When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Genre Unmarked

Poetry in the Mahri language falls into one of two conceptual domains: genre marked and genre unmarked. The distinction between these two domains is best illustrated by a theoretical Mahri speaker’s response to the question: “What kind of poem is this?” If the response takes the form of a single word, it is genre marked. If the answer requires a longer response that relates details regarding the poem’s topic or context, it is likely genre unmarked. Most poetry in the Mahri language is genre unmarked. This does not mean that it is of lesser caliber or quality, it simply means that its author did not compose it with a specific, culturally prescribed performance in mind. Since the poetic genres occupy the limelight in local estimations of poetic value, poems that do not appertain to a specific genre are more readily overlooked by transmitters and scholars of vernacular Arabian poetry alike. Some truly exceptional poems are genre unmarked; however, they may be less easily recalled and circulated than genre marked poems whose memory is anchored in the formal circumstances of its initial performance.

Genre unmarked poems are not embedded in the same, socially numinous practices that key the performance of genre marked poems, and for this reason a broader swath of the Mahri-speaking public may feel comfortable engaging in the composition of genre unmarked poems. Expectations may be lower for such all-purpose poems because immediate and obvious comparisons may not exist with other poems. Poems occurring within the genre unmarked category may display a greater range of quality and success than genre marked poems. However, by no means should a genre unmarked poem be assumed to be lesser quality than a genre marked poem. The finest poets of al-Mahra also compose poems for circulation outside of the prescribed templates and venues of the poetic genres.

In short, genre unmarked poems are the warp and woof of the Mahri poetic practice, with the genre marked poems standing out against this background poetic activity.

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