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Just Add Ghazal

Introducing the ghazal, part 2

Because the ghazal is modular, it can be especially fun to write and revise. In most poetic forms, revision can feel incredibly frustrating—you change one line, and suddenly, everything else is off balance.

I once had a student send me a poem, and I told him that I loved the dream sequence, but that the rest of the poem failed to live up to the dream sequence. When he sent me the revision, the rest of the poem was great, but now the dream sequence had to go! I would never have seemed so arbitrary a teacher had he stuck to ghazals. Revising a linear poem can be like playing a game of Jenga, where you move one piece and the whole tower falls down. Revising a ghazal is more like playing with Lego blocks—everything stays put unless you decide to rearrange it.

The couplets of a ghazal can be revised on their own, moved about, and “plugged in” or “plugged out”. I’d like to suggest two ways that you can take advantage of this.

The first is writing couplets for other people’s ghazals. Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazal ‘Land’ became a memorial ghazal. Here is Shahid’s first couplet:

Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land—
There is no sugar in the promised land.

The magazine Rattapallax printed a tribute to Shahid in 2002. The magazine printed 93 couplets that fulfilled the rhyme and refrain as set forth by the first stanza. Here is Mark Doty’s contribution, which was reprinted as ‘Shahid’s Couplet’ in his book School of the Arts.

Your old kitchen, dear, on Bleecker: sugar, dates, black tea.
Your house, then ours. Anyone’s now. Memory’s furious land.

In theory, this ghazal could go on forever, and as long as people keep writing couplets for it does. Whenever I teach the ghazal, I usually ask students to write a couplet for ‘Land’, and usually write a couplet or two myself. I’ll write a couple now:

The boy sailor cries himself to sleep, writing his letter to Santa.
The captain shares the lad’s wish for the only item on his list: land.

Once I get going, it’s hard to stop. I make a list of rhymes (list, pissed, fist, mist, twist…), and I’m off. Shahid was very proud of a rhyming dictionary that was given to him by James Merrill, but I have to make do with one I bought myself.

The children play the dozens, think they can insult each other lightly.
I know better, but still. I don’t interverne until I see the first first land.

I strongly encourage you to continue the poem. I’m fairly sure that each couplet makes Shahid smile—whether or not they ever get published.

The second way to take advantage of the ghazal’s modularity comes from Denver Butson’s ‘Drowning Ghazal’. He takes a first line from a poem he likes, and then writes a second line that follows the ghazal form. So here is Butson’s couplet formed from a first line by Charles Simic:

there was a movie theater here once
a bar over there where we drank beer once

Other than the first line, everything else is by Butson. The other couplets are wonderful. Here is one:

I remember you cold feet in the bed
how we loved in front of the mirror once

Butson only capitalizes proper names, eschews punctuation, and centers the poems. While I can’t advocate such practices, I think the resulting poems are quite good.

You can borrow Butson’s technique, and perform a sort of bibliomancy. Having pulled Mark Doty’s School of the Arts off the shelf, I opened it to a random page, and found this line:

before the story winds on to the comfort of their defeat (p 82, ‘The Art Auction’)

That’s a really good line! So let me get to work:

Before the story winds on to the comfort of their defeat
We’ll have more wine, music, and tears. We share defeat.

Ok, so I’m not sure I quite lived up to Doty’s line. But now I get to write a ghazal about defeat.

We were taught to be tough, to fight, to hurt.
And now we are enemies, in our glare: defeat.

Because a ghazal allows you to approach the same topic from multiple angles, appropriating another poet’s line can press you to consider a subject you would not have considered otherwise. We often get stuck in a rut, and this exercise can help you find a new subject or topic.

So no more complaints about writer’s block! Just add ghazal!

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Image: ‘La Justice’

Image credit: Daniel Gaudard Varotto Couto