoint, this means that individual poems are not imagined as texts by Mahri poets and their audiences but rather as utterances; they lack existential autonomy outside of the moment of performance.  While a transcribed version of a Mahri poem may adequately convey the meaning of individual lines and the overall message of the poem, such a written text would be alien to the poet’s own conception of his or her work.  Written texts derived from Mahri poetic performances are misleading facsimiles of the original in the same way that a written description of a work of visual art cannot substitute for the original canvas.  Audio and video documentation are the only media that capture this oral poetic tradition as it is meant to be heard and seen: without the mediation of script and consequent formal requirements of print media.

From a scholarly perspective, attempting to capture a Mahri poem on the page does have negative consequences.  For instance, a printed poetic text gives the impression that individual words are the fundamental building blocks of a poetic line and that words may be analyzed as discrete units and are easily demarcated from one another.  Going further, a printed text gives the impression that every metrical foot is occupied by an unalienable constituent element of a meaningful word or phrase.  In short, the act of writing an oral poetic text requires us to adopt the assumption that every syllable, word, or phrase may be parsed in the service of comprehensibility and that moments of textual unintelligibility are to be understood as inadvertent and unwanted errors.

While the absolute majority of lines in any given Mahri poem that I recorded are explicable at the lexical level, poems often included metrical units that evoked meaningfulness but whose meaning could not be clearly articulated by my native Mahri-speaking consultants; most typically, the boundaries between words could not be determined.  At the same time, elements of syllabic "junk DNA" were not regarded as faults but rather as an intrinsic – and unremarkable – component of a poetic utterance.  Nor did they appear to compromise the quality of the poem itself; the overall message of the poem (or line) might still be comprehensible to my consultants even if individual metrical feet defied their attempts at syllable-by-syllable explication.

This aspect of oral performance can be communicated only via audio and visual recordings.  A printed page imposes meaning, order, and boundaries that may not actually exist in actual performance.  And insofar as an oral poem exists only through the metapoetic imagination in performance, how a poem is heard is inseparable from the poem itself. While removing the haziness from a poetic performance may not cause the act itself to collapse into meaninglessness, a poetic text thus cleansed of it may no longer claim any part of its original conception.

The pathways and rich network links enabled through a digital exhibit invite exploration into the generative warp and woof of the oral poetic act.  Thanks to the variety of ways in which a poem may be indexed in this exhibit – by topic, genre, structural features, shared vocabulary, poet, and region – the poems may be perceived as being simultaneously generated through the recombination of universal elements, as well as being unique and essential utterances.  In this way, the online digital exhibit format enables a closer analogue to the processes of thought and memory that generate oral poems than the paratactic/linear-sequential presentation of poetic specimens utilized in traditional print monographs.  In browsing through the poems in this exhibit, a visitor can be brought more closely into the cognitive realm of the poet in which multiple vectors of creativity, memory, and habit come together all at once to forge a novel poetic creation.

The fact that a richly indexed and inter-referential digital exhibit approximates the poetic-creative act in al-Mahra yields a paradox: the lowest tech systems of knowledge – such as oral poetry – are best suited to recapitulation in an online, digital format. The middle ground – print media – is simply poorly adapted to capturing the processes of oral poetic composition or similar forms of cultural production.  In this way, we find that oral poetry is well partnered with the digital poetic format, not merely for the sake of access but also for the way in which the digital format recapitulates how it is conceived by its practitioners.