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What’s a Ghazal?

Introducing the ghazal, part 1

The ghazal is the oldest poetic form still in use. The word ‘ghazal’ is pronounced “guzzle” in some languages and “gu-ZAHL” in others, though in both with a guttural “g” almost like the “ch” in “Bach.” Supposedly, the name comes from the sound a wounded gazelle makes as it dies. The form has roots in Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, and Hebrew. It remains popular as a sung form in parts of the world where the distinction between poetry (words for the spoken voice) and song lyrics (words for the sung voice, with specific melody) is not so distinct.

The formal aspects of the ghazal were well known in English by the 1920s, however, with the free verse translations of ghazals in the 1960s, most Western writers thought of the ghazal as a way to describe a series of disconnected couplets. Starting in the 1990s, Agha Shahid Ali began to insist on the formal restraints of what he called the “real” ghazal. You might object here—perhaps insisting that free verse poem is no less real that a formal poems, but I promise— if you had met Shahid, you would have instantly been charmed, and agreed instantly. If you had met Shahid, you would also have written at least three or four ghazals by now.

The form is established by the first couplet. There is a rhyme and refrain that appear at the end of both lines of the first couplet. So here’s the first couplet of a Agha Shahid Ali’s poem ‘Tonight’:

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

The rhyme is “ell” (spell/ expel). The refrain is “tonight.” The first couplet establishes the form, but in every other couplet, the rhyme and the refrain only appear in the second line.

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”—to gem—“Me to adorn—How tell”—tonight?

And so on. In the last couplet, it’s traditional to somehow address yourself or make reference to your name or identity. Here is the last couplet from this poem:

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

None of the couplets should be related, in the sense that you don’t tell a story or meditate on a single problem. Rather, each couplet has to start from semantic scratch, held together only by the rhyme and the refrain. Each couplet approaches the idea of “tonight” in some way—almost always melancholic.

So, other than the fact that it’s super cool (and we all agree that it’s super cool, right?) would you want to write ghazals? Well, because when you’re off with Kathryn writing sestinas you’re learning one kind of obsessive focus. In the ghazal you learn the opposite kind of obsessive focus.

Writing a ghazal is like looking in a broken mirror. The refrain determines the subject, but each couplet is like one of the shards of glass. You see the idea of “master” over and over again, but always from a different perspective or lens. The ghazal undoes the unities of voice, narrative, and argument that we are used to in the West. It frees you up to approach the subject from different angles, from different places. You can build up without having to stay in line. You can approach from as many angles as you want. It makes experimentalists of us all.


Write a ghazal! Then upload it to the ‘Show Us Your Poems’ group

Further reading:

Stephen Burt on the poem ‘Tonight’
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Image credit: Ian Broyles