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The English Ghazal

Ghazal, as a literary form to which there is no other approximate form in any of the literatures, has long elicited the attention of poets writing in languages as diverse as German, French, Spanish, and English. That Friedrich Schlegal (1722-1829), Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866) and Von Platen (1796-1835) have written ghazals in the past is only a too well known. This practice continued in several languages, sometimes with regularity, and sometimes intermittently. What could be the reason of adopting this “alien” form, one may wonder. It could be the novelty of the form, or the great appeal of its master practitioners, or even the lure of the East and Eastern literature. Quite possibly, the wish to outgrow the confines of one’s literary tradition and domesticate the other, or even the desire to touch and try a literary curiosity might have been the other reason for attraction towards this form. The number of poets writing ghazals in the English language, especially in North America, is increasing by the day and it appears that it may soon assume the proportions of a new literary tradition.


There is an important question a practitioner of this form may need to answer: Can the ghazal be written in the same formal manner as it is, or has been written in the languages of its origin and development? The answer, for the poet, as for us, would not be too easy to give in clear terms of “yes” or “no”. It could be said that the ghazl belongs to a different/alien culture for the poet in English and it has its own formal constraints. Furthermore, it does not have an approximate model in the English, or any of the European languages, nor does it have an oral-aural system close to the English. These problems surely need the poet’s attention but they do not deter him altogether from making an attempt. The poet may make improvisations in his theory and practice, try and approximate to the source models, and re-invent the form just as haiku was re-invented in the English language.


  Considering the volumes of ghazals written during the recent past, one comes across two categories of its practitioners. On the one hand, we have poets like Adrienne Rich, Judith Wright, Jim Harrison, John Thompson, D. G. Jones, Phyllis Webb, Douglas Barbour, Max Platter and others who adhere to the form of the couplet but their ghazals do not follow the established norms of the form. They bring to use their own apprehension of the form and write their own versions of the ghazal which are different from the original. On the other hand, we have poets who approximate the original form of the ghazal. Hundred and nine poets of the latter kind are put together in a volume Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals ijn English edited buy Agha Shahid Ali. These poets follow the discipline of the form to a great extent and try to approximate to the original models for formal equivalence. The two categories, however, do not bear upon one another, as they offer studies in contrast between considered freedom and restricted license.


 In the former category of poets, a remarkable mention is that of the American poet Adrienne Rich who was introduced to Ghalib by Aijaz Ahmad when he edited Ghazals of Ghalib and brought together seven American poets to translate Ghalib to mark the centenary celebrations of the poet in 1968. As Rich rendered Ghalib in her own way for this volume, she developed an immense liking for the form which she practiced independently later on as well. She included her ghazals in Leaflets as “Homage to Ghalib” and subsequently in The Will to Change as “The Blue Ghazals”. The seventeen ghazals included in Leaflets and nine in The Will to Change were written in a short period of time and quick succession explaining to a great extent her new-found affair with a new mode of expression.


The ghazals of Rich are typically reflective of the American people and their predicament. She is able to achieve the kind of intense precision required couplet after couplet. She creates in them an inner rhythm which brings it closer to the requirement of this form. She works through free association of ideas while mapping out the contemporary and the topical, giving thereby her ghazal an identity of its own. Two shers included in Collected Early Poems may be read as examples:


How is it, Ghalib, that your grief resurrected in pieces,

has found its way to this room from your dark house in Delhi?


When they read this poem of mine, they are translators.

Every existence speaks a language of its own.


In this ghazal, as in others, the couplets stand as units of ideas and are independent of the other. Further, her ghazals comprising six couplets are untitled as the form demands and in each sher she takes a leap from one miniature to another as it happens in the ghazal. Written in free verse, they represent a mode of apprehension, characteristic of her other poetry.

  A little removed from the ghazals of Rich are those of the Australian poet Judith Wright. The following seven-couplet of a ghazal entitled “Rockpool” is an example of the continuous ghazal where one couplet enters the domain of the other and extends the idea in yet another dimension:


My generation is dying after long lives

swung from war to depression to war to fatness.


