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Satisfying the Ghazal Mind, Part I: Shers

Tree Riesener

Since so many have written with depth and clarity about the ghazal, I am diffident about offering more thoughts on this type of poetry. However, I'm doing just that as a contribution to our lifelong endeavor of exploring the inexhaustible riches of this form.

For those who are new to the form and are wondering what choices to make as they write, I hope my experience, and the experiences of readers who may offer commentary, will be helpful. In Part I of this essay I will address the unity and disunity of the shers; in Part II, to follow at a later date, I will address the discipline of the qafiya (the rhyme just before the last word/s of the line) and the radif (the repeated word/s that end both lines of the first sher and the second line of each succeeding sher) acting upon the shers.

My comments especially explore the "Englishing" of this ancient Arabic-Persian-Urdu form, trying to say how far one can go with variations and yet still offer poems as ghazals rather than free verse couplets. Although I am not a speaker of Urdu (or other languages in which the ghazal has a rich history), I am told that even in these languages there is interest in modern variations.

The Ghazal Mind

For my title, I have coined the expression “the ghazal mind” to describe a reader’'s/writer'’s expectations and preparedness to receive thoughts written in the ghazal form. The greater the reader'’s/writer'’s knowledge of the history and development of poetry written in the ghazal form, the more able they are to appreciate various tools that fulfill the underlying structures that, even in variation, support the poetry, by which I mean both the freedom and allusiveness of the shers and the discipline of the appropriate qafiya/radif, all necessary if a ghazal is to achieve its full promise and be satisfying to the reader (and possibly to the writer).

Accordingly, someone reading a supposed ghazal who finds appropriate structures, consistent meter, use of qafiya/radif but also finds the story of a romance developed as a narrative, from initial attraction to final disillusion, will probably find his/her ghazal mind is not satisfied, might say, “Hey, good poem but not a ghazal, to my way of thinking.”

Comparing poetry to painting, I might say that a ghazal such as the example just mentioned would be like a painting in which the artist has a vision, has an excellent eye for color, and controls the brush strokes well but sets up a composition that is unsatisfying. A part of the “painting mind” is not satisfied. On a gastronomical level, a cook may prepare a meal that is well-cooked, well-sauced, and served on exquisite dishes with crystal and silver, but the meal will not be satisfying if the basic ingredients are boring and past their prime. A part of the “food enjoyment mind” is not satisfied. In the same way, the ghazal writer tries to ensure that each part of the ghazal, even with variation, is developed as a whole, with enough of the required elements to satisfy “the ghazal mind.”

The Traditional Disunity

Now in its approximately 13-hundredth year, for those of us writing in English, it is helpful to see the ghazal as a continuum from the strictest classical interpretation of the form to the so-called free ghazals, which maintain the allusive approach to couplets but feel no compulsion to keep other elements of the form.

For me, as for many others, the richness and depth of the ghazal greatly depends on the tension between the independence of the allusive shers, what Agha Shahid Ali called the “ravishing disunity,” and the discipline of the qafiya and radif; accordingly, the sher as an independent couplet and the unifying factor of the qafiya and radif are the key aspects of ghazals. In this essay I will explore the shers’ relationships to the radif and to one another.

To begin with, let's look at the traditional disunity of the shers. Classically, we are told that the shers are independent of one another. However, in my opinion, this viewpoint holds up better in theory than in actual practice. Once the initial sher has risen out of the poet's mind and been associated with some sort of qafiya and/or radif (or other unifying factor), which then becomes a necessary part of the succeeding shers, connection is present although not always easy to understand.

The Inevitable Unity

Propinquity breeds familiarity, like the phenomenon known to college women living in a dormitory, where gradually they all start to have their periods at the same time. Their disparate bodies have linked in some unfathomable way simply because they are living in the same space. And so with shers. When the shers fit to the same rhyme and mono-rhyme, or other unifying factor, there is connection. But the shers may still have as much individuality as the young capped Mennonite and the follower of the Stones, who are so different yet share femaleness as they live in the same residence hall.

Thinking of each sher as totally disparate may lead us in the wrong direction. I think the point is more to avoid development and resolution, except within the sher. In my opinion, it is very difficult to avoid subtle connections, once the maqta has been stated and the qafiya/radif established, and indeed, to me, gaining insight into these connections is part of the joy of reading ghazals. At the same time, however, to have the "ravishing disunity" of the shers always before the writer as a guiding light will help us to steer a true course and not fall into the trap of writing a so-called ghazal with too-great reliance on theme and/or narrative.

The Allusive Connections

It may be helpful to think of the shers in a seven-sher ghazal as being like six people in a ruminative conversation, where someone says something of a general nature about life, the world, etc. The others appear to be part of the same conversation, for somehow the first saying sparks each of them, as do the additional silences in the conversation and the accumulation of each person's utterances there in the room, but in general each may be involved in a monologue with himself/herself, until the first speaker speaks again, this time a little more personally. During this conversation, the speakers may appear to be going off on their own tangents but connections run through the liminality between their utterances. As an example, let me write such a conversation, which, I hope, in a very mundane way, will shine some light on the way the ghazal mind can work as a poet writes.

