The thirst for unity haunts the “Westerner,” even in these fussingly non-linear days. So to repeat the question: Is there no unity [in a ghazal]? The answer: Well, no. However, there is a cultural unity — created by the audience’s shared assumptions and expectations. There is a contrapuntal air. (Ali, 5)
For most people in North American at least briefly acquainted with ghazals, it is this lack of unity that is the defining aspect of the form. But, as there are likely people who have never before knowingly stumbled across one of these gems, let’s start with a little background.
The ghazal is an ancient Arabic style of poetry that dates from at least the 7th Century. It is written in couplet stanzas, each of which is self-contained (so there can be no enjambment between couplets). The minimum number of couplets is five, and there is no maximum (though it’s considered odd to see a ghazal with more than twelve stanzas).
So far, no big deal, really. People often compare the ghazal to the sonnet formally, since they’re both brief “takes” on a situation, usually love. However, the comparison is a pretty poor one, because of that fundamental aspect of the ghazal: the lack of unity. In other words, each couplet is not only self-contained grammatically; they are also self-contained in terms of ideas, imagery, allusions, etc. There can be no linear narrative or logic, no temporal progression, no contemplation of an incident in order to make sense of it. Instead, the first stanza exists on its own, perfect, complete, self-efficient, and is followed by a group of other perfect, complete, self-efficient stanzas. Perhaps an example would be helpful. Consider the opening ghazal in John Thompson’s Stilt Jack:
It is this lack of logical that usually draws readers and poets to the form — there’s nothing else really like it in English language poetry. A sonnet is like a crown filled with precious jewels all set into an ornate, well wrought crown of beautiful gold. By comparison, a ghazal would be those same jewels held together by an invisible string. There’s really no comparison at all. Apples and oranges, the sonnets agree. Oranges and antelopes, the ghazals assent.
This is probably a good time for an admission: there is another very important aspect to the classical ghazal. Technically, the ghazal also has a very strict scheme of internal rhyme and end repetition. I’ll refer you to Agha Shahid Ali’s introduction to Ravishing DisUnities for a better, more detailed (if somewhat condescending) explanation of these aspects, because, unlike Ali, I don’t believe that the lack of these aspects invalidates most English language ghazals. I base my belief on one simple fact: when the classical ghazals are translated into English, the rhyme schemes are always lost, and yet the results are still breath-taking. To completely agree with Ali is to admit that the works of Ghalib, for example, are not really ghazals once they’re translated. Maybe this is true, but the distinction seems unimportant to me — when we read Ghalib in English, we know we’re reading something absolutely different from Western poetry, and the lack of rhyme scheme doesn’t affect our understanding or enjoyment one bit (especially to a 20th Century readership that is more accustomed to free verse). But, to be a stickler, I should state that almost all English-language ghazals (John Thompson’s, Adrienne Rich’s, Phyllis Webb’s, Douglas Barbour’s, etc) would have to be described as “free verse” ghazals. However, since this is an extremely dull name for such a colourful little hybrid, I suggest that we should call them “bastard” ghazals.1
Setting the strict classical structure aside, then, it is the lack of unity between self-contained couplet stanzas that defines the bastard ghazal.
When you read a ghazal, there’s a bit of a problem right off the bat. Do you stand up and yell “The emperor has no clothes” or do you sit back and enjoy the sight? After all, if you’re not willing to go on the illogical journey the ghazal is trying to take you on, it will seem like so much weird gobbledygook. I mean, how does Thompson go from an opening stanza about burning books to talking about fishing in the second? There’s no connection supplied at all! How am I supposed to make sense of this! Aha! There’s the rub. You’re not supposed to make sense of it. If you’re going to sit around asking “What the heck does this ghazal mean?” then you’ve already missed the point.
The Western mind, uber-logical and deeply grounded in the scientific method, has brought us many terrific things (computers, automobiles, pamela anderson) and many frightening things (nuclear bombs, toxic rain, pamela anderson). It works on simple lines: keep testing until you find the correct, logical answer. This might work for science (although it might not, if I understand quantum physics — but I probably don’t), but is it really the best way to live our lives? What does a sunset mean? Or chocolate ice cream? Or an orgasm? Well, isn’t the beauty of experience that it doesn’t really mean anything at all — except to the person experiencing it. And this is an important point: it’s not that our experiences have no meaning, it’s that they have no objective, quantifiable meaning. Our experiences mean something, if not everything, to us, but can we ever hope to put into words the meaning of a beautiful woman or a sexy man? Nope. That’s why most of us would not turn to the dictionary to get our pornography.
All of this is a roundabout way to say that we don’t have to intellectualize experience, but that’s what poetry in the West has traditionally attempted to do. The avant garde’s project (to use a sweeping generalization), be it surrealism, concrete poetry, sound poetry, or language poetry, attempted to move art away from logical contemplation and towards experience. In this way, I see the ghazal as working alongside the avant garde in English poetry. The weird twists and turns that the ghazal takes us on do not mean anything, objectively. But they do mean a lot subjectively. The experience of the twists and turns the ghazal is the meaning of the ghazal.
So, yes, when someone offers up a ghazal at poetry reading, you could stand up and shout “The emperor has no clothes!” Or you could sit back for a second and notice that the emperor has been hitting the gym lately and is looking pretty good. And so is the Empress. And in that happy space in your mind where you have the two start to populate their empire, well, the result is the ghazal. A bastard of noble birth.