I watch the claws in the rockpool, the scuttle, the crouch—

green humps, the biggest barnacled, eaten by sea worms.


All of Wright’s twelve ghazals put together under the title “Shadow of Fire” in Phantom Dwelling and reprinted in her Collected Poems may also be read as regular poems where couplets draw upon different perspectives, and all of them, taken together, create a multidimensional picture of a larger size. Her ghazals do not have a certain beginning or end; they are like snatches from the heart of the matter. What distinguishes her ghazal from a regular poem is the potential of each couplet to stand on its own even with or without other shers.


 Among several poets writing this variety of the ghazal in Canada, remarkably divergent voices and modes of perception may be seen in Jim Harrison, John Thomson, Phyllis Webb, and Douglas Barbour. Jim Harrison published sixty five of his ghazals in Outlyer and Ghazals. His ghazals, being one of the first important experiments in this form in Canada, are essentially his attempts at discovering the possibility of expressing an idea within the limits of a two-line composition. He was aware of the rich tradition of this form in Arabic, Persian and other world languages, apart from the strides made in this direction by another fellow poet, Adrienne Rich, whose work he considered to be successful. Like Rich, he exploited the immense space offered by the ghazal for representing the contemporary condition. He also found it to be a mode of resorting to the queer, the unusual, and the personal:


 Girl-of-my-dreams if you’ll be mine I’ll give up poetry

 and be your index finger, lapdog donkey, obvious unicorn.


That girl was rended by the rapist. I’ll send her a healing

sonnet in heaven. Forgive us, Forgive us, Forgive us.


 These shers show his felicity with the couplet form and his ability to represent a condition within the limits of the two lines. He attached considerable importance to form and thought like many other poets that the form is conditioned by the content. With this awareness of how the content and the form join together, Harrison could write a new kind of poetry which inflamed the imagination of several other Canadian poets.


John Thompson, who did not live long enough to see the acceptance of his collection of carefully crafted thirty eight ghazals in Still Jack, clearly impacted two of his contemporaries. Phyllis Webb acknowledged his worth too well and attempted her own versions of the ghazal later, while Peter Sanger showed a close approximation with the poet in Sea Run: Notes on John Thompson’s Still Jack. Like other poets, Thompson also knew well of the delicacies of this poetic form and the demands it made on the poet. Introducing the ghazal to his readers in Still Jack, he showed his perception of this form when he discovered the link between couplets through their tone and nuances:


I want to wake up with God’s shadow

across me: I’m a poet, not a fool.


Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats.

Why wouldn’t the man shut up?


Phyllis Webb, another significant poet, published her thirteen “anti ghazals” in Sunday Water (1982).  The very expression “anti ghazal” explains her desire to seek a subversive way of testing whether she could express her experience in a new form. Her next collection of ghazals, Water and Light, like the earlier one, is dedicated to Michael Ondaatje who introduced her to this new form of poetry. One may, however, mark rather easily that she has both John Thompson and Ghalib in the background who make her move all through. It appears that the romance of the ghazal for these poets lies in subverting the form and the traditional content and assigning a new role to it in a new context. Two shers from the first anti ghazal in Sunday Water are fairly representative of her style:


  Four or five couplets trying to dance

 into Persia, who dances in Persia now?


  A magic carpet, a prayer mat, red.

  A knocked off head of somebody on his broken knees.


These two compositions amply illustrate her effort at negotiating with an experience of the other world. It tells, on one hand, of how she views this new form in a different context, and on the other, how this may possibly incorporate the burden of yet another kind of creative constraints. Webb is acutely conscious of her craft, as also of her need, to find a voice marked by female concern. This concern finds expression in several other ghazals of Water and Light:


I am apocryphal and received.

 I live now and in time past.


 Why poetry? And why not, I asked,

  My right brain brimming sedition.


Webb’s ghazals are most often continuous as the idea in one couple gets extended into another even though each couplet brings it full circle. In a way, she both completes and yet extends an experience beyond the confines of the two lines of a sher which underlines the possibility of writing a text differently.


