The Evolution of the North American Ghazal: Orientalism, Revolution & Heresy
By Eugene A. Melino
The ghazal emerged during Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) (Jalajel), which at its height extended from Spain to India. Given such roots, it had to be a global traveler from the start in that polyglot empire. Centuries later, the ghazal made its way to North America in three migrations. Each reflected the interests and obsessions of its time. Interestingly, the most modern of these harked back to one of the most ancient prosodies in any language.
Orientalism, 1771 to 1938
The West discovered the ghazal in the late eighteenth century thanks to the Orientalists, European scholars and writers who defined the Orient as India and the biblical lands of the Middle East (Said 4). The British and French had colonized these regions and made them safe for Western scholarship, professional and amateur. As Edward Said noted in Orientalism, his landmark critique of the field, Orientalism reflected Western imperialism’s relationship with its Oriental colonies, “a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (5). The Orientalists may have loved and admired their subject, but Orientalism’s perspective assumed the superiority of European culture and its Greco-Roman roots. Oriental poets were better, worse or equal to their Western counterparts. What their native cultures thought about them didn’t much matter.
rose out of the fertile soil of eighteenth century Romanticism, a
movement that embraced the exotic. Goethe, the defining poet of
German Romanticism, first met the ghazal in the translation of
Hafez’s Divan by the Austrian Orientalist Baron von
Hammer-Purgstall (Salami). Goethe so admired Hafez’s work that he
went on to write his own collection of original ghazals,
West-östlicher (West-Eastern) Divan (Salami).
In her preface to the 1914 English edition, the wife of translator
Edward Dowden wrote that “the dominating classical influences,
Greek and Italian, had waned and the new romantic literature was
turning to the East.” Goethe fell in love with the exotic world
of Hafez, and in writing his own ghazals imagined himself “a
wandering merchant in the East, trucking his wares for those of
Persian singers” (Goethe xii). In his enthusiasm, he co-opted
Hafez’s culture, freely applying Persian words and references to
Allah, the Qur’an, cupbearers and various exotic elements. As with
any first-time lover, what he knew about his beloved arose out of his
own fantasies and idealizations, not experience or relationships with
Orientals. And while a lover may place his beloved on a pedestal, he
does not necessarily see her as an equal.
The ghazal crossed the Atlantic and reached Ralph Waldo Emerson, who translated Hafez’s Divan into English from von Hammer-Purgstall’s German translation (“Hafez's Legacy”). More the rationalist than the romantic, Emerson did not become quite so infatuated as Goethe, but he did admire Hafez, whom he called “the Prince of Persian poets” (Emerson, loc. 39153). While the United States was not yet a colonial power, Emerson’s perspective was still one of superiority over the inferior, less developed “Orient.” “Oriental life and society, especially in the Southern nations,” he wrote, “stand in violent contrast with the multitudinous detail, the secular stability, and vast average comfort of the Western nations. Life in the East is fierce, short, hazardous, and in the extremes” (loc. 39090).
To Emerson, Hafez mattered inasmuch as he ranked against the standards of the Western canon: “...in his extraordinary gifts [Hafez] adds to some of the attributes of Pindar, Anacreon, Horace and Burns, the insight of a mystic, that sometimes affords a deeper glance at Nature than belongs to...these bards.” (loc. 39153) Despite his assessment of Hafez’s superiority on the mystical front, Emerson was comparing apples to oranges. These poets lived hundreds of years apart and wrote in profoundly different languages and lyrical traditions. Nor did Emerson know Hafez as well as he knew his own canon poets. What he did know he learned not from Hafez or an “Oriental,” but from von Hammer-Purgstall, a Westerner whom the West dubbed an expert -- i.e., an Orientalist. What the Orientals and their poets thought of this expertise had no voice and would not matter even if it did.
While Emerson and Goethe wrote glowingly of the spirit of Hafez’s work, they knew little about the ghazal’s form, its traditions or its roots. Nor did they know why Orientals venerated Hafez. How could they? They had no knowledge of Persian, only a superficial knowledge of Islam and the Qur’an, and no lived experience in Islamic societies. Even if they did travel to Persia, they would have come as representatives of the conqueror. They might have enjoyed great hospitality but little intimacy. In a sense, the ghazals translated into German and English were not ghazals but the shadows of ghazals. They presented a vague shape that lacked the depth and light of the real thing.
