The Refrain And Beyond
The Development of Ghazals in English in Twentieth-Century
Elizabeth T. Gray, in the introduction to ‘The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz,’ wrote, “ghazals are often puzzling to the 'Westerner' who approaches them for the first time. The poems do not seem to go anywhere, there is no ultimate solution or answer. The couplets seem unrelated to one another. And everything seems ambiguous.” (1) It cannot be denied that the diction, style, the autonomy of the couplets, and the demanding formal framework of ghazals is different from the western sensibilities of poetry, and the poets who introduced ghazals in the west, through their translations of eastern ghazal writers and their own works, were unsuccessful in communicating the true essence and the notion of a ghazal.
There were, perhaps, some questions in the minds of the western poets when they were interpreting or writing the ghazals. How are the self-sufficient couplets, which can be picked, reordered, and shuffled (except the matla and the maqta), part of a complete ghazal? What forces keep them bound together for they aren’t even thematically connected to one other, each couplet encompassing a different notion, complete in all senses, a distinct emotion, a universe encapsulated within itself? While one couplet talks about unrequited love, the other talks about man’s separation from god, so how is a ghazal, unlike a western poem, unified? The question of unity haunts the westerner trying to understand the ghazal. Should a ghazal be interpreted at the level of a whole poem, or at the level of the couplet? Is there any form of unity in the ghazal at all? The western ignorance and arrogance were the primary reasons for what Lisa Sewell calls ‘the dark period for the genre,’ and the development of the free verse ghazals that lacked the formal unity of a ghazal. “Formally speaking, the ghazal can be said to be unified: since its verses share meter, rhyme, and usually end-refrain as well, it has a powerful symmetry and cohesion. In terms of content, however, each two-line verse is an independent, free-standing poem, making its own effect with its own internal resources. Except for rare and special cases, there is no narrative or logical “flow” from one verse to the next; if the verses were rearranged, or one or two removed, usually the action would not even be detectable. While such treatment would fatally damage a sonnet, it would have little or no effect on most ghazals,” Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and Frances W. Pritchett wrote in their essay ‘Lyric Poetry in Urdu: the Ghazal.’ (2) To shed light on where the American writers of ghazals went astray, it is first necessary to understand what a ghazal really is.
Even though ghazals have their origins in Arabic, Agha Shahid Ali introduced the Persian form of the ghazal in the west, and it continues to be endorsed by most of the ghazal writers even today. A ghazal according to him comprises of a minimum of five couplets and can technically go on forever. The Persian ghazal’s end-stopped couplets share a strict monorhyme. It is the first couplet, called the matla that declares the qafiya, the internal mono-rhyme which appears in both the lines of the first couplet, and in the second line of every couplet that follows the first. The radif, or refrain, is the phrase, idea or a word at the end of the first line, repeated in the second line of the first couplet, and every subsequent couplet’s final line. Hollander suggests that a refrain is not just the repetition of a word, but the word must every time, ‘accrue new meaning.’(3) In the last couplet, called the maqta, the poet adds his name, a pseudonym, or a reference to himself in the third person, called the takhallus, which adds to the uniqueness of the maqta. In addition to the rules above, there exists the concept of beher, also called meter, or weight or wazan –the length and tuning pattern that decides the musical composition of a ghazal.
According to Pritchett, ‘the theoretical approach of the classical Urdu ghazal was twofold: it consisted of the pursuit of “mazmun” and “ma`ni.” The former can roughly be translated as “theme.” “Theme” is what one gets in answer to the question, ‘What’s the poem about?’ “Ma`ni” can be translated as “meaning.” Meaning is what one gets in answer to the question, ‘What does the poem say?’ The poet’s effort was to introduce new slants on old themes--and, if possible, even to invent new themes. His second goal was to pack as much “ma`ni” into the poem as possible. All the resources of the language were his territory: the great poets never hesitated to use them. All kinds of wordplay, allusion, effects of assonance, devices suited to oral delivery, the complexity of metaphor, simple, everyday speech-rhythms--nothing was barred. The poem was seen more as a verbal artifact than a spontaneous, Wordsworthian “overflow of the powerful feelings of the heart.”(2)
This strict form, its restrictions, and the ambiguity that surrounds the unity of a ghazal is something that has baffled the poets who have tried to write in the form. The unity in a ghazal is not reflected in the autonomy of the couplets but its form that holds all the couplets together, the qafiya, the beher, and the radif that are repeated all throughout. It has to be understood that in ancient times, ghazals were transmitted orally, and were meant to be recited at mushairas – gatherings where people came to recite and listen to ghazals. The poet would recite the first line, establishing the refrain, and it was repeated by the audience. By the time the poet would reach the qafiya of the second line, the audience would have established the refrain in their heads and would recite it with the poet.
