Friday, May 31, 2013


Artifacts speak to us.
Objects can tell us their stories.

What does this item in front of you say to you?

What happened to the object you are holding before it came to you?

What does this object want you to know?

Who owned this object, or looked at it,  or held it, or lost it, or stole it, or hid it, or created it?

In Bring Life into Learning: Create a Lasting Literacy,  Donald Graves suggests that one way to study and understand the times that have come before us is to interrogate the objects from those times,  to ask questions of the artifacts that were used and produced by the people who lived in those times, to engage in conversations with the things that represent the culture and art, the history, the science--the lives lived in that time.

He suggests that we also question the characters who used the artifacts to gain a better understanding of their motives, their wants and needs.

According to Graves  we ask about :
  • Point of View  or Particulars 
What does this person want as she encounters and engages with others?  What is this person's passions? What are the objects this person uses in pursuit of her passions, her wants and her needs?
  •  Polarity
As two people and their individual points of views meet, what choices do they make?  What conflicts do these points of views and choices create?
  • Paradox
As these two people meet how do their opposing positions lead to conflict and places where they are unable to resolves issues? 

In addition, we might ask general questions as we speculate about characters and their respective objects:
How do objects play a role in the particulars, polarity and paradoxes?
What conclusions can we make? 
What evidence is revealed in the details that support us in understanding a character's actions and the story's (history's) meaning?
What does this character want? Why does he want or need it?
Who opposes the character?
Does the character do anything inconsistent?
What is this object? What is its function?  How does it relate to the character? 
What does this have to do with me?
One of my favorite books exemplifies this speculative questioning process. 

 In Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat?, Nancy Patz engages in questioning a lone, unlabeled hat displayed in a glass case in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. 

Through progressively more detailed and probing questions, she speculates about the woman who wore this hat, her life...and her death.

Who was the woman who wore the hat I saw in the Jewish Museum? When did she buy it, and where did she wear it? I wonder if she wore it the day she left home the last time, that cold, cold day when the Jews were arrested in the Square. It could have been my mother's hat. It could have been my hat . . . or yours. 

Deborah Meier founded the Mission Hill School in Boston, which teaches the following habits of mind as useful for effective democratic participation and deliberation in approaching problems, as well as in the academic disciplines :

1.  Concern for Evidence  ( How do you know that?)
2.  Relevance and Impact  (Who cares?  Why should I care?)
3. Connection  (How is this connected to other structures, forces and facts?) 
4. Viewpoint or Perspective (Who said it and why?)
5. Conjecture and Hypothesizing ( How could it be different? What if? Supposing that . . . )

These questions can easily be adapted and applied as we think about characters, real or imagined, in history, science, culture, and our own lives.  These questions can also be applied as we consider related objects  connected to these same characters.

More about her work, the habits of mind and the Mission Hill School can be found in Democratic Education in Practice: Inside Mission Hill School by Matthew Knoester

For an expanded list of Habits of Mind questions click here.

For a related prompt and two poems in which I question a grey work glove and also a frayed rope,  see  Who Wore the Hat? in Deeper Writing (Chapter 2- pages-67-71)

What are artifacts saying to you?
What are they trying to tell you?
Ask them.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Select an object to examine closely-- to interrogate.

Write a series of questions that speculate about the history or origin,  purpose or function, ownership or creation of this object?

What emotions does the object evoke?
How is this object connected to your own life?

Write your speculative questions in the form of  a personal narrative, essay or poem.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


I collect things.
I collect moments and the memories held in things.

I have collected rocks and stones since I was as little girl. My most precious and prized rocks have been kept variously in drawers, special boxes, and more recently, a red velvet bag.   My father has a Masters Degree in geology, so I was constantly in his face asking What kind of rock is this?
There is something mystical and magical about holding a stone( or any object) in your hand, feeling its history and imagining all that it has witnessed.

If you collect stones, then it is obvious that you would also want to hold your prayers in your hand-- and so I also collect rosaries --stones on a string, beads (or bedes--which is Old English for prayer) in my hand, ropes of knots, or other indigenous and wonderful materials (Lava rock and seeds from Hawaii, seeds from the garden of the Abbey of Gethsemani, wooden beads from Jerusalem, rose petal beads from a friend who knows I collect rosaries, silver, etc.)