While these shadow ghazals inspired the likes of Goethe and Emerson, the form did not take hold among German or English poets much beyond the first collections of original ghazals in Western languages. In addition to Goethe, Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) and August Graf von Platen (1796-1835) wrote original ghazal collections in German (Salami). While English translations of Hafez continued to be published, no major or minor poet in English wrote an original ghazal collection during this period. But given Emerson’s enthusiasm for Hafez, why not? Perhaps because the shadow ghazal lacked the specificity of a form. With the sonnet, for instance, also an exotic form in English, the poet knows the specific formal requirements: the rhyme scheme, the meter, the exact number of lines, the volta, etc. The poet can take pleasure in mastering and transcending the limits of form. But at this stage in the ghazal’s evolution in English, no such specificity existed. Translations often did not even adhere to the ghazal’s couplets or provide a sense of a consistent rhyme scheme. Interest in the ghazal stemmed not from its formal challenges but from the West’s boredom with its own canon and its interest in the exotic and mysterious East, which it ostensibly owned until the Second World War ended its hegemony.
The shadow ghazal represents an evolutionary dead end. It breathed its last not in English or German, but in Spanish with Frederico García Lorca, who wrote original ghazals (gacelas) collected in a posthumously published volume called Divan of Tamarit. García Lorca’s introduction to the ghazal came through Gaspar María de Nava’s 1838 Castilian translation of Hafez (García Lorca 24). De Nava, however, translated not from the original Persian but from an English translation by the Orientalists Joseph Dacre Carlyle and Samuel Rousseau (“Gaspar”). While García Lorca’s source was far removed from Hafez’s original language and form, he was able to draw directly from the ghazal’s traditional spirit. Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, and thus Spanish culture itself, was rooted in the same history and language from which the ghazal emerged. In his 1927 talk on Spain’s traditional cante jondo (deep song), García Lorca recognized how Spain’s Muslim roots influenced Spanish culture and art, and especially its music (2). He later developed these ideas into his theory of duende, which talks about the primal demonic spirit that imbues all true artistic expression, and wrote his series of original ghazals. His ghazal venture, however, ended in 1938 when he was assassinated by fascists.
Revolution, 1968 to 1999
It was 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles, Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis and the centennial of Mizra Ghalib’s death. The revolution was on and brought with it a new species of ghazal: the ghazal in free verse. In his short history of the ghazal in America, poet and literary critic David Caplan tells how it all began:
In anticipation of the anniversary, Aijaz Ahmad, a Pakistani literary and cultural critic living in New York, solicited several well-known American poets to work on a pamphlet of translations for the centennial. Because none of the poets knew Urdu, the text’s original language, Ahmad supplied them with literal translations, from which they crafted their collaborative versions.
Aijaz saw a connection between Ghalib and the period in which these poets were coming of age. “Ghalib lived at a time in the history of the sub-continent similar to the present one in America,” he wrote in his introduction to the Hudson Review publication of the translations, “in a sense that a whole civilization was breaking up and nothing seemed to be taking its place” (Aijaz 612).
The poets Ahmad chose included the not-yet-thirty Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), who felt so inspired by Ghalib that she went on to write her own ghazal collection, the first published in English in North America. By this time, free verse had become the dominant form for Rich and her generation of poets. Interestingly, Rich was rooted in the tradition of English and American verse. She described the poems of her well received second volume, The Diamond Cutters (1955) as “facile and ungrounded imitations of other poets -- Elinor Wylie, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Yeats, even English Georgian Poets” (Rich xix). But by 1968, “Rich was writing radical free verse full of her feminist ideals and left wing convictions, exploring sexuality and identity, motherhood and politics” (Flood).
Caplan notes that the ghazal’s exoticism played a part in its appeal, but not in the same way it did for its nineteenth century adherents. That it was Asian was less important than what it wasn’t: Western. The restive generation of the sixties often rejected Western tradition and turned to the East for answers. Only the year before, The Beatles had sojourned to India to become disciples of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In the ghazal, adds Caplan, the young Rich found “techniques for expressing the particular ‘fragmentation’ and ‘confusion’ she experienced at the time.” He goes on to cite an interview in which she stated, “‘I certainly had to find an equivalent for the kinds of fragmentation I was feeling, and confusion. One thing that was very helpful to me was working on the translations from the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, which led me to write original ghazals. There, I found a structure which allowed for a highly associative field of images. And once I saw how that worked, I felt instinctively, this is exactly what I need, there is no traditional Western order that I have found that will contain all these materials.’”
