INTRODUCTION TO THE GHAZAL
WHY WRITE A GHAZAL?
To put it simply, the ghazal is incredibly fun to write. If you’re new to the form, don’t let its intricacy intimidate you. After all, there’s a reason the form has lasted for centuries and has been embraced by poetry lovers across the world. Its restrictions belie an exhilarating freedom not found in other kinds of poetry. It becomes a liberating sort of puzzle. Below, you’ll find a condensed how-to for the Persian ghazal. In our essay archive, you can also learn about Arabic and tercet ghazals.
There are a thousand shades of ghazals, but for a common understanding, we refer to Agha Shahid Ali’s “Basic Points.” (You can find the full text in the ghazal anthology he edited, Ravishing DisUnities.) To define this thousand-year-old form, we rely on a few characteristics that have stood the test of time:
- A traditional or free ghazal has at least 5 end-stopped couplets. (Repeat: no enjambment between couplets. A caesura or end-stop between the lines of couplets is common.)
- Couplets are autonomous. They need not tell a single narrative, share a single voice, or use common imagery. You can even think of each couplet as its own small poem. They’ve been described as beads on a necklace: separate elements that combine to create a beautiful whole.
- The poet often refers to or addresses herself (or an alter ego/pen name) in the last couplet, directly or through word play.
A TRADITIONAL PERSIAN GHAZAL
In addition to meeting the above guidelines, a Persian ghazal in English throws in a few more requirements. (Explore examples)
- The defining characteristics of a traditional ghazal are its rhyme and refrain. The refrain can be a word or phrase. The rhyme appears directly before the refrain. Every couplet ends with the rhyme and refrain. In the first couplet only,
both lines end in the rhyme and refrain.
- Every line of the poem shares the same meter or syllable count.
- A ghazal doesn’t always follow every rule!
John Hollander famously outlined the constructs of the ghazal in a ghazal. The form has taken varied shapes throughout the years and throughout the world– and it continues to change. (Learn more and explore examples of Arabic, free verse, tercet, and experimental ghazals)
Ghazal is pronounced with a hard g (so it& sounds like guzzle) or a throaty h. Either way, ghazal rhymes with puzzle. Its root is Arabic for talking to women.
A GHAZAL’S PERSONALITY
A ghazal is at once boldly direct and alluringly mysterious thanks to the autonomous, aphoristic nature of its couplets. A ghazal is often preoccupied with love, death, and mysticism — not to mention loss, longing, laughter, and lust. The beloved takes many shapes, including a lover, the world, or a higher being. While romantic and passionate, the poem can also be delightfully epigrammatic with an irreverent sense of humor. Don’t be surprised if you catch glimpses of wine, roses, candles, birds, war, prayer, politics, jokes, deathbeds, and kisses in your ghazal.
ORIGIN & HISTORY
The origin story opens with the birth of the Arabic ghazal around 700 CE. Enter the durable Persian ghazal, perfected by poets in what is now Iran, including Hafez (Hafiz), the great 14th century bard of Shiraz. (It’s said that in Iran, every family owns a copy of the Koran and a copy of the Divan of Hafez. Only one of them is actually read.)
While the genre spread through the Middle East, it made its way to Europe through al-Andalus (Spain) in Europe’s Middle Ages. In this haven of religious tolerance, poets of different faiths learned from one another, and Jewish artists canonized the imported form. At the same time, Urdu poets were taking the stage. Perhaps the best known Urdu master, however, is a more recent writer, born around 1800. (The genre remains popular in Pakistan and India, both in poetic and musical form.) Meanwhile, another great writer, Goethe, stoked its popularity in Germany in the 1800s.
The Americas, it must be said, were late to the game. Despite a handful of practitioners (including Lorca and Hollander), the form had yet to find its champion. Then a Kashmiri-born poet finally shined the spotlight on the English language Persian ghazal. We ghazalkars in the Americas owe Agha Shahid Ali an enormous debt of gratitude. Before his death in 2001, Ali edited the seminal anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. It’s impossible to anticipate how this wandering, adaptable, hardy form will evolve in coming years. The only thing that’s certain is that the curtain hasn’t closed on the ghazal.
By Holly Jensen.
For a more in-depth exploration, check out David Jalajel’s history of the ghazal.