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When I say 'ghazal,' I mean 'ghuzzle'

Sun Aug 23 10:05:33 2009 Sat Dec 31 18:44:54 2005
I've added a detail to this description of ghazal form. Aslam Karachiwala brought to my attention remarks by Agha Shahid Ali about the relationship between the two halves of a couplet, two hemistichs of a sher, if you will. I've inserted this point in the outline below. I've revised my comment about Shahid's remarks on meter as well. Belatedly, since the revision is based on Ravishing Disunities, published a number of years ago.

I'm leaving previous notes of updates intact, providing traces of the evolution of this piece.

I strongly recommend David Jalajel's articles on Arabic and Persian ghazals. David's scholarship adds context for our understanding of the ghazal as a poetic form in English.

Sat Dec 31 18:44:54 2005
I've done a quick clean-up on this essay, after someone pointed out some problems with spacing and repeated phrases. In cleaning up, I also smoothed out some rough phrases; however, I've not changed the essay substantially from its original form. Were I to write such an essay now, it would be much different in approach and sources, although not much different in my position on the English ghazal.

Most recent revision 07 January 2001.

The first version of this article and the accompanying poems first appeared in Lynx, XI:2, June 1996.

As more poets use the ghazal form (pronounced ghuzzle), questions arise as to what an English ghazal will be. In an important and helpful article, Agha Shahid Ali argues for a strict adaptation of the Near Eastern form, including the monorhyme (qafia) and refrain(radif). On the World-Wide Web, Abhya Avachat gives an almost identical definition, with examples in Hindi.

Based on Ali and Avachat, here are what I understand to be the basic features of a ghazal in Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, etc.:

Poems published in English as ghazals usually have only the first feature—disjunct couplets. Agha Shahid Ali, however, insists that a poem cannot be a ghazal without inclusion of all the features. He especially insists on the radif/refrain. As just said, he doesn't mention meter. Avachat does say that sometimes the radif is omitted. John Drury's description ofthe form, like others I've seen, is not clear on these specifics, but does encourage experimentation.

It is clear that, in Persian, Urdu, Hindi, etc., the ghazal is a specific and demanding form. While I sympathize with Ali's impatience with American poets using the term for poems that don't fit the traditional definition, I have some questions and comments about the adaptation of the ghazal to English.

I first read about ghazals in Lynx, in a short note which presented them as having "jumps" between couplets. I found the idea provocative; it lead me to write a number of poems which I have called ghazals. Perhaps that is not the best term for these poems, but it does indicate something about their intention. Another poet recognized a poem I read publicly as a ghazal (even though it lacked radif/refrain), which indicates that there is something already recognizable about the ghazal as an English form.

The German Romantics were interested in ghazals. Schlegel and Goethe wrote them. August, Graf Von Platen (1796-1835), published a collection, Ghaselen in 1821. Here is a couplet (matla) from one of his ghazals, with an English translation by Edwin Morgan.
Du bist der wahre Weise mir,
Dein Auge lispelt's leise mir;

Truest of sages are you to me,
Your eye speaks softly true to me;

Graf von Platen used both both monorhyme/qafia and refrain/radif, and the translator has replicated them in English.

In a recent collection of poems, The Country Without a Post Office, Agha Shahid Ali includes three ghazals. Two of these are original in English. Both use the radif/refrain and one of those, a qafia. Metrically, they are longish (six to seven feet) iambic lines. Both poems are good examples of what a traditional ghazal in English can be.

Hemant Kulkarni, M. D., from Nagpur in Central India, has also shown an interest in ghazals in English and a concern that English ghazals observe the form properly. His essay in Lynx, "The Philosophy of Ghazals," de-emphasizes the Discontinuity between couplets, stressing that there is "some thread of connection" between successive couplets. A study of the connections between links in traditional renga can suggest some of the ways couplets in a ghazal can connect. Dr. Kulkarni's essay has valuable information and insights.

Dr. Kulkarni's English ghazals show how the form can look in English. Here are the opening (matla) and closing (makhta) couplets of one of his ghazals:

I hate to think of the day that gives me pain at night
But I still recall the Sun that used to rain at night.
. . . . .
Not only have but live all your dreams dear 'Friend'
Did Kekule not observe the snakes in chain atnight?

Lynx publishes ghazals by several poets, notably William Dennis and Bruce Williams, among others exploring the form in productive ways. Jane and Werner Reichhold are also working with ghazals, as well as encouraging the form in Lynx.

Several well-known poets, including Adrienne Rich, Jim Harrison, and Denise Levertov, have worked at least briefly with ghazals. It seems to me, though, that the more recent poets working with ghazals are engaging the form more seriously than the earlier efforts in English.

The issue of Lynx with Dr. Kulkarni's essay and ghazals also has an essay by Harsangeet Kaur Bhullar which describes the place of ghazals in Indian and Pakistani popular culture, as well as describing the form.

Having read these various pieces on ghazals, I want to make the following suggestions about ghazals written in English:

I would hate to see the English ghazal so confined by formal restrictions that it would be a minor form, used only for poets to demonstrate their technical cleverness (rather like sestinas or villanelles). I believe the ghazal promises to be a major form in English poetry if given room to sink the roots of the English language in its various flavors.

I have been experimenting with the form in a strict sense. I'm finding that selection of the radif/refrain sets an important tone/direction for the poem and helps engage my imagination.

AHA Books Online has published a collection of 30 of my ghazals. Both free and traditional ghazals are included. There are also what I call "parasyntactic" ghazals, one or two with qafia and radif. The parasyntactic ghazals are composed of individual words selected for sound, rhythm, and connotation, but arranged so that no syntactical structures arise. These ghazals are intended to suggest, to supply the reader's imagination almost-meaningful (referential) patterns.


Agha Shahid Ali. The Country Without a Post Office. W. W. Norton & Company. 1997.

Agha Shahid Ali. "Ghazal." Published in Slate, March 28, 2001.

Agha Shahid Ali. Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English. University Press of New English and Wesleyan University Press. 2001. See especially "Basic Points about the Ghazal," pp. 183-184.

Agha Shahid Ali. "Transparently Invisible: An Invitation from the Real Ghazal." Poetry Pilot, Winter 1995-96: 34-35.

A. J. Arberry. Hafiz: Fifty Poems. Texts and Translations Collected, Introduced and Annotated by Arthur J. Arberry. Cambridge University Press, 1953.

A. J. Arberry. The Spiritual Poems ofRumi. 2 vols. University of Chicago. 1968; 1979.

Abhay Avachat. What Is a Ghazal?

Harsangeet Kaur Bhullar. "Ghazals: Alive and Well,"Lynx, XII:2 (June 1997): 87-92.

Gene Doty. Zero: Thirty Ghazals. AHA Books Online. 1998.

John Drury. Creating Poetry. Writer's Digest Books. 1991.

An Anthology of German Poetry from Hölderlin to Rilke. Edited by Angel Flores. Doubleday Anchor Original. 1960.

Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr, trans. The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz. White Cloud Press. 1995.

Hemant Kulkarni, M. D. "The Philosophy of Ghazals," Lynx, XII:2 (June 1997): 78-81.

Hemant Kulkarni, M. D. "Ghazals," Lynx, XII:2 (June 1997): 82.

Alex Preminger, ed. Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press. 1965. Articles: "Arabic Poetry," "Ghasel" [this is the spelling used in this source], "Persian Poetry."

Annmarie Schimmel, trans. Look! This Is Love: Poems of Rumi.Shambala Centaur Editions. 1996.

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