GHAZAL [The following was written in November 2023 as an introduction to the generative ghazal workshop.]

With roots in seventh-century Arabia, the ghazal is a form often sung by Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian musicians. For poetry, this means the ghazal is actuated through a technical context of prosody, rhyme, and repetition — according to Sarah Ghazal Ali, “the ghazal is first an auditory immersion, propelled by the matla (opening couplet), radif (refrain), and internal qaafia (rhyme).”

Moreover, the ghazal is made up of couplets that are autonomous and resistant to narrative cohesion. In his introduction to Ravishing DisUnities, Agha Shahid Ali writes, “One should at any time be able to pluck a couplet like a stone from a necklace, and it should continue to shine in that vivid isolation, though it would have a different lustre among and with the other stones.”

These two elements of the ghazal  — its particular formal constraints and refusal of linear narrative intelligibility  — makes it a form that challenges how we typically interface with and speak to the world. I would love to have an opportunity to learn about and explore the form with everyone at Heung!

Form and Structure The ghazal is a poetic form consisting of couplets (two paired lines in each stanza). The initial couplet of the ghazal establishes both a rhyme (between line 1 and line 2) and a refrain at the end of line 2  — a phrase that gets repeated at the end of the rest of the couplets.

For example, John Hollander’s didactically composed ghazal on ghazals:

For couplets the ghazal is prime: at the end
Of each one’s a refrain like a chime: “at the end.”

The opening couplet establishes the rhyme between “prime” and “chime,” as well as a refrain: “at the end.” In the next couplets, the rhyme and refrain are repeatedly only in the last line of the couplet:

But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,
It’s this second line only will rhyme at the end.

On a string of such strange, unpronounceable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

Ghazals are also traditionally ruled by a uniform meter and length. In English, it seems absolute metrical consistency is largely ignored (Agha Shahid Ali cites linguistic differences in Urdu and Persian/Farsi as compared to English) but poets often strive toward lines of equal/similar length. In Agha Shahid Ali’s “Even the Rain,” we can observe an average line length of 13 syllables, with a tight range that never deviates more than one syllable above or below:

What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain? (13)
But he has bought grief’s lottery, bought even the rain. (13)

“Our glosses / wanting in this world”—“Can you remember?” (13)
Anyone!—“when we thought / the poets taught” even the rain? (14)

After we died—That was it!—God left us in the dark. (13)
And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain. (14)

Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house. (12)
For mixers, my love, you’d poured—what?—even the rain. (12)

Of this pear-shaped orange’s perfumed twist, I will say: (12)
Extract Vermouth from the bergamot, even the rain. (13)

How did the Enemy love you—with earth? air? and fire? (13)
He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain. (13)

This is God’s site for a new house of executions? (13)
You swear by the Bible, Despot, even the rain? (12)

After the bones—those flowers—this was found in the urn: (13)
The lost river, ashes from the ghat, even the rain. (13)

What was I to prophesy if not the end of the world? (14)
A salt pillar for the lonely lot, even the rain. (13)

How the air raged, desperate, streaming the earth with flames— (13)
To help burn down my house, Fire sought even the rain. (12)

He would raze the mountains, he would level the waves; (12)
he would, to smooth his epic plot, even the rain. (12)

New York belongs at daybreak to only me, just me— (13)
To make this claim Memory’s brought even the rain. (12)

They’ve found the knife that killed you, but whose prints are these? (12)
No one has such small hands, Shahid, not even the rain. (13)

Beyond form (how the poem is arranged on the page — lineation, meter, etc.), ghazals also follow a particular structure (how the poem’s thoughts and movements unfold). As I mentioned earlier, ghazals resist a cohesive narrative that links couplets together. Couplets should be autonomous — their manifest meaning should not depend on their relation to other couplets. Recall the necklace metaphor — each should “shine in …vivid isolation.”

Notice, too, how the last line of the ghazal above brings in its author, referencing “Shahid.” Poets often end ghazals by bringing themselves in, whether pseudonymously or not.

So, as a brief summary of form and structure: the ghazal is made up of an initial couplet that establishes rhyme and refrain, which continues in the second line of each succeeding, standalone couplet. In the final couplet, the writer often brings themselves in (as name, as speaker, etc.).

Hope that provides a little bit of context on the form. The best way to familiarize yourself is to just write one! Speaking of which…

Writing Ghazals, or “Blame the Form, Not this Pitiful Creature” Writing within formal constraints is generative — great, boundless material can arise from the many compromises you need to make to stay within the boundaries of form. In this sense, I think it would be best if we tried to challenge ourselves to largely stay within the boundaries of the “traditional” ghazal. 

There are, of course, ghazals that play against typical form and structure: enjambments between co-dependent couplets, unrhymed lines, even disappearing refrains. But I would encourage us all to try and work within the normative form first, and embrace how much it makes us shift our perspectives and writing styles.

It also allows us to play a game in our heads that I call “blame the form, not this pitiful creature.” In this game, we (well, just me, really) can attribute our writing failures to the “artificial” impositions of form rather than our own graceless execution or lack of vision. This allows us to unashamedly take immense risks — for example, I am largely allergic to rhyme, but the ghazal forces an insistent rhyme throughout. When I inevitably throw in a cringe rhyme, I blame the form, not this pitiful creature. If you are a novelist that the ghazal is unceremoniously dumping into the swamps of non-narrativity, you can show up with something that stinks and drips brackish water because clearly the form is to blame. 

I hope this little blame game can help you approach the ghazal’s formal demands with more freedom. Take risks, blame the form. Write imperfectly, blame the form. Compromise on what you thought you wanted to say, stumble into something good — then it’s all you!

If you need a little bit more scaffolding to get drafting, a couple of tips. First, decide your refrain. It will be relatively short (a word or brief phrase). Try to arrive at a refrain that you can extend out into a lot of different directions. If it’s a word or phrase that you often find yourself returning to, or just stands starkly in your mind, try running with it!

Once you have your refrain, write the first couplet. This means you will need to create the rhyme — just go with what feels right for that couplet. Then, you can create a rhyming word bank: compile a bunch of words that fit within the rhyme you’ve established.

From there, you should have the two fundamentals: refrain and rhyme. These will be unchanging formal certainties that can guide the rest of the poem’s development.

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