Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Using Poetic Forms, Part 4: The Ghazal

First of all, how is it pronounced? The ghazal exists as a poetic form in many languages, and depending on the language, it’s pronounced differently. I just pronounce it “huzzle,” to rhyme with “puzzle,” for the sake of simplicity.

Agha Shahid Ali, who played a major role in bringing the ghazal form into English.
Photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell

The ghazal can be traced as far back as about 600 C.E., in the period of Arabic literature before the advent of Islam. The form was originally a lament sung by nomadic troubadours, part of a longer poetic form called the qasidah. The quality of lamentation is still an important part of the ghazal. For more background on the origins of the ghazal, see David Jalajel’s essay “A Short History of the Ghazal.”

Like many North American fans of poetry, I first came across the ghazal through translations of the work of Federico García Lorca. That great New Directions volume of his Selected Poems first published in 1961, has several magnificent poems that Lorca calls gacelas, Spanish for ghazals. These were part of Lorca’s last book of poems, Divan of the Tamarit, a book he never got to finish or publish in his lifetime because he was tragically murdered in 1936 during the fascist coup in Spain. This book consisted of poems that Lorca called casidas and gacelas, but in reality the poems were only partially related to those forms in Arabic, which Lorca may not have known well. Lorca did stay true to the spirit of lamentation in his gacelas, and he used couplets, also a feature of the ghazal. Lorca’s embrace of Spain’s Moorish history seems prophetic to me even today, when we see Western politicians and media so often demonize the Muslim world. This is one of the reasons I find the ghazal so fascinating—it spotlights a wonderful feature of the literature of a part of the world that the West seems to have very little use for now except to make war on. For a couple of decades, the translations of Lorca’s poems stood as the only well-known model for a ghazal in English, a model that led many astray, since Lorca didn't use most of the form in his poems. (For more on Lorca, please see my essay, "Lorca's Local Modernism.")

That lack of information in the English-speaking world about the actual ghazal form changed as the result of one person: Agha Shahid Ali. Shahid was an enormously entertaining and brilliant poet who grew up speaking the Urdu language in his native Kashmir. He chose to write in English, and he became the first poet to write excellent ghazals in English that followed the form. Through Shahid’s publications, readings, and workshops, something closer to the real ghazal form finally became known and practiced in English.

The ghazal consists of a group of couplets or two-line stanzas, often on unrelated or loosely linked themes, like a series of two-line haikus. Part of what ties the stanzas together is the rhyme scheme. It’s not a “moon, June, tune” rhyme scheme, but one that involves a rhyme (termed the “qafiyah” in Arabic), directly followed by a repeated sound or series of sounds at the end of a stanza (called the “radif” in Arabic). Remember “q” comes before “r.” In the first couplet of a ghazal, this rhyme scheme occurs in both lines. In subsequent stanzas, only in the last line.

One other feature I like about the ghazal is that the poet has to mention his or her name or pen name (called a “takhallus”) in the second-to-last line of the poem, one of several features of the form that seems surprisingly contemporary for a form that is fifteen centuries old. In South Asian languages, where the ghazal has flourished, there are also very specific meters for the form.

When I began exploring the ghazal in my own writing, I had enormous difficulty trying to use a qafiyah and radif in English. That intricate rhyme pattern seemed impossible to me, and contrary to the lyrical traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I just couldn’t get my mind around this rhyme scheme, until I started to hear it in something very unlikely and very American—Broadway show tunes. I started to realize that a rhyme before a repeated sound or word is actually a very common form, not in U.S. poetry so much as in the American Songbook. Here’s part of Lorenz Hart’s great lyric to the song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”:

I’m wild again,
beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Couldn’t sleep
And wouldn’t sleep
Until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Do you see the qafiyah—“wild,” “beguiled,” “child”’—right before the radif, “again”? And then in the next verse, the qafiyah is “Couldn’t,” “wouldn’t,” “shouldn’t,” right before the radif, “sleep.” If that isn’t similar to the ghazal rhyme scheme, I don’t know what is. So many of the Broadway show tunes were penned by Jewish writers that I suspect that there is some place in history where Jewish popular song meets the ghazal. Possibly both were influenced by Hebrew prayer, maybe in Medieval Spain or Persia. For instance, the Jewish blessing for new experiences, the Schehecheyanu, includes ghazal-like rhymes, and it was written down as early at 1,500 years ago in the Talmud.

Thinking about this connection between the ghazal and popular music, it occurs to me that this link exists not just in English. In the poetry of South Asian languages, this link is very much alive. I started attending mushairas, something like the Indian or Pakistani equivalent of a poetry slam, that were held in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. When I heard these ghazals performed, I realized that poetry lovers from the Indian subcontinent don’t usually recite ghazals, they sing them. And when they recite or sing poems, they don’t read them the way English poems are read, where the audience members quietly sit on their hands and listen to each line in order: line one, line two, line three, etc. The audience participates in a mushaira, calling out during the reading, singing or reciting favorite lines along with the reader, demanding that a performer repeat a particularly good couplet over and over till they get their fill of it, repeating the radif along with the poet. And the performer does not necessarily recite a line just once. A performer will repeat lines, parts of lines, or whole couplets, sometimes out of order, often spontaneously. A good performer of ghazals will make up his or her own melody for a text that he or she likes. It’s a very creative and active process for the reciters of poetry as well. I think English-language writers and readers have a lot to learn from it.

To make the ghazal accessible to an English-speaking audience, it’s going to take a fusion of the ghazals that have been written in English so far, and the musical ghazals that are popular in Urdu. Something like a mix of the great Indian singer Ghulam Ali and Bob Dylan. There’s a potential there that hasn’t been tapped. I think we need to go back to the musical roots of the ghazal and the connection of the ghazal rhyme to American show tunes, to make the ghazal all it can be in English. For an example of my own very personal take on this, please see this YouTube video. The ghazal starts at 6:05.

If you’re interested in the ghazal form, you might enjoy reading a series of ten ghazals that I included in my book Talking with the Radio, available from Kattywompus Press.

Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer


  1. Thank yoiu for this post--very inciteful.

  2. Dear Worried Parent: Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed my blog on the ghazal. I also wrote an article in The Cortland Review that deals with ghazals:
    One of my own ghazals is featured there. My cotranslation of Maulana Hasrat Mohani's ghazal, "Silently, silently..." ("Chupke, chupkai...") can be found here: