When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Multiline Polythematic

Traditional multiline poems in al-Mahra typically roam across a variety of themes or may even move across the boundary between occasional and sentimental topics. As a result, traditional poems, especially those composed by dabblers in poetry rather than its finest connoisseurs, may take the form of a paratactic stack of formulaic themes and motifs. At first glance, such a multiline, polythematic poem may seem like a cluttered accumulation of unrelated scenes, images, and metaphors, and in the hands of the most casual poets, this may very well be the case.  

However, in the hands of the finer poets, apparently disparate themes assembled in paratactic fashion may address a common topic through the metaphorical language of Mahri poetry. For instance, in Yearning for Baḳlīt, the poet ʿAlī ʿAwaź al-Jidḥī evokes Baḳlīt in a number of different guises: a fertile field, a rain cloud, and silken fabric. ʿAlī ʿAwaź’s passion for Baḳlīt is encumbered by the rejection he faces from members of Baḳlīt’s family who are disinterested in him as a potential suitor. Motifs that evokeʿAlī ʿAwaź’s longing for Baḳlīt are thus braided with motifs that evoke familial and social obstacles to their marriage. These latter motifs depict the patience and skill that tradesmen bring to their crafts: boat building, piloting a fishing boat, and farming an irrigated plot. Through the accumulation of these motifs, ʿAlī ʿAwaź communicates his dogged persistence in the face of their reluctance to allow him to marry their daughter. Moreover,ʿAlī ʿAwaź indicates a socioeconomic dimension to their refusal: they are “property owners” whereas he is on “the outside” and must rely on other professionals (“ship builders”) to work on his behalf. Although this poem appears to be polythematic, the braided pattern of interconnected motifs engenders a thematic unity that can easily be overlooked.

As a result, the polythematic nature of a poem can best be seen in comparison with monothematic poems which do not utilize multiple motifs, themes, and descriptive passages to communicate the driving notion behind the poem. Rather, they stay on topic throughout and express the motivating idea in a straightforward fashion from start to finish. In contrast, polythematic poems engage a meandering approach to expression; at times, the motivating issue behind the poem’s composition may be rendered obscure under a layering of metaphorical passages. The decision to choose one mode of expression over the other may be a function or either poetic skill—those most familiar with the tradition will be able draw from the entire repertoire of formulaic themes and motifs—or the simplicity (or complexity) of the motivating idea. The greater the degree of conceptual complexity, the more likely it is that the poet will need to rely on multiple metaphorical digressions to communicate his or her own nuanced approach to the subject matter.  

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