The ghazal is a widely-used but poorly-understood poetic genre and style, originating in panegyric Arabic verse and adapted (approximately) into contemporary English poetry. In this article I will be touching on the history of the ghazal, its original Arabic form, and the various ways it's been adapted into English. I will also be spotlighting some great ghazals from deviantART and around the 'net.
Please note that the English ghazal, like English haiku, has a handful of forms and aesthetics and no one is more "right" than others; for less confusion I am sticking to the better-known aesthetics in this treatment, and especially to those more frequently seen in literary magazines. Feel free to chime in on the comments with anything you'd like to add regarding other aesthetics.
The Arabic Ghazal
Arabic ghazals ( غزليات - ghazaliyyat ) have been around a long time, much longer than any of the standard Western poetic forms - they're first found in the literature of the Arab world in the sixth century, and through the next thousand years spread into Farsi, Urdu, and Indian languages. Arabic literary poetry of the classical era consisted of fairly long, end-rhymed lines organized either into short couplet- or quatrain-length poems; stanzas of these shorter poems would be used to create a longer piece.
The lines had a fixed, visual metre that was unique to Arabic and other languages written in similar systems: Arabic writes long vowels but does not notate short vowels, so each line would have the same order of written and unwritten vowels. The lines would thus all be the same visual length, consisting of (roughly) the same number of characters. This system does not translate well into standard English concepts of metre, because vowel length does not necessarily equate to stress in Arabic words.
Long poems composed of long-line couplets were usually within the genre of qasidah, which is a term roughly equivalent to the English ode, and they were often in praise of something or someone. The evolution of ghazals out of qasidah is a bit hazy, but it seems that they began as a specific type of qasidah praising someone's sex appeal, basically. Ghazals evolved into a genre heavily focused on desire, lust, erotic leanings, and wanting things that were forbidden. This concept has continued in Urdu and Arabic ghazals in the present; Persian ghazals, especially those of the Sufis like Rumi, tended to be a bit more vague - still focusing on desire, but often under a veneer of desire for God or enlightenment. It is very important here to note that ghazals are more a genre than a form, using a variant on the pre-existing qasidah form with a new type of content.
Specific Rules for Ghazals
Ghazals later began to diverge from pure qasidah in that the couplets of a ghazal were each written as a stand-alone poem contributing to an overarching theme; these sub-poems are called sher. This is an important feature of modern ghazal - that each couplet does not pick up from the one preceding it or continue as the one following it. A ghazal consists of no less than five, no more than fifteen sher. An example of this can be found on-site in April's House by ~ThimbleIsland:
The man who would be my lover through April had a daughter.I showed her Playboys from 1999 and she grabbed at my breasts.In mid-April my lover's grandmother died in a Michigan hospital.The night before we had hurried sex on a friend's floor and in his shower.
In addition to this trend, five rules were established for the genre in Arabic literature: matla, maqta, beher, kaafiyah and radif. Each of these rules has been variably used or discarded in practice by poets, both Arabic and English.
Beher refers to the length of lines, which ties into the above metre discussion. Each line of the poem should, ideally, visually be the same length and have the same length in pronunciation. Radif is a term roughly equivalent to the English term "refrain", and it refers to each couplet's second line ending with the same word or phrase. An example of this can be found on dA in A Ghazal for Naga by ~Elmara:
My father's white sherwaani is my second skin; a security. The unknown writhes reptilian.I am fearless; the boa of memory does not constrict me, it coils, a nostalgic snake.You are another degree of descent; you speak of deserts buried beneath our Sea.There the fangs of our fathers are mountains, you say, the depths are as patient as a snake.
The radif is also used to end the first line of the first couplet of the ghazal, and this special couplet is called a matla. Ghazals can have one or two matla (with the second appearing later in the poem and usually to signify a change in attitude toward the poem's subject), but generally have one.
Kaafiyah refers to rhyme, and when used it occurs in the word before each refrain. Arabic makes rhyming a lot easier since most words can be declensed in a way that they will rhyme. An example of this can be found on-site in Ghazal by ~Agnes-Arelia:
Outside, on the street, fragile dust falls white–the pieces that wind broke off the walls white.The snowflakes are rushing to their slow deathsand the man standing next to me calls "White!"
Maqta is a rule that's considered tacky by English aesthetic, so it's one used rarely in contemporary ghazals. In maqta, the writer takes a pen-name—generally a descriptor—and includes it in the last couplet of each ghazal he or she writes. An example can be found in What is a Ghazal by ~bookbutterfly:
Let's gaze, sighingly, with long lines, at long lost loveyour heart breaking, shattering - for you, a bad song.It's not rock n' roll music, Sarah, to move in time to,yet somehow, this kind of poetry is still a rad song.
Applying It All
Generally, English ghazals pick and choose which of the ghazal conventions they want to hold, but often aren't considered a "proper" ghazal unless they consist of sher and, usually, beher. Radif is also commonly used, but matla is a bit less common; poems using radif usually also use kaafiyah about 80% of the time. As stated, maqta is uncommon because it can be easily perceived as tacky or out-of-place. Some ghazals use words that are the same part of speech for the kaafiyah, instead of straight rhyming, to coincide better with the fact that same parts of speech often rhyme in Arabic. Some write ghazals in formal metre, but most ghazals are non-metred and instead rely on line length visually and rhythm within the lines to convey beher.
Again, it is important to stress that the ghazal is more a style of poetry dealing with desire, particularly forbidden desire, than a form. Feel free to take rules and break them as you see fit, if it's working better for the poem's overall effect. Just keep the poem as couplets, and try to stick to the visual length of the lines, and it'll be ghazal-tastic.