Imagine for a moment you go to holiday at a small resort camp. But this is a weird, back to nature, health resort. It’s outdoors on a huge piece of land that hasn’t been landscaped. No trails, no roads, just trees, grass, animals, and the sky. People attending are expected to do a lot of hiking at this resort. The only buildings at the resort are one-room structures spaced sporadically on the grounds. These rooms are of all different kinds: some are luxurious suites, with a jacuzzi, big-screen tv, and a well-stocked bar; some are beat-up little log cabins with no electricity, no windows, and a suspicious-looking outhouse around back. The way the resort works is that you hike all over the place, and when you want to rest, you go into a room. Any room at all.
That’s the experience of writing (or reading) a ghazal. Each stanza is a room, so there are at least five rooms to rest in. The amount of work you do between each stanza is up to you. (Do you want to try to work out some thematic link? Forge some emotional response? Get naked and run around?). But the thing is, the work is done outside the rooms, not in them. The stanzas are a place for the mind to relax, to grab hold of something for a second and catch your breath, before you have to start hitting the trails again. In other words, it is the metaphoric leaps between stanzas that are the real work in a ghazal. As with all expeditions, you’re going to run into some painful wrong turns, but you can always retrace your steps and start again from the last place of sanctuary.
Another way of thinking about writing ghazals is that it’s similar to crossing a stream when you’re wearing good shoes. You don’t want to get them wet, so you jump from stone to stone till you’re on the other side. The work is done between the stones; you stand still and rest when you’re actually standing on a firm rock. Some rocks, of course, are less firm than others, and you’ll likely decide not to spend too long waiting there. Bound away. Sometimes, of course, you’ll land on a rock that requires you to do some careful balancing in order not to fall off, so you take some time to level it off before you can take the next jump. It’s the same thing with writing a ghazal. You gather a bunch of stones and throw them into a river, and then decide which ones you’re going to need in order to get to the other side. You rarely need them all, and eventually the ones you don’t use will get swept away in the current, never to be seen again. Or sometimes you cheat and pick up a few of the stones you could have used but didn’t, and you throw them into the next river you come to. They might be more useful there.
If all of this sounds kind of arbitrary... it is and it isn’t. The thing about writing a ghazal is that it really is like leaping from rock to rock. Sometimes you’ve found the perfect stanza/stone, and you know it’s perfect. But when you throw it into the Ghazal River, it turns out that it doesn’t fit into line with the other stanza/stones. So you can leave it or use it somewhere else. It’s very trial and error that way. You can just never see how to cross a river until you get near the other side.
The thing that’s overlooked in both of these metaphorical meanderings is the extremely important aspect of resonance. You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t said much at all about the composing of the actual stanzas. The reason for this is that, while this is important, there are no right or wrong topics or movements inside the stanza itself. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they are straightforward, sometimes they are metaphorical, etc. As I hinted at earlier, though, sometimes even the best two-line stanza you’ve ever written won’t work in a ghazal, because it won’t play well with others. For all the glibness of my earlier descriptions, I really do believe that ghazals are either successful or lousy depending on the gaps, not the couplets. There is a fine line that must be walked. The stanzas can’t be completely all over the place, or there won’t be an emotional response from the reader. Nor can the stanzas be too similar, or the whole package will lose that wonderful threat of toppling into nonsense. The key here seems to be that there needs to be an implicit metaphorical relationship between all the stanzas. If this relationship is too easy, then the game is lost. If it’s too difficult, no one will play. When the tension is just right, however, there is no other word for it but magic. None of the pieces can be moved, but no one really understands why. It’s an emotional house of cards. This is starting to get pretty abstract, and I apologize. As with the best of any type of form, it’s really more useful to read examples than to read something about those examples. I think the best advice I can give to anyone interested in the ghazal is to pay particular attention to the gaps between couplets, and how the poet uses them to manipulate our responses.
It’s probably obvious by now, but there’s never really a subject matter to a bastard ghazal. There are often themes, however. Love is the big grandaddy theme of the bastard ghazal, just like it’s legitimate classical ancestor. But you could really stick in any thing. The only thing is that you probably shouldn’t have a theme for a ghazal until after you’ve written it. And, really, it seems to be a better ghazal when the stanzas don’t add up to an obvious theme or topic. Instead, it’s better when the ghazal wanders all over the place. This is a digression, but this anecdote is too good to pass up. Classically, it was said that “one definition of the word ghazal [is that it] is the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it will die” (Ali, 3). Now, remembering that the classical ghazal is almost always a love poem, you get a bit of an idea as to how far afield the ghazals strayed.
Personally, I think of the process of writing a ghazal as having very little to do with actually writing. I think of it more as carpentry. I know that most of the best-known bastard ghazalists didn’t work this way (Rich, for example, would write two to three ghazals in a day when she was working on “Homage to Ghalib”), but I walk around for days on end, and little lines will pop into my head. I’ll write them down, because I’m surprisingly efficient/anal that way: I always carry a tiny notebook in my front right pants pocket and wear a pen on a string around my neck. (How cool is that? — Lord Byron, eat your heart out.) Then, one day when I have the time, I’ll sit down at my computer, type out all the little lines I’ve put in my book since the last time I did this, and then start shifting them around into ghazals. So it feels more like carpentry: I have all these differently shaped boards — now how the hell do I make them into a birdfeeder? And do I keep it if it turns out to be another shoe rack?
The selected bastard ghazal reading list: