When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Multiline Monothematic

Monothematic poems address a topic—a specific event or unified lyric idea—through a single motif or transparently connected metaphorical and descriptive passages. Unlike polythematic poems, monothematic poems stay on point throughout—at the cost, perhaps, of not compelling the audience into an exploration of the interrelated meanings of the poet’s metaphorical world. Monothematic poems are a poetic shorthand whose sole objective is the communication of a single straightforward thought rather than an extended rumination on a complicated, emotionally wrought topic.

In the traditional practice, the topics of monothematic poems are occasional: they are descriptions of and reactions to a single historical incident or event. With less working knowledge of the warehouse of the formulaic themes and motifs available to them, lesser-ranked or casual poets have traditionally inclined toward the composition of monothematic poetry. Or, such poems might be the work of social figures whose position requires poetic composition for the sake of information dissemination but who might view the poetic act as secondary to their social responsibilities. Conversely, polythematic poetry was the exclusive domain of experienced and talented poets who were familiar with all of the formulaic themes and motifs available to them and who knew how to string them together in an intriguing way. In the hands of such poets, how the topic is communicated might be more important than the topic itself.

Monothematic poems that are sentimental tend to be more recently composed and imitative of Arabic cosmopolitan lyric poetry. The explicitness of its emotional content is less in accord with traditional modes of poetic sentiment, which formerly utilized an accumulation of metaphorical, descriptive passages to communicate strength of feeling. (For an example of the latter, see Yearning for Baḳlīt.)

This trend is most evident in the collected works of Ḥājj Dākōn, whose dīwān almost exclusively contains sentimental, monothematic poems that are explicitly modeled on contemporary, cosmopolitan Arabic lyric poetry. Because Ḥājj is widely regarded as one of al-Mahra’s finest poets, a rethinking of poetic value has clearly taken place that gives positive consideration to concision, clarity, and directness of expression. In this way, polythematic poems might come across as slightly old fashioned compared to contemporary monothematic lyric poetry.

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