Auld Lang Syne

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Writing the contemporary ghazal

First of all, let's get the pronunciation right: it's saying "huzzle" as if you are scraping a popcorn kernel off your tonsils. Ok, Now on to how to approach this wonderful and challenging form.

Recently, I was the member judge of a Maine Poets Society contest. I chose this form because it is challenging and rewarding. I encountered it in a serious way about 5 years ago and find it a great discipline in its strictest form, with all kinds of room to explode it to one's own tastes and ideas. Here is my talk, a bit edited to omit comments about the judging process.

The Ghazal (g-huzzle or in Spain the gacale)

There is some question as to where this form originated, whether in the Arabic world of Persia or Andalusia (Muslim Spain).

Wherever it originated, it is a newcomer to English speakers relatively speaking, often a lot looser in its adherence to the original form. Certainly, in its arabic format, it is more restrictive. For example, in the Arabic formatting of a ghazal, there would be no enjambment of lines or couplets. It is wise to remember that the definition of the Arabic, ghazal, is the cry of a cornered gazelle, one who knows she/he is about to die. So the lamentation and repetends are reminiscent of that desperation, that ending. Of course not every writer of the ghazal is going to restrict him/herself in tone or topic to the last ebbing moments of life or to an atmosphere of sadness. No topic ought to be abandoned if the writer is truly interested in making a ghazal. Annie Finch, Ghazal for a Poetess, admonishes the writer that this form is intended for the erotic. Yes, that can be the case. But there are many many of these poems which do not take that as a directive. Look at the amusing ghazal of John Hollander where he uses the form to write an ars poetica.

I am interested in the stand alone couplet, as found in many forms of writing poetry. I am interested in ancient forms that can be adapted to contemporary writing, and interested in forms that exist or once existed in other cultures and can be made in people of Western culture writing in English.

There is something magical, really, in writing and reading and listening to ghazal, almost a lilting quality exists there. Even in those considering banal topics such as politics or pop culture, the music is undeniable. This is due to the rhyme and the repetends, a truly contrapuntal approach: point, counterpoint, music upon music.

Some Western critics of the form say that these poems seem to go nowhere. Well, that is because Western thoughts of time and space tend toward the linear. Other cultures, especially indigenous cultures, do not live within a linear framework. Thus the ghazal is perfectly acceptable in its wandering nature, its seeming disunity. One might ask: Is the poet wandering about in his/her own thoughts? Is she/he talking to her/himself? Or, as Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. says in her intro to The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals From the Diwan of Hafiz, “ this a nugget of wisdom [of a] disciple who seeks union with God? One ought to ask oneself is the poet actually talking at all?

The nuts and bolts:

A ghazal is at least five couplets long, but there is no limit on length beyond that.

Some rules about the form are clear and strict. There is an opening couplet (or two lines) that is called the matla, which sets up the rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is called the qafia. There is a refrain phrase or word (repetend) called the radif.

In some ways, once the poet sets up the rhyme and repetend scheme, he or she becomes its slave. Having said this, however, in English ghazals, we might free ourselves a bit by varying the radif a little to use an off-rhyme or a delicate change in the qafia (rhyme word) or a bit of a tweak in the radif (repetend). We might enjamb the lines of the couplets. Many western world writers do these kinds of variations. We might not have the couplets interchangeable, instead having the whole poem flow in a linear fashion.

Basically, however, when you are learning the form, try to follow the original plan and keep your couplets on track.

There is often (most often?) an address in the final couplet, an actual naming of the beloved or the person who is the subject and object of the passionate expression of the whole. Hollander makes up a name, using Qafia and Radif in combination, another nod to his making the ghazal as an ars poetica.

The form is a wonderful place to combine lyric moments within a restrictive framework. This is quite a liberating thing. One can let seemingly unrelated couplets SUGGEST new unifications. In other words, allow the reader or listener to make universal connections. Of course there are those ghazals which are more unified. Even there, the reader has something to do to make the unifications strong and connect them to her/himself in a deep or fanciful way.

This form allows the poet to be mercurial while being restrictive. It is a lovely dichotomy for serious poets. It is freeing to be able to wax widely on a series of seemingly unrelated positions or to make a series of observations or parable-like statements. Let the connections be conjured by the reader. Let there be mystery.

Whether your ghazal follows the strictness of the original intent or is looser in its interpretation, the couplet allows you to get in and get out quickly. As long as you adhere to the use of qafia and radif, you are using the form. In judging, I allowed for all interpretations. I was looking for the qafia and radif and the couplet framework (even if the couplets were not separated from one another on the page).

I think it wise at this point to showcase an example from John Hollander, Ghazal. Listen for (look for) the ending repetend “at the end” in each second line of the couplets following the initial set up couplet. Of note: this is also an ars poetica, which comments on the form itself:

Ghazal (John Hollander)

For couplets, the ghazal is prime; at the end

of each one’s a refrain like a chime; at the end

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!

All our writing is silent, the dance of the hand;

So that what it comes down to’s all mime, at the end.

Dust and ashes? How dainty and dry! We decay

To our messy primordial slime at the end.

Two frail arms of your delicate form I pursue,

Inaccessible, vibrant, sublime at the end.

You gathered all manner of flowers all day,

But your hands were most fragrant of thyme, 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 a different ascent: no great peak

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

Two armed bandits: start out with a great wad of green

Thoughts, but you’re left with a dime at the end.

Each assertion’s a knot which must shorten, alas

This long-worded rope of which I’m at the end.

Now Qafia Radif has grown weary, like life

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

The ending is very playful, with Hollander using the traditional signature couplet, called a makhta, in which a poet invokes her/his own name. He chooses, however, since this is an ars poetica, to make up a name using the two repetends, the qafia and the radif. Very clever of him.

Notice that Hollander could take most of the couplets and rearrange them in any order, save the first and final ones. This is a hallmark of the strictest ghazal. Note also that his couplet contain enjambments of lines (though not of stanzas). A ghazal which enjambs lines is referred to as a qata. Let me read to you now a couple of ghazals I have written, Ghazal of the Dark Blue Suit and Sea Ghazal. Both of these are gata. I think I prefer the qata.

Another challenge one might make in writing this form is to rhyme every line. I did this in the following poem, Prison Ghazal [wrongly accused] I also did NOT use the qafia just before the radif. I tell you this, and show you the poem in order to underscore that you might change things about for your own "take' on the form.

Prison Ghazal

[wrongly accused]

How did I come to this disarray

losing myself to open air, to this dismay.

What will I eat and do each day?

Oh such a battered twist this dismay.

I’d rather open up my wrist and flay

off my own skin, such dismay.

Losing ground day after day

I bare can take this heart-heavy dismay.

The sky is filled with birds that pray

for me in my dismay.

The trees droop so and, dismal, sway

to match the steps I count and pace in my dismay.

An eagle screams, forgets its prey

drops one fine feather to cheer this dismay.

Dark grows the sky above, and the way

it shrugs its black attire shows its dismay

at the wicked who thought me a piece to play

in their smudgy game of evil and dismay.

A priest I am and thus shall ever stay

no matter what humiliation or dismay.

I bare my soul, and say

my God why leave me in such dismay?

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