In 1969 Rich published “Homage to Ghalib,” a collection of seventeen original free verse ghazals that formed Part III of Leaflets: Poems 1965-1968. Two years later, a young American poet named Jim Harrison published Outlyer and Ghazals, the second significant collection of original free verse ghazals in English. This was the same Jim Harrison who would go on the write several famous novellas, including Legends of the Fall, which was made into a movie with Brad Pitt. Harrison admired Rich and knew her work well. In a 1988 interview with Jim Fergus for the Paris Review, he expressed a longstanding admiration for her. Back in the late sixties, he published her poems in Sumac, the literary journal he co-founded in 1968 and which featured rising talents such as Galway Kinnell, Charles Simic and Gary Snyder. More importantly, he cited her ghazals as precursors to his own in his prefatory notes to Outlyer (Harrison 26).
Neither Rich nor Harrison knew much about the ghazal’s formal aspects. They had no knowledge of Urdu, Arabic or any other language traditional to the ghazal. Other than the recent Ghalib translation on which Rich collaborated, the only available English translations were from the Orientalist tradition. Most of these works rendered ghazals into metered rhyming couplets or blank verse, unlikely models for poets who rejected meter and were in rebellion against establishment power.
Given the sketchiness of their knowledge, what exactly did they find so compelling about the form? They knew three things about ghazals: they were short, they consisted of couplets, and most importantly, the couplets had to be independent of each other. In her notes to “Ghazals (Homage to Ghalib),” Rich states:
While the structure and metrics of the classical ghazal form used by Ghalib are much stricter than mine, I adhered to his use of a minimum of five couplets to a ghazal, each couplet being autonomous and independent of the others. The continuity and unity flow from the associations and images playing back and forth among the couplets in a single ghazal. (425)
The autonomy of the couplet gave Rich and her contemporaries a way to reflect the fragmented history and emotional lives of their generation. This single aspect of its structure presented a powerful alternative to Western rationalism manifested in traditional forms such as the sonnet and the novel. This was the same rationalism that brought the world such absurdities as the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War, the domino theory behind the Vietnam War and the separate but equal logic of racism. The ghazal’s exoticism made it sexy while its ancient tradition gave it a credibility that modern experiments in form lacked. It had proven itself in ancient Eastern cultures much older than America, a product of the relatively recent Age of Enlightenment. Best of all, literati East and West ranked the ghazal’s masters among the world’s greatest poets.
While their ghazals differ in many ways, both Rich and Harrison both adhered to the independent couplet. At their best, their free verse efforts also shared the ghazal couplet’s turn. Consider, for instance, a sampling of a ghazal dated 7/23/68 from Rich’s Leaflets:
When your sperm enters me, it is altered;
when my thought absorbs yours, a world begins.
If the mind of the teacher is not in love with the mind of the student,
he is simply practicing rape, and deserves at best our pity. (346)
And this couplet from “Ghazal IV” from Harrison’s Outlyer:
In the tree house the separate nickels placed in her hand.
Skirt rises, her dog yelps below and can’t climb ladders. (28)
These verses are ghazal-like in the way the second line surprises. This turn makes the ghazal couplet feel complete and enables it to stand on its own. Rich’s ghazal couplets turn more often than Harrison’s, but both poets used this technique inconsistently. In most cases, their couplets consist of complete and incomplete images, declarations or dialogue snippets. While some can be very powerful and evocative, their free verse ghazals as a whole read as a series of non sequiturs, the fragmented feel clearly intentional. The ghazal offered a way to reflect living in a decade that toppled into the surreal for a disillusioned generation weaned on a steady diet of American righteousness, fairplay and optimism.
From Harrison, the free verse ghazal headed north to Canada, where it remains a staple for young poets to this day. While attending Michigan State University in the early sixties, Harrison met John Thompson, a fellow graduate student who would go on to become one of Canada’s most celebrated poets. Both men studied under expatriate Canadian poet, critic and anthologist A.J.M. Smith (Sanger), who taught at Michigan State from 1936 to 1972 (“A.J.M. Smith”). Harrison’s work clearly inspired Thomson. Years later as a teacher himself at Mount Allison University in Canada, Thompson would share with his own creative writing students copies of his personal typescripts of Harrison’s ghazals (Thompson 24).
