Expressing the Inexpressible: The Craft of the Ghazal

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

IMG_1075My first encounter with the ghazal had to have happened at home where my parents played ghazal LPs on their Phillips record player, along with Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Harry Belafonte and Edith Piaf. The ghazal entered my consciousness first as music, accessible only to the extent that Edith Piaf was accessible; through melody, beat, rhyme, refrain. Later, listening to ghazals on the radio and television, I developed the sense of awe that surrounds the Urdu ghazal in Pakistan. It is distinguished as the most elevated of poetic forms and considered to be the litmus test of a true poet. When I began to write poetry, this awe for the ghazal turned into intimidation and I experienced a paralyzing fear of writing a miserable flop. I tried my hand at villanelles, sonnets, and pantoums, but it took me a long time to attempt my first ghazal. When I did write my first ghazal, at Warren Wilson, I was exhilarated. What followed was an exploration of the form as adapted in English poetry, an even more exhilarating experience, one that continues to pose more questions than provide answers. The thoughts in this essay are a distillation of my experiences of hearing and reading Urdu ghazals, reading contemporary American ghazals, and writing ghazals in English.

Let me begin with a couple of generalizations:
1. Pattern and variation are part of what constitute all art.
2. In formal verse, pattern and variation are prescribed.
3. Most forms are prescribed for, and, are arguably more suited to particular themes. For example, the Primer Couplets, a set form, are rhymed aphorisms, a sub-genre of didactics. The elegy, a mournful song, is written in the classical meter of Elegiacs: A couplet measure with the first line being a classical Hexameter and the second a classical pentameter. The haiku, a Japanese tercet of 5-7-5 syllables, is a condensed, elliptical poem centered on natural imagery, specifically related to a season.

This leads us to think that the form inherently sets up, in its template, a method to reach the poem’s maximum potential, and that form may not dictate the content of a poem but it certainly drives it. Each form provides its own particular frame, which offers to showcase the content in the best possible way by allowing and disallowing certain things. Considering formal constraints, one has to decide whether it is worth the bother to adopt a traditional form, because, experimentation aside, the eventual goal is always to make a good poem. In this lecture I’m going to talk about some of the challenges of writing a ghazal in English, and discuss ghazals by Agha Shahid Ali and Grace Schulman.

Summarizing Agha Shahid Ali’s definition in Ravishing Disunities, a ghazal has the following elements:

1. A minimum of 5 autonomous couplets, with no enjambment between them.
2. The first couplet (called the Matla) establishes the rhyme scheme for the entire ghazal which employs the same rhyme and refrain. The rhyme (or qafia) must immediately precede the refrain (or radif). In the Matla the qafia and radif occur in both the lines of the couplet, but in subsequent couplets, the qafia and radif occur only in the second line.
3. Each couplet has a stand-alone, epigrammatic quality. It is a thematically and emotionally complete unit. The sequence of the couplets could be rearranged without affecting the poem.
4. The first line can be considered to function as the octave and the 2nd line the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet. In other words, there usually is a turn or Volta when moving from the first to the second line of the couplet.
5. Each line must be of the same length (inclusive of the rhyme and refrain). In Urdu and Persian all the lines are usually in the same meter and have the same metrical length. Metrical or syllabic, a system of maintaining consistency in line length must be established.
6. The ghazal climaxes when the radif appears in each couplet. The classical ghazal has as many climaxes as there are couplets.
7. The last couplet (called the Maqta) is usually the signature couplet in which the poet invokes his/her real name or nom de plume in the first, second, or third person.

Agha Shahid Ali says of the ghazal that it is terse but “with immense lyricism, evocation, sorrow, heartbreak, wit. What defines the ghazal is a constant longing.”

The ghazal is a tradition of expressing the almost inexpressible; the unending pursuit of the beloved. Alternatively, the term ghazal (literally gazelle in Arabic) is sometimes characterized as the last cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt. One can imagine the classical ghazal artist’s concern for trying to evoke that sort of near-death desperation for the beloved. Ralph Russell, a highly esteemed scholar of Urdu literature defines the “beloved” this way:

“We can now put in comprehensive form the question, who, or what is the beloved of the Urdu ghazal? And can answer, ‘Any person or any ideal to whom or to which the poet, whether in real life or in fantasy, is prepared to dedicate himself, sacrificing himself for its (her, his) sake and willingly accepting the hostility of his fellow men as an inevitable consequence of his love.”

So the intensity of desire that the ghazal expresses could be directed to a person, or to God, or a revolution or another unattainable ideal. This desiring in the extreme gives the ghazal not only its necessary energy as a poem but its very definition. And expressing intense desire in the form of a “cry” is a hairline away from sentimentality.

