Poetry Form - The Ghazal


Ariadne's web is grateful to Len Anderson for this summary of the Ghazal and for permission to reprint one of his own Ghazals. Some books on the Ghazal are referenced for your further study.

Be sure to see Len's first book (and our review of his book) for more of his Ghazals:

Poetry of Len Anderson Affection for the Unknowable by Len Anderson.

The Ghazal Verse Form
by Len Anderson

Ghazal (pronounced "ghuzzle") is an Arabic word that means "talking to women."

History.
The Ghazal was developed in Persia in the 10th century AD from the Arabic verse form qasida. It was brought to India with the Mogul invasion in the 12th century. The Ghazal tradition is currently practiced in Iran (Farsi), Pakistan (Urdu) and India (Urdu and Hindi). In India and Pakistan, Ghazals are set to music and have achieved commercial popularity as recordings and in movies. A number of American poets, including Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin, have written Ghazals, usually without the strict pattern of the traditional form.

Form.
A traditional Ghazal consists of five to fifteen couplets, typically seven. A refrain (a repeated word or phrase) appears at the end of both lines of the first couplet and at the end of the second line in each succeeding couplet. In addition, one or more words before the refrain are rhymes or partial rhymes. The lines should be of approximately the same length and meter. The poet may use the final couplet as a signature couplet, using his or her name in first, second or third person, and giving a more direct declaration of thought or feeling to the reader.

Style.
Each couplet should be a poem in itself, like a pearl in a necklace. There should not be continuous development of a subject from one couplet to the next through the poem. The refrain provides a link among the couplets, but they should be detachable, quotable, grammatical units. There should be an epigrammatic terseness, yet each couplet should be lyric and evocative.

For examples and more on Ghazals, see the anthology edited by Agha Shahid Ali: Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (Wesleyan University Press, 2000). Included are seven lovely Ghazals by William Matthews and a number of other fine ones.


History: did the form of the Ghazal influence the form of the Sonnet?
Editor's Postscript [JZ]: While composing the essay on the Sonnet, I asked Len if he thought the form of the Ghazal influenced the form of the Sonnet. His reply is helpful: "I have my doubts. I would guess that many other rhyming forms were common in Italy and elsewhere in Europe in the centuries before the 13th century. The Sonnet would then be a new variant of rhyming poetry. The Ghazal employs a repeated refrain preceded by a rhyme, not just a rhyme."

Len illustrates the Ghazal's form with this layout, where "1R" represents the repeated refrain preceded by a rhyme; the other lines end with non-rhyme words, represented by "A," "B," and so on:


                                  1R
                                  1R

                                  A
                                  1R

                                  B
                                  1R

                                  C
                                  1R

                                  etc.   

Len concludes: "The Sonnet also has a very unified structure while the Ghazal leaps or winds or looks from many angles as it moves from couplet to couplet and is thus much looser than the Sonnet. It is hard for me to distinguish what the Sonnet would have learned from the Ghazal when the Sonnet seems so related to other European forms. I think that's the main question: What might the Sonnet have learned or inherited from the Ghazal that it could not have gotten from other pre-13th century Western forms?"

Some books on the Ghazal

Open Ghazal
by Len Anderson

Kiss the hand and cheek, kiss the lips that open.
Kiss the eyes and tears, kiss the wounds that open.

The nuclei of our atoms are so small, we are mostly nothing.
Whoever did this made our stone walls out of windows always open.

In a thicket: A bag too dark to see, too big to lift, too familiar to walk away from.  
God grant me strength to drag it into the open.

6:10, stuck on the freeway again.
Love is singing with window and throat wide open.

My friend refused to greet the stranger in black,
was brought to the surgeon, who cut his heart open.

Go ahead, I dare you, take another breath.  Each one is full 
of what 14 billion years ago blew this world open.

We safecracker poets sand fingertips, pass long nights on our knees. 
All to feel those clicks that mean the door will spring open.

Len says, I love the night sky, but I adore the Milky Way:
It is the edge of Her robe.  See how gently it opens.

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