A Ghazally Conversation

(six people sitting around in a bar on a hot summer afternoon, drinking boilermakers and shooting the breeze, with perhaps a reflective silence and a few swallows between each part of the conversation)

  1. "Life is so precarious today; everybody seems to be losing their job."
    (Know it or not, this first speaker is establishing the tone of the conversation.)
  2. "I'm not sure my wife is coming back."
    (Hearing "precarious," this person relates to his immediate concern, that which is in his mind. He, as well as the first speaker, is addressing the precariousness of life; however, he doesn't relate to the subject of job loss, but to wife loss.)
  3. "Have to drive down to Tennesee tomorrow; a worry with gas prices the way they are."
    (The reason for the drive to Tennessee? An old aunt has died, the last member of the speaker's family, suggested by "wife." The remark about gas prices, a general worry, may reflect both the financial insecurity of the first speaker and the family instability of the second speaker.)
  4. "Saw a story about a solar-powered car on the news last night."
    (Responding to the comment about gas prices.)
  5. "Anybody going down to the shore this weekend?"
    (Mention of solar power has brought the idea of sunshine at the shore to mind. The southernness of Tennesee has also made the speaker think of sunshine and thus the shore.)
  6. "No sooner do the leaves stop falling and it stops snowing than you have to cut the grass and hedges."
    (A little joke but responding to the mention of summertime activities and perhaps the passage of time. At least, the speaker is worrying about the obligations of living in community.)
  7. "Yeah, I guess losing a job is pretty low on the loss scale. But as long as you've got your health and your family, right?"
    (The first speaker has circled back to the original topic, with variation, and reference to self.)

As after listening to or reading a ghazal, these people are likely to part, feeling they have had a fairly satisfying human connection, saying, "Hey, it's been great talking. Let's do it again soon."

Looking at this conversation again, with transitional phrases, we can see how the relationships worked. Once the parts in italics have been added, what looked surreal becomes a comprehensible conversation. The relationship among the shers has been formalized.

  1. Life is so precarious today; everybody seems to be losing their job.
  2. Speaking of loss, I'm not sure my wife is coming back today.
  3. I just lost the last member of my family, an old aunt. I have to drive down to Tennessee for the funeral  tomorrow. A worry with gas prices the way they are.
  4. Speaking of gas prices, I saw a story about a solar-powered car on the news last night.
  5. I don’t know about that solar power. Great for places with plenty of sunshine, but here...? Anybody going down to the shore this weekend?
  6. Got too much to do around the house. No sooner do the leaves stop falling and it stops snowing than you have to cut the grass and hedges.
  7. Well, we're lucky to have houses. I guess losing a job is pretty low on the loss scale. But as long as you've got your health and your family, right?

While it may not be true for others, for me, shers often work very much like the parts of this conversation, each succeeding sher arising out of the silence following the last sher. Trust your mind to offer something, in the same way Drano working in your pipes offers rather beautiful bursting glubby bubbles that work their way to the surface, eventually letting the water run free. Think of the glubby bubbles as shers and the pipes as the qafiya/radif. Actions and reactions are working out to let the thoughts run through the discipline of the walls of the pipe. I find that comparisons often make things clear to me. I would like to offer, in the following section, a number of comparisons for shers, in hopes that readers will add to this list.

A Ghazal Is Like ...

. . . a sparkler, with the flung-off sparks taking substance from the core; the core, glowing still, remains part of its departed sparks.

. . . a croquembouche if the mound of pastries is made of diverse cakes: jellyfilled doughnuts, baklava, crunchy sugar cookies, hunks of gingerbread, soft cakes, crunchy cakes, dry cakes, creamy cakes, each with its distinct texture and taste yet all held together by strands of spun sugar. How about making some of those cakes savory ones?

. . . tapas and the bartender keeps setting more out on the long curving bar. They are all part of the feast and the physical presentation, partake of similar natures but are very different.

. . . the primordial sea—warm, rich soup. Out of it emerge creatures, one after another, each with its distinct outline, all with the composition of the brine from which they have emerged.

. . . children running in free patterns playing tag, swooping and circling around one another, completely free except for the moment when then turn back, touch home base for a moment of rest, and then break free to run again.

. . . a family reunion, the con-man uncle, the grandmother with Alzheimer's, the beauty contest winner, the pure young lacrosse player, all bearing the last name of Ghazal and all with some sort of place at the family reunion.

. . . a tour through the streets of the medieval Marais section of Paris, where from time to time you might lose track of a nice street you're enjoying but after a few turns and around the block, you catch sight of it again, and again, and again.

. . . the gnostic idea of God, with all the spirits going out like sparks but all with the essence of God

Shers go out on adventures but they always come home again!


A call for submissions

Have you had interesting thoughts to explain the relationships among the shers in a ghazal? If so, please send them to me—metaphors, similes or any other thoughts that will help us all understand better the relationship between the allusive quality of shers and their relationship to the radif. Send your submissions to tree at treeriesener dot com (writing this address in the usual way) with your personal data (name, address, etc.) I will summarize and organize ideas for a follow-up posting.

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