The first issue we’ll explore is: How to remain true to the ghazal by maintaining a level of intensity and energy while avoiding sentimentality. Sentimentality can be caused by tone as well as by the absence of enjambment which forces the line to be a short “cry-like” or rhetorical statement, not giving the poet much of an opportunity to modify and refine the thought across several lines, via several tropes. The first line of the couplet is expected to deliver a blow, the second line, to deliver a worse blow. Ideally, there are neither any insipid, low energy moments in a ghazal, nor any melodrama. If there are any understatements in the classical ghazal, they are highly dramatized. It is a form suited less to a quiet, inward meditation, more to the ventriloquist arts of rhetoric, tragedy, romance. A ghazal is a lively drama of conflicting scenarios in which there is a beloved, a beloved whose chief role, as Ralph Russell puts it, is to be absent.

The second issue I’ll discuss is the issue of cohesion. The ghazal does not have the thematic unity or sequential mechanism of Western forms. But, as Ahmed Ali, another scholar of Urdu asserts: “atmospheric and emotional cohesion and refinement of diction hold the poem together, permitting at the same time terseness, intensity, and depth of feeling, uniqueness of imagery, nobility of language, and a high conception of love.”

In technical terms, the repetitive elements (the qafia and the radif) provide sonic cohesion. The radif’s refrain establishes a sort of loose theme in the opening couplet. With each successive couplet, the reader is primed to receive the radif with a twist. Each couplet is thus a distant cousin of another. Shahid Ali compares each couplet to a unique gem which enhances the beauty of the ghazal’s necklace but retains its own brilliance outside of it too.

Speakers of Urdu quote couplets from ghazals by Ghalib, Mir and Faiz on every occasion, in any situation, precisely because these couplets are poetic aphorisms suited for a wide range of situations that provoke an outburst. The two distinguishing features of the ghazal, intensity and disunity, or in Agha Shahid Ali’s words “Ravishing Disunities” have made unforgettable gems in Urdu poetry. On the flip side, these defining features become problematic when writing a ghazal in English for the contemporary American audience: Intensity can come across as sentimentality or hyperbole. Disunity can be disorienting in this culture where clarity is valued and expected, and there is little tolerance for obfuscation or abstraction compared to Urdu aesthetics.

Let’s consider ghazals by Schulman and Shahid Ali and see how these poets avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality and lack of cohesion:


Let’s look at the technical aspects first. Grace Schulman’s radif in her ghazal “Prayer” is “ in Jerusalem.” Her qafia rhymes with “bought.” This particular scheme is established in the Matla or the opening of the ghazal:

Yom Kippur: wearing a bride’s dress bought in Jerusalem,
I peer through swamp reeds, my thought in Jerusalem.

Schulman embraces the ghazal’s particular style by selecting a radif that is potentially lofty. The drama of history inherent in the word “Jerusalem” gives it the dynamism that a radif ought to have. Schulman utilizes a radif that carries with it connotations of the “sense of longing” and “intensity of feeling” that characterize the classical ghazal. While she lets the radif do the work of intensity, she brings the poem to a personal level by introducing the “I” in several couplets, thereby reducing the likelihood of being distant, sentimental or artificial. The result is that we witness the larger drama, the tragedies and ironies of Jerusalem not only from the assumed eye of history but from the private window of the poet’s personal experience:

My dress is Arabic: spangles. Blue-green-yellow beads
the shades of mosaics hand-wrought in Jerusalem

Using the “I,” “my” and “you” in the ghazal (as Schulman does in this couplet) has a grounding effect, balancing the loftiness of the radif. It brings the microcosmic, the modest, the small, and the contemporaneous into the larger picture of Jerusalem, contrasting a theme of epic proportions with the immediate, the personal:

Velvet on grass. Odd. But I learned young to keep this day
just as I can, if not as I ought, in Jerusalem.

The blending of the personal and the historical occurs in the entire ghazal and profoundly so in the Maqta or the final couplet:

Here at the bay, I see my face in the shallows
And plumb for the true self our Abraham sought in Jerusalem.

Referring to oneself in a variety of ways is also a typical ghazal gesture. Schulman does this as she refers to herself as a spider weaving a web:

As this spider weaves a web in silence,
may Hebrew and Arabic be woven taut in Jerusalem.

This couplet is emblematic in a way because it uses the traditional language of “prayer” -the title of the poem. But being a ghazal, the poem can and does have multiple couplets as emblems. Schulman explores the theme of being split and united, the paradox that Jerusalem poses for believers, in a form that allows for exactly that sort of poetic duality: desire for the beloved and his absence. Even though each couplet deals with a separate motif (such as Arabic poetry, Jewish spirituality, the landscape of Jerusalem, war, crossing cultures, religious icons) the poem can be said to have “atmospheric cohesion,” even thematic cohesion, thanks to the radif “Jerusalem.” With the exception of an enjambment between couplets 4 and 5, rearranging the sequence of the couplets would make little difference to the poem.

To summarize, Schulman’s ghazal avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality and lack of cohesion by: centering the poem on a radif that allows multiple related themes, thereby allowing various threads to be woven together cohesively, and, by bringing the intimate and vulnerable, the “authentic” instead of merely the assumed into the larger picture of Jerusalem’s drama.

Agha Shahid Ali

A language of loss? I have some business in Arabic.
Love letters: calligraphy pitiless in Arabic.