In 1973, Thompson started writing poems for what would become his first and only collection of free verse ghazals, Stilt Jack (Thompson 34). He never lived to see it published. Thompson died on the morning of April 25, 1976 (Sanger). He was 38. Stilt Jack was published two years later.
Thompson wrote his ghazals in a very different time and place than Rich and Harrison did. The cataclysms of the sixties had passed, and Mount Allison was a long way from Berkeley and Columbia. What he knew about the ghazal he learned from Rich and Harrison, poets he knew well. Given the sketchiness of their knowledge of the ghazal tradition, he wrote at an even further remove. What then compelled him to devote his last book to the ghazal in its free verse form? He answered the question in his prefatory note to Stilt Jack:
The ghazal proceeds by couplets which (and here, perhaps, is the great interest in the form for Western writers) have no necessary logical, progressive, narrative, or thematic (or whatever) connection. The ghazal is immediately distinguishable from the classical, architectural, rhetorically and logically shaped English sonnet.
The link between the couplets (five to a poem) is a matter of tone, nuance: the poem has no palpable intention upon us. It breaks, has to be listened to as a song; its order is clandestine (emphasis added).
The ghazal has been practised in America (divested of formal and conventional obligations) by a number of poets, such as Adrienne Rich. My own interest in the “form” lies in the freedom it allows -- the escape, even, from brief lyric “unity.” These are not, I think, surrealist, free-association poems. They are poems of careful construction; but of a construction permitting the greatest controlled imaginative progression. (109)
For aesthetic rather than political reasons, the independence of the ghazal couplet captured Thompson’s lyrical imagination. Poetry is song. As with music, the listener experiences it not intellectually but emotionally. The connections are clandestine only to the rational mind. The sensitive and attentive reader feels the connections, the subliminal wholeness clearly and emphatically. At their best, Thompson’s ghazals manifest his lyrical power, as ghazal XIV from Stilt Jack demonstrates:
All night the moon is a lamp on a post;
things move from hooks to beautiful bodies. Drunk.
I think I hear the sound of my own grief:
I’m wrong: just someone playing a piano; just.
Bread of heaven.
In dark rooms I lose the sun:
what do I find?
Poetry: desire that remains desire. Love?
The poet: a cinder never quite burned out. (124)
Again, the poem is evocative. Its sense of loneliness and loss are acute even as the poet subverts himself with a little humor in the second couplet. It’s the last couplet, however, that lights up with emotion. As an avid outdoorsman who loved Canada’s vast woodlands, Thompson knew just how dangerous “a cinder never quite burned out” could be. Clearly what Thompson perceived as the freedom of the form gave him license to access the grief, pain, love and loss that smoldered in his troubled soul.
Yet Thompson’s ghazal is a long way from Ghalib. While the poem is effective, it manifests little if any of the formal or even tonal elements of the traditional ghazal. In fact, the couplets form the very lyrical unity he thought he escaped. The first two are an enjambed single thought. The third consists of two sentence fragments that continue the flow. The fourth introduces a rhetorical question that the powerful and lovely last couplet answers. Together they evoke a single emotional arc, something Hafez or Ghalib would never do.
Poets writing free verse ghazals in English seemed to subscribe to Thompson’s aesthetic, even if only intuitively. Most recently, Canadian poet Rob Winger continued the tradition with his ghazal collection, The Chimney Stone. Winger read Thompson extensively for his dissertation on the Canadian free verse ghazal. In fact, Winger wrote his ghazals and dissertation simultaneously (Winger, “Ten Questions”).
Since Rich’s first attempts in the late sixties, American and Canadian poets of the free verse ghazal have seen it as liberation from Western enslavement to the rational, the rhetorical and the narrative. Would it have surprised them to know that freedom had nothing to do with what made the ghazal compelling for nearly a millennia to poets of the ghazal’s traditional languages?
Heresy, 1999 to Present
The sixties passed and the new millennium opened to what Nobel Prize winning economist Francis Fukuyama called the end of history. Western liberal democracy had won. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union had given way to the Russia of oligarchs. Yet in an odd way it was back to the future. The twenty-first century began to resemble the Inquisition in its intolerance, with religious and political dogmas becoming “purer” (i.e., more extreme). One dogmatist’s messiah was another’s heretic, and they crucified each other actually or virtually, the Web all too often serving as a kind of digital Golgotha.
