When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Genre Marked

To determine whether a poem is genre marked or unmarked, one should imagine the response by a theoretical Mahri speaker to the question: “What kind of poem is this?” If the response is immediate and consists of one or two words, the poem is genre marked since its type has an abstract existence in the Mahri poetic practice that may be recalled by the causal listener or poet. The poem in question evokes the memory of similar poems, poets, and performance venues and thus imbues the poem at hand with a sense of history, tradition, and cultural authority.

Such poems occupy a clearly bounded space in the Mahri metapoetic lexicon. Since a conceptual category and performative act exists for genre marked poems, they are more easily categorized and catalogued than genre unmarked poems. The number of distinctive genres is limited, although this number appears to expand if we take the various metrical possibilities of Mahri verse into account.  Like Arabic vernacular nabaṭī poetry, the various meters of Mahri oral poetry are referred by a signature melody that denotes the number and sequence of long and short syllables for each meter (Sowayan, 1985: 99). For the occasional genres of poem, a specific meter and melody is required for a particular marked genre (reǧzīt or samʿī, for instance), although this is not always the case for genre marked sentimental poems, such as the polymorphous ḳṣīdet or dāndān.

Because the poetic genres that address occasional topics are tied to the public sphere, poets who compose them assume a degree of poetic expertise and are willing to project a public persona. Only poets who feel they are up to the creative challenge and publicity will apply themselves to the composition and performance of named poetic genres. The reason for this is partly technical: only those poets who have studied and internalized the formulas, melodies, and recurrent structures of the genres are capable of reproducing them. More casual composers of Mahri poetry may simply lack the appropriate training necessary to forge a unique expression within the strict exigencies of a specific genre. As a result, poets composing genre marked poems will often rank among the finer poets of al-Mahra, as well as among its most esteemed personages. Indeed, given the prominence of poetry as a vector of collective expression, poetic skill and social status are often one and the same.

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