I make rosaries, as well.
For those who are counting beads--these that I made as gifts for folks are Anglican Rosaries (33 beads)

I had always wanted a Pandora bracelet since the first minute in 2003 this product was introduced in the United States.   I saw a catalog for it--pages and pages of charms (beads). When I retired from teaching, my staff at Salem Elementary gave me a Visa gift card.  Instead of frittering it away on a variety of things, I decided this was the moment to begin my Moments collection with  Bracelet number one and few charms.  Thus begin the collection/addiction.

For my sixtieth birthday, my husband gave me a Pandora necklace on which I can wear one or two or three beads ---so the collecting  continues....

I recently discovered a a beautiful new book that affirmed and delighted my collector's heart-- a book that honors the moments and memories held in small things.

The Matchbook Diary by Paul Fleischman gives glimpses into the life and memories of a man as he shares with his great-granddaughter. As she looks around a room filled with many wonderful and interesting objects, He invites her to pick...
Pick whatever you like the most. Then I'll tell you its story.
So the story begins. She selects a cigar box which contains dozens of matchboxes--his diary.  Each small box contains and item or two---and a memory--and a story.  

As each box is opened its story unfolds  and colorful images give way to the sepia tones of his remembered experiences.

Click here to access a companion guide for this book including a letter from Paul Fleischman about the origin of the idea matchbook for this book, as well as related writing ideas.

Sometimes it is rooms or shelves that hold our memories.  In Denis Horgan's case it is his desk which includes many significant objects.  One of those objects is a rock found lodged in a
car windshield on September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center.  Each personal essays in Flotsam: A Life in Debris is about one of the objects on his desk.

In Show Way , Jaqueline Woodson shares the quilts that hold her families stories-- her history.  The bright pieces of cloth tell of pain and sorrow, death and separation, births and celebrations.  The quilts, the fabric remnants pieced together, hold her inherited memories and allow her to tell her story to her daughter.

Can an object bring back a lost memory?

That is the theme explored in Wilfrid Gordan McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox.   A young boy who lives next to a nursing home collects a number of objects in an effort to help an elderly woman who, according to his parents " has lost her memory", to regain her lost moments.  The objects he brings her do, indeed, help her to remember bits and pieces.This poignant tale treats the loss of memories and aging in a delightfully, non-patronizing way.

In our writing group last night, several Columbus Area Writing Project teachers wrote about our own collections.  Our collections and our writing were as diverse as we are.

One person wrote about her ongoing collections of books-- a third floor was built to hold it.  As she read, she constructed and sorted shelves of books with her words that we could see, as if we were in that third floor.

Another wrote about not collecting as a result of the collections of her parents taking over their house, the lives, and their thoughts.  Inadvertently though, she actually and quite accidentally began collecting greeting cards, notes from parents and students and other correspondence--all an affirmations of her life and her work.

I am still immersing myself in ghazals, (see related post Guzzling Ghazals) so my response followed that path:

Ghazal #4- On My Arm
 I collect moments of my experiences and life --cold on my arm
I recollect each moment of joy and pain and strife of old on my arm
I wander the world- my small part of it anyway-- collecting
Bits and pieces, beads of silver, and maybe a little gold on my arm.
The heaviness anchors me to earth and to the ones who walk with me
The reflected shine –tying me to the sun and the moon and the stars --glowed on my arm
As I grow and tarnish, so the beads grow dark-- and then re-silver again
I recount each moment  from time to time— remember each – told on my arm
Infants grab my bracelets -- instant baby-catchers- Auntie Robin show me your arm.
I wear my heart on my sleeve and my loves and lives --bold on my arm

For a related  writing prompt and additional resources see Stones in my Pocket in Deeper Writing (pages  37-42)

Today's Deeper Writing Possibility

In addition to the items listed above, I collect Kalimbas or African thumb pianos and other musical instruments from other countries.... and of course, books. 