In these partisan mean streets, a new species of ghazal emerged out of Kashmir, at least new to North America. This was the “real” ghazal proclaimed by the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001). For the first time, an “Oriental” with Western academic and literary credentials would speak for the ghazal. The unintended product of Orientalism, Agha considered English his first language and Urdu his mother tongue. His grandmother could quote Shakespeare and Keats, Ghalib and Hafiz, all in their original languages. “I was brought up a bilingual, bicultural (but never rootless) being,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1995 translation of Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “These loyalties...remain so entangled in me, so thoroughly mine, that they have led not to confusion but to a strange, arresting clarity” (Faiz, xii).
But what he proposed sounded like heresy in a time when the free verse ghazal had become canonical. He insisted that even in English the ghazal should conform to traditional rules that were “clear and classically stringent” (Agha, Ravishing Disunities, 3). These rules called for a very un-modern rhyme (qafia), refrain (radif) and measured line.
In particular, Agha insisted that the free verse line was not the line of the ghazal. The poet could choose the method of measure -- syllabic, fixed stress or metered foot -- but the line had to conform strictly to that measure. By the late twentieth century, when Agha’s first essay on the ghazal appeared, free verse in all its manifestations, from elliptical to prosaic, dominated contemporary poetry without question. Many young poets didn’t even bother to learn to scan never mind write a metered line. Why should they? What got published had nothing to do with meter. As for rhyme, some poetry journals expressly forbade it.
Poets like Rich and Thompson found liberation in the ghazal. Now Agha was telling poets that they had to enslave themselves to the form. They could choose the shackles -- i.e., the rhyme, refrain and measure -- but they had to throw away the key if they wanted to write the real ghazal. Why would any self-respecting poet submit to slavery? Poets were supposed to be rebels, iconoclasts, anarchists, anything but slaves. But like a true poet, especially a ghazal poet, Agha had an acute sense of irony. Through complete submission, the poet experienced “the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master” (Ravishing Disunities 3, emphasis added). That tension would torque the poet’s creative power to a high pitch, if the poet refused to give in or give up. Writing the real ghazal resembled an act of nonviolent resistance. The resistor’s discipline, wits and faith would break the oppressor.
In postmodern North America, Agha must have felt like a lone voice crying in the wilderness. But as an accomplished poet as well as scholar, he could put into practice what he preached. Consider his famous ghazal, “Tonight,” quoted here in its entirety:
are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture's road will you expel tonight?
Those "Fabrics of Cashmere--" "to make Me beautiful--"
"Trinket"--to gem--"Me to adorn--How tell"--tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates--
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
God's vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar--
All the archangels--their wings frozen--fell tonight.
Lord, cried the idols, Don't let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.
He's freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He's left open--for God--the doors of Hell tonight.
In the heart's veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron's left to toll its knell tonight.
God, limit these punishments, there's still Judgment Day--
I'm a mere sinner, I'm no infidel tonight.
Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I'll bless Jezebel tonight.
The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.
My rivals for your love--you've invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee--
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight. (Call me Ishmael 82)
Agha explained that a “profound and complex cultural unity, built on association and memory and expectation” underlie the ghazal (Ravishing Disunities 2). In “Tonight” he drew from his experience as a Kashmiri-American. The first couplet sets a tone in keeping with the amatory tradition of the ghazal, opening the poem with the complaint of a jealous and unrequited lover. But the second couplet subverts the adult (i.e., sexual) tone and draws deeply from his American cultural milieu. Here Agha samples lines from Emily Dickinson’s “I am ashamed -- I hide” (#473), a poem that exudes a distinctly puritan sexual reticence and longing. That’s amatory American style, or at least New England style.
The next few couplets leave the amatory behind and speak truth to an Islamic religious culture made toxic by the fallout of the Cold War. They contain many Islamic references, but anyone familiar with the Old Testament will understand them. The third and last couplets cross over into particularly dangerous ground in the new world of orthodoxies and heresies. “A refugee from Belief” seeking refuge in a prison cell isn’t exactly evangelism, religious or secular. Note that the line does not explicitly cite a specific religion or name a particular faith. It damns all belief, which could be Islamic or Christian, liberal democratic or socialist, capitalist or communist. As a late twentieth century Kashmiri-American poet, Agha straddled East and West, secular and religious. Since the ghazal couplet is made to stand alone as a poem unto itself, the overt Islamic references in the other couplets do not delimit or even inform the scope of this one.
