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.


  1. kabhi aasan nahi lagta kabhi muskil nahi lagta
    naa jane aaj kal mera kahin kyon dil nahi lagta

  2. fail jayega aankh se kazal tera
    na kheech haath se daman tera

  3. Anand, I am unable to translate the Cebuano to English, although I recognize these as Ghazal couplets. Can you provide translations?