What do you collect?  Make a list of all the things that you collect?
How did you begin to collect that item? 
Why is this item important to you?
How does this item affect your life?

Think about your collection(s).  Are there patterns and and connections between different sets of items that you collect?

Write a personal essay, narrative, or poem about your collection or one object from your collection.  

Monday, May 27, 2013


I can not read without a pen in my hand.


I have to underline, circle, and bracket the text.  I have to star and code---- and write in the margins.

A whole conversation takes place in the margins of a text.
An entirely new text begins to emerge as I progress through a book.

If you borrow a book that belongs to me, I read the book along beside  you.
If I read a book that belongs to you, I am interested in the conversation in which you engaged as you read.

Do you write in the margins of your books?
Do you annotate your thinking and leave traces of your journey through a book?

How do you document  your thinking and edges of awareness as you read?   What are your emphatic thoughts? Your questions? Your connections to other texts, to the world, to your own life?

As long as there have been texts-- scrolls, codices, handwritten manuscripts, and bound-books-- readers have jotted their thinking in the margins, added notes to themselves or to future readers, and revised their thinking on the page.

And according to H. J. Jackson in Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books we use pretty much the same methods of annotating used by our ancestor readers:

If you ask annotators today what systems they use for marking their books and where they learned them, they generally tell you that their methods are private and idiosyncratic. As to having learned them, they have no more recollection of having been taught the arts of annotation than of having been taught how to fasten on a wristwatch. If you listen to their accounts of what they do, or if you are allowed to examine their books, however, you find (with very, very few exceptions) that they reproduce the common practices of readers since the Middle Ages. These are traditional practices culturally transmitted by the usual tacit and mysterious means—example, prohibition, word of mouth. They are taken for granted as part of the common reading experience, and it looks as though they will continue so. 

Jackson presents a unique exploration of the history of marginalia, along with its cultural, psychological and emotional affects on both the writer and the reader.  This book highlights our responsiveness to books and to other readers and writers. Click here to access a PDF version of Marginalia.

In researching this topic I discovered that many readers' notes have actually been considered of value and have been published.  Jackson tells us that Samuel Taylor Coleridge occupies a pivotal position in the history of marginalia in English, for his is the name associated with the publication and popularization of the genre.

I teach one of the adult  Bible Studies in my church. The Bible that I use for teaching, has so
many notes, and references, and other annotations that I can easily and immediately find needed scripture passages or verses,  answers to questions, or related information. The notes in this current Bible were painstakingly copied over a period of a month or two from my former Bible when I initially replaced and retired  it in 1999.  Now, of course, the notes and markings have multiplied exponentially. 

There are several folks that have jokingly stated that when I die they want this Bible.

On the other hand, there are folks who absolutely will NOT write in their Bibles.

There are folks who will absolutely not mark (or deface) any book. 

Jonathan Lui is one of those people.  In his blog post a couple of years ago he writes about his New Year's resolution to get over this reluctance.

I don’t write in books. I don’t even like writing my name in them, even though my mom taught me I should...
I (now) like the idea of leaving a trail behind me when I make my way through a book. It’s like dropping a few bread crumbs or pebbles so that I can follow them on my next journey, or leaving a message for the next person to read the book. I like the idea that my library could be more than just a collection of books on shelves, but that they could actually tell a story about who I am, in my own words.
So that brings me to my New Year’s Resolution for 2011. This year, I’m going to try to get over my reluctance to mark in my books...

It is standard practice even in elementary school now to teach students how to record their thinking on the page --or to use sticky notes to accomplish the same purpose for books that are not owned by the reader.  Greta Steber of Colorado State University, in her blog post, Writing in the Margin suggests that teaching students how to produce and share marginalia should be a course staple :

Annotating is a metacognitive skill that most people have used at some point in their lives, either as a student or professionally.  According to Nick Otten (2011) "What the reader gets from annotating is a deeper initial reading and an understanding of the text that lasts. You can deliberately engage the author in conversation and questions, maybe stopping to argue, pay a compliment, or clarify an important issue—much like having a teacher or storyteller with you in the room."