Where To Read Ghazals
Ghazals have really become the darling of poetry magazines as far as form goes: they take up right around a page in layout, and they're not overwrought or awkwardly worded to conform to rules like sonnets and other end-rhymed forms with fixed metre tend to be. Poetry Magazine and Arc, in particular, are well-reputed magazines known for regularly publishing ghazals that both use and break the classical rules. You can find a good variety of ghazals by browsing Poetry Foundation, but there are a couple in particular I'd like to draw your attention to, as examples of using/breaking rules:
Hip-Hop Ghazal by Patricia Smith, which employs all six classical ghazal rules and has a very lusty vibe, conveyed with a strong urban voice and the use of "hips" as the refrain.
Horse Horse Hyphen Hyphen by Marilyn Chan, which uses sher and, in places, beher, but breaks most of the other rules. It stays true to the theme of lust but makes it an unpleasant thing, not a desirable one.
where are you planted by Evie Shockley, which uses ghazal conventions such as sher, maqta, beher and radif to write an autobiographical piece that breaks the typical genre of ghazal.
deviantART has a variety of ghazals kicking around too! Some of the ones that have caught my attention over the years are as follows, plus the ones quoted above:
Your Answer: A Ghazal Will I ever get to touch you again? I'm waiting for an answer
You pour out your shy love grain by grain while I'm waiting for an answer
Have your once moist lips begun to crackle? I have become parched patience
My kisses once made you writhe in pain yet I'm waiting for an answer
Where our rings were, a mark remains and in shared memories we linger
Please be true and say you will remain as I'm waiting for an answer
To what do I compare my love for thee? You sh
Ghazal -sort of-I feel like an uncoiling snake when I smile: the Python-Woman,
A serpent, an ever-ready to devour reptile, this Python-Woman
My left jaw unhinges with a pop - the Python-Woman readying
My right with a scrape - anatomy defiled in the Python-Woman
Thus enlarged, her maw is a chasm, a pit python-woman worthy
Ready to laugh or ingest or strangle in the style of a Python-Woman
Yet being snake-kind, I cannot chew, this Python-Woman to swallow
I swallow the whole, the wriggling, the infantile as the python-woman
I am reduced to flesh and fur and the scales of the python-woman until
Amber she is no more, drowned in the bile of the Python-Wom
DFC 16: A Ghazal For Morninghere! i see you there at the city top, pouring out your heart
as rain, as if the world has pressed the sky in between your heart.
i saw you bending over the apples and oranges of the fruit vendor
you left, though, quickly, and i shrugged everywhere, even my heart.
yet even as my lungs, grateful, inhaled fried tofu and exhaled surrender,
your restless moseying, and your face, rapt, sunless, stirred my heart,
which creaked, grudgingly, loud as the crooked leg of the kitchen table.
and i stopped by the window, as if i could peer into fog, into your heart
and morning, i saw you, stooping over Shanghai, looking miser
Ghazal for the AmericanI live on an island, eighteen hours into your future and upside-down.
This gives me special powers. Ie., I can drink vodka upside-down.
Warning: heavy drinking may cause phantoms. Cinematic ones.
In bold American sports cars, burning on highways upside-down.
That's how the dead roll. Like dice, or green numbers. Like cats.
Their logic is internal, peculiar. It only appears to be upside-down.
Like a cat, I observe phantoms. I am, at times, caught staring.
In ceiling-corners, the ghosts of spiders dandle upside-down.
But that's how I roll. Like cars on highways. Empty bottles. Cats.
Eighteen shots makes you a ghost. It turns me upside-
GhazalWith demons, I dwell, I'm still here
Another year in Hell, I'm still here
Time flows like streams with your happy dreams
But in pain, it's like well, I'm still here
You keep repeating: "Why don't you ask?"
I say: "Why don't you tell? I'm still here"
To the fragrant blues yonder they all have flown
With my own earthly smell, I'm still here
Her tower is tall, and my methods are frail
Just a hunchback with a bell, I'm still here
I have no excuse, what else can I say?
I was under a spell, I'm still here
Oblivious and lost, out on the road
In search of la belle, I'm still here
I made it myself, what "freedom", What "fight"?
In My p
A Future GhazalI've been watching the stars for years,
Silently looking from afar for years.
I used to dream of being a writer,
Imprinting words like a scar for years.
I've wanted to own a cozy little apartment,
I've dreamt of driving a fast car for years.
I'll have a nice little view and sip on coffee,
Maybe even run my own espresso bar for years.
I'll publish a few books and win a couple awards,
Nobody will be able to keep up to par for years.
Then my fame will grow old like the body I possess,
Due to stress and a habit of smoking cigars for years.
I'll sign my will under Kody Morris, not my pseudonym,
Spreading out my wealth, even the money
She Ran Into the MountainAlex bites off the heads of soldiers and rabbits,
their necks snap wetly in her jaws, stick to her teeth.
Hair and fur gather in clumps on her tongue, yellow
and warm against the bony roof of her mouth.
She flosses her teeth with lengths of barbed wire,
spits blood and grayed mucous onto her feet.
Her veins are like wires, blue and bending against bone.
They cross and twist into knots between her knuckles.
Once, she tasted like the sugar rot of compost; thick
and fermented, a sticky slime clinging to my fingers.
We sat in her attic bedroom on hot Friday nights,
smoking out the window, a naked doll between us.
And now she is only i
Questions For Discussion!
- Have you ever written a ghazal? How'd you find the process? What rules did you use?
- Have you read any good ghazals on or off dA? Link me up in the comments!
- Do you have any pointers for using refrains in poetry, to make it not sound cheesy? Especially when you're not allowed to enjamb the refrain into the next line?