 This face of the North American ghazal gets a change in its make up in the hands of Douglas Barbour who otherwise tries out the limits of sound and form in his poetry. Barbour’s ghazals seek their strength from the modulations of breath. Being a performance poet, he creates a new code of writing by bringing language, landscape, and body in constant collusion with one another. With this entirely new mode of apprehension, Barbour adds yet another facet to the fast emerging body of the North American ghazal. Reading through his work, it appears that he has been engaged with discovering a form that may go well with his ghazals. The origins of this may be seen in his Songbook (1973) which comes very close to the expression he finally appropriates in writing his ghazals which relied much on sound, breath, and action. He is also one of those poets whose shers get thematically connected as the composition progresses from one stage to another. Barbour’s ghazals seem to acquire their definite identity in the way he breathes his couplets and brings them closer to performance. He published eight of his breath ghazals in his Visible Visions (1984) which champions a new poetics. One of the breath ghazals may be considered in this context:


  poised on the knife edge between this line and the next

   the pulse in the base of my thumb, thumping


  something spills across the plate

  if you hear me, do you hear me bleed


Since Barbour is a performance poet, his breath ghazals, like his other poems, may be read as formal sequences as he seems to be engaged in writing an unending long poem -- poem after poem and breath after breath. This may be more comprehensively understood with reference to his other ghazals that he put together in his collection of ghazals called Breathtakes


The ghazals of a hundred and nine poets put together in Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English, as mentioned above, fall in a different category altogether. Daine Ackerman, John Hollander, W. S. Merwin, William Matthews, Paul Muldoon, Maxine Kumin, along with every other poet in the collection, make efforts at negotiating with the intricacies, challenges, and opportunities the form of the ghazal offers to them. There is no doubt that these ghazals, as opposed to those quoted earlier, are genuine efforts at following the norms of the form, as also at appropriating a new-found imaginative space. This is precisely what makes them worthy of serious critical attention. One cannot deny the value of the earlier examples but one may only say that those are part-efforts at writing a ghazal, whereas these adhere largely to the discipline of a given form. Examples of shers that observe the discipline of qafia and radeefmatla and maqta may be seen in the following compositions:


Clouds of mistletoe hang in the polars, when can’t survive.

Still, decorated with ruin, they enchant our lives.


In stone castles, cold’s steel roars straight up the spine,

and, shivering to the core, we decant our lives. (Diane Ackerman)


Each syllable unwinds its shy request in time.

Speak slowly, show me what it means to rest in time.


So, Kelly’s really gone? Does anyone where?

Third hand. I heard it said she would go West, in time. (Kelly Le Fave)


How did someone come at last to the word for patience

And know that it was the right word for patience


the sounds had come such a distance from the will to give pain

Which that person kept like a word for patience (W. S. Merwin)


It was Aisling who first soft-talked my penis-tips between her legs

While teasing open that Velcro-strip between her legs.


Again and again that winter I made a bee-line for Ita

For the sugar-water sip between her lips. (Paul Muldoon)


The English ghazal cannot be the same as it is in Arabic/Persian/Urdu traditions; it can only be a different ghazal, a declaration of a different creative stance, a different poetics, a way of broadening the frontiers of the original. When revisionist formulations are made, variations are bound to occur and these variations may then bring about a new set of literary standards. It would not be quite proper to judge the English ghazal according to the poetics of the source form and language. The English readers, unaware of the original form and the language in which ghazal had evolved, are likely to discover a form that does not correspond to the original and yet gives them the pleasure of discovering a new text in a new form.


At the end, it would be interesting to read some definitional shers from a ghazal in English by John Hollander that spell out the main features of ghazal: 


 For couplets the ghazal is prime: at the end

 Of each one’s refrain like a chime: “at the end.”


 But in subsequent couplet throughout the whole poem,

 It’s the second line only will rhyme at the end.


 There are so many sounds! A poem having one rhyme

 --A good life with a sad, minor crime at the end.


 Each new couplet’s different ascent: no good peak,

 But a low hill quite easy to climb at the end.


 Now qafia and radif has grown weary, like life,

At the game he’s been wasting his time at. THE END.

Jashn-e-Rekhta | 8-9-10 December 2023 - Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, Near India Gate - New Delhi