So do you write in your books, do you document your thinking and the changes in your thinking,  note the elements that surprise you as your read, argue passionately with the author, or underline the important information that you never want to forget? 

 Several years ago I wrote a poem that included the ability or habit  of marking the text/marking your journey as a given right of readers.  Click here to read the poem, A Reader's Declaration published in Language Arts (Vol. 88, No. 3, Jan. 2011)  Scroll to the last page of the PDF for the poem.

I can almost hear someone asking...But what about Kindles and iPads and computers?
What is the future of marginalia?  How do we digitally annotate our texts?

Fortunately, there are many digital tools we can use that allow our obsessive marking of texts habits  to migrate to our technological companions.

On most tablets and ereaders, we can underline or highlight in a variety of colors to allow for easy coding.  ( I have to make certain I have put my pen down for this kind of reading.) We can easily add notes and comments, as well as bookmark the texts. 

In addition, excerpts of texts and our notes can be copied and shared to our favorite social media sites, promoting immediate sharing of the texts we are currently reading, as well as our responses.

As we create and read texts on our computers, we can track changes and add comments if we choose Review in Microsoft Word and utilize the options provided. This is how my editor commented and  I responded on each draft of my book. 

On the computer and on tablets there are also tools that allow us to extend our conversation with the author, ourselves, and other readers into the margins of our texts.  Some of those include Adobe Reader,  Google Docs on Google Drive, Diigo, and the Kindle Application.

One interesting iteration of this marking of texts is the capacity  to annotate conversations.

Recently I took a course with Troy Hicks and a small group of teachers from the Columbus Area Writing Project.  We met every Sunday evening on Google Hangout.  Just as lively, interesting  and essential to my learning as the actual conversation, was the back channel (or comments being typed on the side of the screen) as the conversation was taking place. 

The ability to "talk" when it was not my turn, allowed me to keep track of my responses and for all of us to see how each was responding to what was being said.  Because this is lost as soon as the live conversation is over, we quickly learned to copy and paste the notes before we closed the window at the end of our conversation. 

Is this the next generation of annotation and marginalia?

How will we preserve for the next generation our precious (or casual responses) to text?

Dirk Johnson  notes the importance of marginalia in our lives and asks this question in his blog post published online in the New York Times (Books- February 20, 2011).  Will we be led from electronic texts back to the books as he suggests?

David Spadafora, president of the Newberry, said marginalia enriched a book, as readers infer other meanings, and lends it historical context. “The digital revolution is a good thing for the physical object,” he said. As more people see historical artifacts in electronic form, “the more they’re going to want to encounter the real object.”

And finally on Brain  Pickings, one of my favorite blogs, Maria Popova summarizes the marginalia  situation:

How marginalia will live on may be up for debate, but whether they will is not — they’re simply too essential a canvas for digesting and disputing concepts, too key a voice box for our inner monologue about the world of words and ideas.
What do you write in your margins?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Pull out a favorite book from your shelf and examine the margin notes.  What kinds of markings have you made in your book? What system have you used to record your thinking and document your responses to the author and the ideas?

What do you learn about  the author, the text, and yourself from examining your notes?

Are there further notes you would make about changes in your thinking?

Do you annotate differently depending on what you are reading? Are your notes different in your novel or book of poetry from those in your professional texts?

Write about what you have learned examining your marginalia.

Just for fun, take a second look at your notes in the margin.
Can you arrange portions of your notes and/or sections you have underlined to form a poem?

Friday, May 24, 2013


Dear Writers and Readers,

Where can a letter take us?

What new worlds can epistles open for us?

What old worlds can be reconsidered in letter form?

When was the last time a letter led you to laughter?

In the previous post, Epistles and Education, we considered  practical, literary, and educational possibilities of letters.

Today we will explore additional possibilities for letters in children's books and epistolary poetic fun.

Letters are versatile and easily adapted to any mood, tone, style and purpose.

Many writers have chosen to,"re-tale"  familiar  stories, particularly fairy tales and folk stories, in epistolary form.

Alma Ada Flora gives us several such works in which familiar traditional tales are reimagined and reworked into delightful  revisions and retellings--with surprising interactions between characters from different tales woven seamlessly together-- all in letter form.

