The Ghazal is an ancient form of poetry that has only recently gained acceptance in the mid-1990s in America. The form originated in Persia and spread to India and then eventually to Afghanistan as well as Turkey.
It is a very unique and somewhat controversial form of poetry with the English and American interpretation being very different than the original Persian format. The Ghazal is also sung in India, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan marking a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.
The Ghazal consists of anywhere from 5 to 15 couplets with most averaging about 8 to 10 couplets in length. The lines in each couplet should be equal in length, also known as the meter, which could be 7 to 10 syllables in each line.
This ancient method of poetic expression also traditionally has both a rhyme and a refrain. The rhyme in the first line of the couplet sets the tone for the rest of the poem. The refrain would occur as the last word in the second line of each couplet. The rhyming word usually is the word before the refrain. An example to illustrate this concept is:
A knock on my door this morning
While I cleaned the floor this morning
My refrain and title of the poem is “This Morning” and the rhyming word is “door” which then has to be rhymed in the second line of each subsequent couplet. The refrain of “this morning” will be repeated in each line of the entire poem.
A mitigating rule of the structure of a Ghazal is that each couplet should have its own thought and be completely different from one another. This can be difficult to achieve especially with the involvement of the refrain. Each couplet was meant to be read or extracted as a “stand alone” poem, which can make this format very difficult for new or young writers.
It is important to note, that in the traditional version used in the Middle East, the last couplet, or closing couplet made a reference in some way to the poet’s name or pen name. In my case it could be something very overt:
I found my mind drew a blank at that moment
I thought: “C’mon now Frank” at that moment
However, it could also be a veiled reference to the name of the poet or his or her initials could be used in the final couplet.
In later years, after different translations of the form had taken hold, the reference to the writer’s name has been removed from the requirements of the form. It is my understanding that some writers felt that it was too restrictive to the number of poems they could write in this form.
The other issue with that requirement was that it could force the poet to deviate from the theme of the poem in order to mention their name in the closing couplet.
I have written several Ghazal formatted poems and used some reference to my name to keep it the most pure interpretation of the original Persian form.
In the original conception of the Ghazal back in Persia and India, the theme of this type of poetry was limited to love or romance with a heavy emphasis on relationships which were socially unacceptable. The focal emotion being the pain and melancholy caused by that separation.
In later variations of the Ghazal the thematic requirements shifted away from that specific area, and while most poems written in this format have been about love; they began to be written about basically any topic.
In my experience, writing a Ghazal can be difficult regardless of the theme, the key concept is to have an idea of the meter, rhyme, and refrain before you begin to draft the poem. The process then becomes essentially “back filling” the rest of the poem based off the primary words involved in the rhyme and the refrain. The challenge is to fit the added words in within the correct meter.
Alterations from the Original
The Ghazal form of poetry has been altered more than many other forms of poetry I have come across from the original version to the modern version. These alterations were driven by a few factors, primarily the translation from Persian or the ancient Indian or Pakistani forms to English. In essence, some elements were lost in translation, created ambiguity, or were reformed to suit a Western audience.
One major alteration over time was the waiver of the requirement of having a refrain. The refrain, particularly in the Western translations, became an optional component of the Ghazal. The neglect of the refrain could create conditions where the poet would have more flexibility in writing within this rather complex form.
An additional alteration was with regard to the couplets involved being related to one common theme. The original versions were about love, but the couplets were unique components. This shifted to Ghazal poems being linked to a central theme. Some feel that this is not a “true Ghazal”, and that the couplets need to have a feel of inherent exclusivity.
Moreover, the most common criticism of the purists of the Ghazal form pertaining to the American interpretation of the form is that the American poets disregard the meter. A “true Ghazal” should have the same syllabic meter in each line of the piece, whether it is 8 syllables or 10 syllables, and that Americans just choose to ignore it and write whatever suits their cause.
The neglect of the meter requirement causes the Ghazal to lose the flowing romanticism that was intended by the original creators of this ancient poetic format.
In my experience, writing within the Ghazal form can be very difficult but very rewarding when it is completed within the correct guidelines. I have sat many afternoons at my desk staring at the paper in my notebook trying to make a Ghazal work within the criteria provided by the original Persian format.
I have made the common mistake of selecting a rhyming word that does not work throughout the number of couplets I had planned for the full poem. That mistake can be avoided by free writing several rhyming words and use the words which have several variations for the rhyme line.
I have also made the common mistake of choosing a refrain word that is too limited in scope to be able to create a full Ghazal that flows correctly. It is very tough to make each couplet separate yet make sense contextually with a common refrain. My advice would be to choose a refrain that is very broad: based on a season, a time period (yesterday or tomorrow), or a love based theme.
The meter requirement is also present in many other poetry forms, so I find that I do not have as much trouble making the meter work with the concepts I choose to utilize. However, the problematic elements to meter which are present in the Ghazal and not in other formats are the requirements of the rhyme and the refrain. Those one or two words (depending on if you are writing a Ghazal without a refrain) can cause issues with the meter of the words you choose to “back fill” the poem with in each couplet.
A common feeling of some writers, myself included, is that the method of selecting the rhyme and refrain words prior to the rest of the poem can cause a situation where I have felt that I am mixing and matching words based on the meter and context. This process can take some of the raw emotion out of the poem, which is a self-defeating exercise.
Explore and Find
After working within this form for a while I would suggest that the best way to use this ancient type of poetry is to explore, practice, and find your way to the best method to write within the Ghazal.
I have a few recommendations though before you launch into this effort:
- Do not eliminate the requirements from the original version from Persia use a rhyme word, a refrain, and a strict meter.
- Conceptualize and free write more than you would before writing within another form to have a broad theme and rhyming words which work.
- Make sure the couplets that are used are completely different from one another. This can be achieved by choosing concepts that are very close to you personally. This will help you to expand upon the broad theme yet make the couplets different.
I hope that this article will help all the new and young poets to write within the ancient form of the Ghazal. When it is done with great respect paid to the requirements of the format, it can be a very rewarding way to express your feelings on a variety of themes and experiences.
(Some background information courtesy of Poets.org, Baymoon.com, Wikipedia.com)