Mahri Poetry Archive

Classification of Poems


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.  These are general purpose poems: they may be sung to a variety of melodies, their topics may cross the line between sentimental and occasional verse, they may be hummed in private, sang in public, or recited amongst friends and family.  They do not occupy one discrete point at the convergence of the four descriptive parameters presented below.

The opposite of this are genre-marked poems.  These poems reflect a specific cultural practice and merit a unique label in the Mahri meta-poetic 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).  In some cases, a specific meter and melody is required for a particular marked genre (reǧzīt or samʿī, for instance), although this is not always the case (such as the polymorphous kṣīdet).  Mahra frequently mention any number of different melodies (ie., metrical patterns) when asked about the different “types” of Mahri poetry.  This can lead to the perception that certain melodies such as lawlī, yēd w-yēd, hēd w-hēd etc. are, in fact, distinct poetic genres.  However, many of these melodies are metrically interchangeable and their utilization may reflect nothing more than different regional singing traditions or the personal inclination of the performer.  For instance, the hēd w-hēd melody is characteristic of Sayḥūt; Mahri speakers from elswhere in al-Mahra may use a different, though isometric, melody in the performance of the same poem.  Therefore, the melody selected to accompany a sung poetic performance is not always indicative of intrinsic, genre-defining characteristics within the poem itself.

The most common genre-marked categories of Mahri poetry (primarily from al-Mahra in Yemen) can be found here.       

Since most of the poems in this archive do not appertain to any one of the marked genres, I have also classified the poems in this archive according to four, formal parameters: line length, topic, poem length and performance.  The first three parameters are intrinsic to the poem; the final parameter may vary according to the type of performance I was able to record.  However, some marked genres incline towards certain performative modes.  ʾAhāzīj, for instance, can only be sung whereas collective reǧzīt must be chanted.

For example, the poem Advice for Ǧwāher is classified in this archive as follows:

Line Structure: Hemistich

Content: Sentimental, Specified Referent

Length: Multi-line Monothematic

Performance: Sung

Poems that exist at the intersection of these four parameters, {Hemistich/Sentimental Specified Referent/Multi-line Monothematic/Sung}, generally belong to the genre-marked category of šemrēt: lyric songs written in praise of a specific, prepubescent girl that are meant to accompany her as she dances at night-time parties and celebrations.

As the example above indicates, all poems belonging to the same marked genre lay at a common intersection of the four parameters.  For example, all poems belonging to the  reǧzīt genre can be described as follows:

Line Structure: Tristich

Content: Occasional

Length: Couplet

Performance: Collectively-performed reǧzīt are always chanted; individual reǧzīt couplets are generally recited.

The classificatory scheme presented in this archive does not reflect a native Mahri conception of what their poetic traditions include or are capable of.  The only terminology that my Mahri consultants used were specific to the genre-marked categories of Mahri poetry.  In abstract classificatory terms, I twice heard a distinction between occasional poetry (Ar. “yūjad ḥadath muʿayyan”) and sentimental poetry (Ar. “lā yūjad ḥadath”).  Most Mahra, poets and non-poets alike, often described poems according to the melodies by which they were sung.  However, as I mentioned above, labels based on melodic signatures could vary from region to region and from singer to singer – all that matters is syllable-count per line.

Due to the lack of a native meta-poetic framework covering every poetic possibility, I have found it necessary to invent my own classificatory system in order to make navigation of this archive possible.

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