Majnoon, by stopped caravans, rips his collars, cries “Laila!”
Pain translated is O! much more_not less_ in Arabic.

At an exhibit of miniatures, what Kashmiri hairs!
Each paisley inked to a golden tress in Arabic.

When Lorca died, they left the balconies open and saw:
On the sea his qasidas stitched seamless in Arabic.

Where there were homes in Dier Yassein, you will see dense forests_
That village was razed. There is no address in Arabic.

I too, O Amichai, saw everything, just like you did_
In death. In Hebrew and (Please let me stress) in Arabic.

Listen, listen: They ask me to tell them what Shahid means:
It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

Agha Shahid Ali uses “in Arabic” as a radif and words rhyming with “business” as qafia. Like Schulman’s, Ali’s choice of radif is one that plays the role of a metaphor. Just as Jerusalem is used as an icon of history, spirituality, war, and a paradoxical symbol of commonality as well as differences between the three Abrahamic religions, “Arabic” is used to connote similar elevated themes. Arabic is at once a language of loss, reminding one of dislocated people (the inhabitants of Dier Yassein) and a language that has historically connected distant cultures across Asia, Africa and Europe. It is a language famous for love poetry as well as an icon of religious and political conflict, being a counterpart to Hebrew. Like Schulman’s radif, Ali’s is well-chosen for the dualities it affords.

Ali opens the ghazal with the question of whether Arabic is a language of loss. And answers that question by presenting a variety of its facets: In the first couplet Arabic is personified as “pitiless”; its form in a love letter is compared to a lover’s beauty and apathy. In the first line of the second couplet Ali seems to be describing a Persian miniature depicting the famous romance of Laila and Majnoon, a core metaphor in much of Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetry; a tradition of seeking the lost beloved in the desert. The third couplet comments on Arabic influences on Kashmiri visual art, while the fourth, the influence of Arabic on Lorca’s Spanish poetry. In these couplets Arabic appears as a surviving but a transplanted, transmuting language; something other than a language of loss. Ali ends his ghazal with a signature couplet in which he not only mentions his name but explains what it means “in Persian” and “In Arabic.”
Ali avoids sentimentality by using caesuras, thereby modifying and shading each line by various gradations in terms of image or tone: For example, the question in the first line followed by a declaration varies the tone of the speaker, making him sound real, immediate, not sentimental or distant: “A language of loss? I have some business in Arabic.” Couplet #1
The caesura in couplet#5 “That village was razed. There is no address in Arabic.” also works to give a colloquial effect so that the tragedy of the razed village comes across as moving and real; a world collapsed abruptly not unlike the line itself which is snapped into two sentences.
Ali uses quotes, parentheses, exclamations and forms of address that vary the voice and keep it unsentimental and down-to-earth, as in couplet 6:
“In death. In Hebrew and (Please let me stress) in Arabic.”
And in the maqta:
Listen, listen: They ask me to tell them what Shahid means:
It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

A perfectly “correct” poem, one that follows the form to the letter could be a perfectly bad poem if the spirit is absent. The spirit of a poem written in a given form has to fit a mould on a certain level. The form as a mould sets up expectations which are formulaic but need not be simplistic. How do these two ghazals modify the rules to their advantage? Schulman’s ghazal does not follow the rule against enjambment strictly. This allows for more fluidity, preventing the ghazal from becoming stilted, artificial, or sentimental:

My dress is Arabic: spangles, blue-green-yellow beads
The shades of mosaics hand-wrought in Jerusalem

that both people prize, like the blue-yellow Dome of the Rock;
like strung beads-and-cloves said to ward off the drought in Jerusalem.

Ali uses more caesuras than are customary in a classical ghazal. But obviously, what works gracefully in Urdu or Persian may not in English or German (the other Western language in which well-known ghazals have been written). Ali’s lofty radif is balanced by the plainspoken effect of the caesura, therefore the poem retains its emotional intensity without seeming over-wrought.

As I was selecting these ghazals, the first thing that occurred to me was that these ghazals were each others’ parallels in form and content, as if the two poets were responding to each other. In his ghazal, Shahid Ali addresses the Hebrew poet Amichai in the penultimate couplet just as Schulman addresses Shahid Ali in one of her couplets. Addressing or referring to another person, especially another poet, is a favorite move of the classical ghazal artists. It is as if this whole exercise were meant to be an elaborate conversation between poets. Indeed, the traditional ghazal was meant as much for a live audience as the reader; the mushaira (poetry reading) audience participated actively, repeating the verses, eagerly anticipating each radif and showering praise on the poet.
Both ghazals, Schulman’s and Ali’s, employ a radif that has connotations of cultural identity and therefore emotional intensity as well as complexity and paradox involving “the other.” The poets manage to sustain grandeur without being grandiose, a delicate balance. In Sara Suleri-Goodyear’s words: “the delicacy of form is precisely the miracle of the ghazal, which has allowed in its scope decadence, mysticism, history and politics_ within the elegant construction of a single line.” The cohesive element in the poems, is, as Shahid Ali articulates, “a profound and complex cultural unity built on association and memory and expectation.”