Dear Peter Rabbit
Yours Truly, Goldilocks

With Love, Little Red Hen

Reading other people's letters is a guilty pleasure--from intercepting that juicy note in middle school to finding a letter fragment  on the ground while out walking.  Last week I found what looked like tattered letter outside a nursing home where I was visiting. I was disappointed to discover only a shopping list for groceries or what may have been a menu for  a special dinner, rather than an actual letter--although, perhaps there is a poem or story in the list

The Jolly Postman or Other People's Letters by Allan Ahlberg allows us snoop through correspondence of some of our favorite fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters, to sneak a peak at what is going on in their lives, as we open the many flaps and envelopes built into this  book, and literally hold the letters in our hands. There are several additional books in this series to treat our curiosity.

The grown-up version of this snooping-through-mail kind of fun is provided in the Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine series, in which we actually open the envelopes and read the magnificently beautiful hand-painted postcards and other correspondence between two mysterious characters who have never met. Their most extraordinary story unfolds in this unique  series of novels in letters.

For a different kind of fun with letters, Mark Teague allows us to read the letters written home by Ike Larue from obedience school.   This unhappy dog tries every trick in the book to get to come home in Dear Mrs. Larue: Letters from Disobedience School

Letters can also inform us and stretch our learning in entertaining ways.

In Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James, letters written to her teacher by a little girl learning about how to take care of the new whale  she has discovered in her pond and his responses are both fun and instructive.

And then there is the most well-known epistolary poem of all time ---This is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams.  This small poem has served as a model and mentor texts for more poems, books and spoofs than than we can probably count.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox 

and which
you were probably
for breakfast 

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Click here to read a collection of poems on Tumblr using this poem as the inspiration and model.  The blog, Somewhere in the Suburbs also has a collection of parodies of this poem.
To find more just enter the title of the poem in your favorite search engine.

And of course, there are several wonderful books inspired by this famous poem. Gail Carson Levine, who has written many  fairy tale adaptations and novels, gives us Forgive me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems., in which every poem is listed in the Table of Contents as This is Just to Say. Many of these, in true and expected Levine form, are based on familiar fairytale or nursery rhyme characters and themes. Most of them will make you laugh out loud.

And finally, as we deal with false apology poems a la William Carlos Williams, we get a glimpse of responses and forgiveness in This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sideman. Click here to  access a wealth of related resources on  her website, including a reader's guide, a play adaptation, and Sideman reading a poem.

As we consider the dilemmas, the resulting apologies and the responses of forgiveness, we come full circle in our consideration of letters.

Letters go both ways-- to and from--and they are one important way we can open, continue, extend and expand conversations with others.

To whom do you need to write a letter?

To whom do you owe an apology?
Who do you need to forgive?

Wishing You Deeper Writing,

Today's Deeper Writing Possibility

Choose a favorite fairy tale or nursery rhyme character.  
To whom do  he or she need to write?

Write that letter.  You may also want to write a response.

Does this same character need to apologize to another character?

To whom do you need to apologize ?

Try writing a false (or real) apology poem modeled after William Carlos Williams poem, This is Just to Say.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Dear Writers and Readers,

As I contemplate the various ways  to write, the multitude of containers in which to capture writing, and the many intentions and approaches we might employ, I can't help but consider the versatility of the letter.

In this age of texting, instant messaging, and emails and other casual modes of communication, we may consider the letter  an old fashioned way to connect. 

But if we think beyond our digital and electronic experiences, we realize that letters actually rule more of our lives than we may want  to acknowledge-- coming often,  heralding, both good news and bad, providing valuable information and sometimes confusing instructions-- and every now and then, giving a dire warning of some sort.

The notices to renew our publications, reminders of doctor appointments, contracts to be signed, actions to be taken, upcoming entertainment in which to partake, updates on your far away friends and family, invitations, thank yous, and advertisements..... and my biggest hope-- a letter from Publishers Clearinghouse saying I have won millions. All of these and more come to us in the form of letters.

Beyond letters as everyday life and practicalities, I love literature and other creative texts written in  the epistolary form. 