The last couplet, however, seems the most daring. In Islam, it is Ishmael, not Isaac, whom God asks Abraham to sacrifice and who becomes the patriarch of God’s chosen people. Why is God sobbing in his arms? Look at what has become of the faith that promised enlightenment and tolerance to mankind. Note that this is not just a criticism of modern Islam, but of the family Abrahamic faiths -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- to which Islam belongs. As a twentieth century Kashmiri-American, Agha had witnessed all three co-opted by power politics, rabid chauvinism and corruption. No wonder God is crying. This couplet would probably have gotten Agha pilloried on social media or imprisoned in thirteenth century Persia.
While each couplet makes an argument or presents an image, no single rhetorical argument unifies the poem. But there is nothing clandestine about what does unify it. A very traditional and very strict radif and qafia run like a live wire through the poem’s body, giving it life and breath. The couplets stand alone, but in the ghazal they react to each other like atoms forming a new compound. Agha achieved the depth and breadth of “Tonight” not in spite of the ghazal’s constraints but because of them. As much as he advocated for the traditional ghazal, he never considered himself a neo-formalist “who wishes to save Western Civilization -- with meters and rhymes!” But he knew that by adhering to the form, “the writer could find herself tantalizingly liberated, surprising herself with unusual discoveries by being stringent with herself as she goes from one theme to another in couplet after couplet” (Ravishing Disunities 12).
Despite his poetical heresies, Agha found a sympathetic audience among notable contemporary poets such as Diane Ackerman, John Hollander and W. S. Merwin. Soon real ghazals in English (i.e., those conforming to some or all of the formal requirements articulated by Agha) began to appear in journals and readings. Once they became familiar with the rules, a number of poets famous and obscure proved quite adept with the form. Enough so that Agha was able to compile an anthology. In 2000 Wesleyan University Press published Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English, edited by Agha.
Among the writers Agha selected for his anthology was a young Canadian poet named Robert W. Watkins. He had been publishing verse in Haiku journals for years. “I got started writing ghazals in the mid to late nineties after Jane Reichhold republished in Lynx an excerpt from an essay by Agha Shahid Ali instructing North Americans on the proper dynamics of the form,” said Watkins. “I had seen the free verse experiments with the form in previous issues of Lynx and didn't know what to make of them. Anyway, I like a challenge, and so I was inspired to try my hand at the real thing” (Watkins, author interview). Two of Watkins’ early attempts succeeded well enough to be published in Ravishing Disunities. Starting in 2003, he edited Contemporary Ghazals, a journal dedicated exclusively to the real ghazal in English. In 2014, he was able to publish Contemporary Ghazals: An Anthology, which showed how the real ghazal had evolved in English since Agha introduced its principles. For the most part, these poets had learned to use the traditional ghazal’s formal constraints to express the contemporary Western experience.
Consider two examples from Watkins’ anthology. The first is a ghazal by Nicola Masciandaro, medievalist and associate professor of English at Brooklyn College. It is quoted here in its entirety:
Negate panpsychism’s impossibility,
Live the death of your mind/matter duality.
Becoming dust is way beyond imagining,
The essence of friendship, pure actuality.
Help me fail to forget we live on planet wine,
Enrich impoverished notions of reality.
The pestilence of human labor is a spring
From fertile infernal dimensionality.
Procure me verse to envenom the universe,
Deep inseminating form, not formality.
Around the abyss of your radical event
Angels sing hymns in bliss to abnormality.
Down to his fingers, down to his toes, Nicola
Feels the non-existence of triviality. (Contemporary Ghazals 37)
Form intact, the ghazal in Masciandaro’s hands has traveled a long way from sultry Mughal gardens and soars into the thin air of an alternative Western metaphysics. Panpsychism says that all matter is sentient, thus making mind and matter one; it is the opposite of materialism, the basis of science, which maintains a strict distinction between mind and matter. Masciandaro chose to versify about a belief with a distinctly Western, and very rational, pedigree. Panpsychism’s roots can be traced back to the Presocratics. Some of the biggest names in Western philosophy dangle on its family tree, from Spinoza to Schopenhauer, William James to Alfred North Whitehead (“Panpsychism”).
