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Unreal Ghazals in English

When Agha Shahid Ali subtitled his anthology of formal ghazals, “Real Ghazals in English” he was trying to point out that the constraints of rhyme and refrain were what made a ghazal real.

But what of unreal ghazals? Even Shahid admitted, “I do like many aspects of the so-called ghazals” that his American comrades were writing in free verse. He just didn’t they were really ghazals.

The first ghazal I truly loved was Michael Collier’s ‘Home’. Here is the first couplet:

When I was young I couldn’t wait to leave home
and then I went away to make the world my home.

Collier skips the rhyme, and only uses the refrain. The poem is often quite clever. I love this couplet:

The agoraphobe and claustrophobe respectively
cannot bear to leave or stay inside their home.

The poem moves around, and the idea of home structures everything. The final couplet breaks my heart every time.

Never let me forget: colliers mine coal. Michael’s an angel.
In heaven as on earth the coal of grief warms the soul’s home.

Skipping the rhyme and only having the refrain is actually fairly common among American writers of ghazals. Roger Sedarat, and Iranian-American wrote an entire book of ghazals called Ghazal Games. Not surprisingly, many of the poems in the book stray from the form. In fact, his innovative ‘Ghazal Game #7: Tic Tac Toe’ plays with the refrain in the same way that James Merrill plays with endwords in his famous sestina ‘Tomorrows’. For ‘Ghazal Game #7’, the refrain is always three “o”s. Here are a few of the couplets:

On The Simpsons, a nuclear fish swims
In Springfield with his eyes like this: OOO.

My first book of poetry took ten years
To write. How much did I make? $1,000.

Is it? Could it be? Yes! A reply from
Poetry. Maybe this time… Nooo!

And then of course, if the poem has no refrain, then it is truly a “free verse” ghazal. Spencer Reece (who made the cover of the New York Times for being a suit salesman to win a major poetry prize) has a sequence in seven parts called ‘Florida Ghazals’. Here is a selection of couplets from the first section:

Down here, the sun clings to the earth and there is no darkness.
Down here, the silence of the sea and the silence of the swamp seep into our

Gay waiters examine their haircuts in the mirrors.
Perhaps tonight their pursuit of love will end in some permanence?

Juan escapes from our prison; he duct-tapes Playboy magazines to his rib cage.
With his glossy carapace, he vaults over the razor strips of the chainlink fence.

Reece weaves many of the same characters through the different sections of the ghazal. The final poem (I’ve attached a link to the full version at the end, or you could buy his wonderful first book The Clerk’s Tale—though we Americans say “clerk” to rhyme with “work,” not “stark”) is quite wonderful. It is breezy and gentle and fluid, and yet quite moving. It’s a bit like the effect of watching a moving like Magnolia with an ensemble cast that cycles through distinct but overlapping stories.

The ur-free-verse-ghazals in English are by Adrienne Rich. Asked to translate Ghalib’s ghazals, Rich’s initial free verse translations and later experiments with the form are the poems that fixed most Americans’ idea of the ghazal for many decades (until Shahid arrived on the scene). Here are a few couplets from Rich’s sequence ‘Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib’.

In Central Park we talked of our own cowardice.
How many times a day, in this city, are those word spoken?

The tears of the universe aren’t all stars, Danton;
Some are satellites of brushed aluminum and stainless steel.

He, who was temporary, has joined eternity;
He has deserted us, gone over to the other side.

The disjointed nature of the ghazal suited the sort of poetic and political struggle that Rich (and much of the United States) was experiencing in the 1960’s. Fragmentation is often a necessary form for people trying to think themselves out of ideologies and strictures that have seem totalizing. Certainly, the Jena Romantics embraced the fragment at the beginning of the 1800’s because it let them think outside the logical frameworks of the Enlightenment. The ghazal is perfect for the kind of thinking that happens in flashes of illumination, rather than in the working through of systems.



Write a free verse ghazal!


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Image credit: Anthony Fine