 Epistolary novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker leads into the lives of Celie, her sister, and Mister through Celie's poignant letters.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by  Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows, also an epistolary novel, is a wonderful tale of the island of Guernsey during the German occupation, and of a society book lovers as extraordinary as its name. 

The possibilities of the epistolary novel are endless.  It always amazes me how a story can be woven through the letters and result in as rich an experience as traditionally structured novels.

The epistolary form has been important in other forms of literature.  Poets have penned epistolary poems, and writers have traditionally written  personal letters about their work.
 Click here to read  samples such letters and poems, as well as more about epistolary forms. at Poets.Org

In an entirely different realm of composition, letters can be effectively and creatively used to record and report academic work

Earlier this year I read and thoroughly enjoyed a rather uniquely written dissertation, Seeing Red-- A Pedagogy of Parallax: An Epistolary Bildungsroman on Artful Scholarly Inquiry by Pauline Sameshima. In this epistolary novel, doctoral student Julia,  writes letters, sometimes subtly steamy, to her advisor, Red. Woven into those letters, are also her theories and research about teacher education, as well as the mosaics she creates, and bits about her life outside of her studies.

Speaking of  world - renowned Brazilian education scholar Paulo Friere, his widow, Ana Maria Araujo Friere notes his affinity for letters:
... Paulo liked (letter as a  communication form) so much because he believed it was a way to better dialogue with readers.  Through letters one could more truthfully and easily reach the very marrow of the heart and reason. 

Sonia Nieto required  Paulo Friere's books as texts in her courses with teachers and also required letters as a means of engaging in critical dialogue with his ideas and entering into reflection of his work.

 Nieto has collected and edited letters written by her students written in this context  in  Dear Paulo: :Letters from Those Who Dare to Teach, which becomes a perfect partner text to Friere's own epistolary text, Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare to Teach

How can we incorporate letter writing into the educational process?  

Can students write letters to the teacher or each other to explore, clarify, define and refine their thinking?  

Can they begin a series of letters to document the development, changes and growth in their learning and thinking?  

Could these letters in some way become part of a portfolio or be used for in some other manner to evaluate progress?

How else could we use letters? 

To whom do you need to write a letter ?

What ideas  do you need to explore in epistolary form?

Wishing  You Deeper Writing,


Today's Deeper Writing Possibility

Consider the possibilities for the letter in your personal life.  To whom do you want or need  to to write a letter?

How will this form enhance your communication?  How might it hinder your communication?

Consider academic or professional-related ideas with which you have recently been engaged.

How can you explore these ideas in letter form?

How will this form enhance your exploration? How might it hinder you exploration?

Write your letters and, if appropriate, actually mail them.

Monday, May 20, 2013


On March 6, 2013, the Poets.Org poem of the day, Ghazal: In Silence by Mimi Khavati,  arrived in my inbox. reigniting my ongoing fascination with the ghazal-- a poetic form dating back to  seventh century Arabia or earlier- -and of which one of my favorite mystic poets, Hafiz, is the master of the more common Persian style.

We also find ghazals written in Arabic, Hindi and Urdu, as well as German, Hebrew, Turkish, and other languages-- and more recently English.

I first read about this form in one of my staple books of writing exercises, The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell.  One exercise created by Agha Shahid Ali described this form and aroused my curiosity.

After this recent welcome reminder, I have been immersing myself in ghazals--- guzzling ghazals at a frenetic pace.

I began by reading all  the ghazals I could find online, along with information about the form at Poets.Org.  Click here to read Poetic Form: Ghazal.  There are several sample poems at the bottom of this page, including one of my favorites, Even the Rain by Agha Shahid Ali.

For more of Ali's ghazals see Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals.

I was delighted to find John Hollander's Ghazal (bottom of the page),as well as slam poet Patricia Smith's Hip Hop Ghazal 
(middle of the page). Both of these broadened the spectrum for me of what could be done with this form.

I am currently reading, studying, and thoroughly enjoying Ravishing DisUnities: Read Ghazals in English edited by Agha Shahid Ali.  

In this collection, he has gathered ghazals written in English. Each one I read teaches me more about the possibilities of this form. 

His introduction provides background information, instruction, and commentary from a non-western point of view.  He forces me to take a closer look at the form and carefully to consider its cultural context. He states:

The ghazal has a stringently formal disunity, its thematically independent couplets held (as well as not held) together in a stunning fashion.

So what is a ghazal?

At first glance, it seems simple.  A ghazal is a set of couplets--each autonomous, a complete thought, a theme unto itself,  able to stand alone in the poetic realm.

The disunity described by Ali is gathered up into the form---dictated by tradition, chosen by the poet, and adhered to for the remainder of the poem. 

The form itself propels the poet forward, pushing us, with her through the tension of the form, through the rhymes and refrains chosen at the beginning in the very first couplet.

For me, it is this building, this climaxing, this power moving  through form-- bound by the chains of the rules, yet free to cry out deepest pain, devastating confusion,  miraculous hope,  and celebratory joy-- but most of all a yearning or longing. 

Agha Shahid Ali asks us to remember one definition of the word ghazal as follows:
... the cry of  a gazelle when cornered in the hunt,  and knows that death is eminent and how this connects to the traditional themes and topics.  

Agha Shahid Ali quotes Ahmed Ali: 
...the atmosphere and sadness and grief that pervades the ghazal...reflects its origin in this  ...(definition and the form's) ...dedication to love and the beloved.
So how do we write a ghazal?

What are technical rules for the classic  form? 

  • The opening or first couplet  (matla) establishes everything else that will occur. It sets up the rhyme scheme (qafia) and a refrain scheme called (radif).  
  • Both the rhyme and refrain established in the first couplet will rule each subsequent couplet.
  • The refrain will  appear at the end of the first and second line in the first couplet and then at the end of the second line of  each couplet thereafter.
  • The rhyme will occur immediately before each refrain in  the first couplet and then, again will occur only in the second line immediately before refrain in each couplet thereafter.
  • Usually there are a minimum of five couplets and not more than fifteen, although there can be more.
  • In the classic forms in Persian and Urdu each line has the same number of syllables or is the same length.   (Meter works differently for these languages, so in English I have  resolved this by attempting to make my lines the same length visually.)
  • In the final couplet or signature couplet (mahkta), the poet often includes a  first or third person self-reference- -naming himself with an actual name, a nickname or some other eponymous reference.
  • Traditionally these are entitled Ghazal, with no additional descriptors.

Despite my intense immersion in this form, I initially missed the entire rhyme element. What, instead captivated me most was the refrain. It stands out so significantly in all the samples. 

After reading the introduction to Ravishing DisUnities, however,and Ali's criticism of those who do not even attempt to include this rhyme element (many English "ghazals"), I began to read ghazals through a new lens and truly felt both disappointed and cheated if this element was missing.

Sadly,  the first version of my first attempt  at a ghazal (below) did not include a rhyme scheme, but only a refrain. It has now been through many revisions and is still not satisfactory. I am continuing to experiment with this form.
In my sample the rhyme is underlined, while the refrain is written in italics.

Ghazal #1

 I should have been born in the time,  witnessing lines and rhymes forming ghazals,
When words joining couplets sought to repeat and were at the end times, forming ghazals.

I would have danced to the songs of Indian musicians, strumming my love before my pain,
Their shocking truth and words drifting in mid-air, seeking new climes, forming ghazals

I would have eaten my heart and drunk my share of the notes of the world
Regurgitating the magic I learned, as my wisdom climbs, forming ghazals.

I might have abandoned my beloved haiku, maybe never discovered haibun, while the sonnet lay unborn,
Choosing instead spending my days reading the world watching mimes forming ghazals

They would have sung of me, danced to my melody, wished the creation of new words for me.
Red Robin, they would have begged, read us a one of your imperfect rhymes-- forming ghazals

Today's Deeper Writing Possibility

Read several of the sample ghazals provided above.

What do you notice about  this form?   What strengths? What difficulties?
What refrain rings in your ear begging to be repeated in your own ghazal?

Try writing your own ghazal. 

I invite you to share your attempts here is this space.