The poem's amazing diction and swirling double negations (“Help me fail to forget we live on planet wine, / Enrich impoverished notions of reality”) are a gift of the form. Each couplet adheres to a strict twelve syllable line and rhyme. (The poem lacks a radif because Masciandaro is using the Arabic model, a ghazal form also favored by Agha.) In itself the poem exists as a kind of meta-negation: a non-materialist belief born of Western rationalism becomes the topic of non-rational verse based on an Eastern classical aesthetic. This meta-quality isn’t built couplet by couplet, as would be the case with a Western rhetorical structure, but manifests completely in each couplet, from the first to the last. Masciandaro is having way too much fun, and that wry sense of fun is very ghazal-like. The mirth of Hafez and Ghalib come through even in free verse translations. Note how the word play (emphasis on play) of Masciandaro’s fifth couplet reads as a very concise ars poetica for the ghazal in English.
Now for something completely different but very much in keeping with ghazal’s spirit and form. Consider a rather random selection of five couplets from Barbara Little’s nine-couplet ghazal “In the Park”:
Oh, say, can you hear the umpire yell “Play Ball!” in the park?
Pitcher sets and delivers. Doesn’t get the call in the park.
He’s lost command. Suddenly the pitcher cannot find the plate.
Pitches high and inside nearly start a brawl in the park.
Six-four-three, hard slide into second. He’s out! No! He’s safe!
The manager argues a point of protocol in the park.
The hometeam is up by a run. The bases are loaded.
The pitching coach takes a leisurely walk to stall in the park.
Here’s a little secret: Everyone has a broken heart.
Some days the sun shines brighter on us all in the park. (Contemporary Ghazals 35)
The couplets consist of fourteeners with qafia and radif. It can’t get more American than baseball, a game popular from Canada to the Caribbean. At first Little’s ghazal seems to violate the disunity rule. But while baseball runs throughout the poem, each couplet stands on its own. In fact, they can be rearranged at will without affecting the poem’s cohesion. Why? As American as it is, baseball lends itself to ghazal-like disunity. Each inning stands as an independent contest with its own score. And each one turns like a ghazal couplet as one team takes field and the other goes to bat. Even the number of innings -- Little’s choice of nine couplets obviously a pun on the game’s nine innings -- echoes the length of the average ghazal.
What the ghazal’s free verse practitioners of the sixties never understood is that the ghazal’s couplets are not fragmental. Each is actually “autonomous, thematically and emotionally complete in itself,” as Agha explained. And while they do not form a single narrative or argument, they do cohere into a whole. Agha compared them to stones in a necklace (Ravishing Disunities 2), each beautiful and valuable in itself but more so together. In describing the late Persian form of the ghazal upon which Agha based his real ghazal in English, David Jalajel noted that “the couplets remained extremely autonomous in meaning, even growing in autonomy until each couplet often behaved like a miniature poem in its own right.”
Going Global: The Ghazal in the Twenty-First Century
The ghazal’s spirit is not one of democracy and liberation but of heresy and dissidence. At their best, the great poets of the ghazal’s homelands bit the hands of the despots that fed them, often while feasting at their tables. They skewered the hypocrisies of all partisans, right and left, top and bottom. They may have prayed to the God of Islam or to the Persian pantheon, but they felt beholden to no ideology or theology. Their poems celebrated heavy drinking and ached with erotic desire in cultures where impiety and sexual transgression could result in a death sentence. Given that his patron was a despot, the ghazal poet often found himself in the cage with a lion. Like a lion tamer, he lived the alluring tension, to use Agha’s phrase, of the prey mastering the predator. While the poet’s royal patrons often aspired to be poets, no poet aspired to be a king.
Contrary to the trend of twenty-first century globalization, the ghazal runs east to west, its mainstream alive and well among the people of the old “Orient.” It has proven itself capable of addressing the modern North American experience, but it refuses to be Americanized, due in large part to Agha’s legacy. While it continues to thrive in English in both its free verse and traditional forms, the traditional ghazal has spread among twenty-first century English-speaking poets despite (or perhaps because of) its maddening constraints. But why? Perhaps because the form, honed over centuries, has proven itself a powerful tool for communicating to audiences in many languages. What modernism misses in its rejection of traditional forms is that while times change, people remain the same. As novelist and historian Ronald Wright once noted, the human brain hasn’t changed substantially over the last fifty thousand years (35). We are still the same people about and for whom Homer and Hafez sang. We lust and love the same. We make war the same. And when our modern pretensions are peeled away, for exactly the same reasons.
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