When it was first brought into the west, ghazals were
introduced as a form of poetry by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, Johann Wolfgang
Goethe, Friedrich Ruckert and August von Platen in the eighteenth and
nineteenth century. While Hammer and Goethe translated Hafiz’s ghazals, it was
August von Platen in his books ‘Ghaselen’ and ‘Neue Ghaselen’ who attempted to
write in form. His ghazals, even though they did not completely adhere to the
form, were a replication of the Persian form of ghazals. (4) The initial
attempts of the west at translating the ghazals, no matter how incomplete, were
commendable, for they took place at a time when Mirza Ghalib, a Persian and
Urdu poet and a pioneer of the form, was still writing – almost a hundred years
before the notion of ghazals was introduced in
It was through Mirza Ghalib that ghazals came to
Alright it’s not love it’s madness
you’ll be known for it to
Let’s not break off everything
Life is a lightning flash
Pain and all
May she still want to even if she can’t
It might be enough
Ahmad goes on to make it clear that the book proposes only one thing – that all translation is approximation. The American poets were not required to be faithful to the rhyme scheme of the original. Ahmad believed that the formal devices in the English poetic tradition compared to those in the Persian were restrictive. The result of this approach led to a detachment from the form when these poets started writing the ghazals, purging the form but holding on to the essence. This had been done before by eminent poets like Lorca who wrote his gacelas, paying homage to his Andalusian Moorish heritage, where the ghazals had travelled centuries before they were translated by the German Scholars. While his gacelas reflected the true spirit of lamentations in the ghazal, and even kept the couplets, he deviated from the form which was considered to be essential. (6)
Perhaps Aijaz Ahmad did not establish the importance of the form while explaining the ghazals to the poets, for none of them have tried to translate the ghazals in its original form. W.S. Merwin accomplished writing the ghazals in form, maintaining every single aspect and adhering to the form, but his translations were the same as Rich’s or David Rays’. Louis Werner in ‘The Gift of Ghazals’ justified translations of ghazals from Urdu, saying “most translations of classical Urdu ghazals have failed because the simultaneous demands of meter, rhyme and meaning are simply overwhelming, and translators are forced to abandon at least one of the first two goals in order to achieve the third.” (7) But we clearly know that it isn’t impossible to translate a ghazal to English while meeting its formal demands, and has been truly accomplished by Andrew McCord, who translated Ghalib’s ghazal, keeping the essence and the form as well.
Should you not look after me another day?
Why did you go alone? I leave in only another day.
If your gravestone is not erased first my head will be.
Genuflecting at your door, in any case, it’s me another day.
Only a fool asks me, “Ghalib why are you alive?”
My fate is to long for the day I will not be another day.
The translations, as glorious as they were, led the American poets to a new kind of ghazal where they didn’t find it necessary to hold on to the form, using the ghazal to suit their style of poetry, to convey images. After she was introduced to the concept of ghazals, Adrienne Rich started writing ghazals in English. She published two collections in this form: ‘Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib,’ including 17 poems composed in 1968, and ‘The Blue Ghazals,’ with nine poems, written in the years 1968 and 1969. They were respectively published in the poetry collections – ‘Leaflets,’ and ‘The Will to Change.’ Rich published one more ghazals in 1994 entitled the ‘Late Ghazal’ which appeared in the collection Dark Fields of the Republic (1995).
Her ghazals encapsulated the despair and the longing for the beloved, capturing and reflecting the notion of a ghazal, but without any formal approach. She was the first American poet to write the ghazals, or bastard ghazals, or as we now call them – Anti-ghazals. But her approach to the ghazals was a very different one. In the introduction to her book, she wrote, “I adhered to his (Ghalib’s) use of a minimum 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 any single ghazals.” (8) Even though she did not use the takhallus directly, her presence is visible in the maqta of all the ghazals she has written.
When I look at that wall I shall think of you
and what you did not paint there.
To mutilate privacy with a single foolish syllable
Is to throw away the search for the one necessary word.
When you read these lines, think of me
and what I have not written here.
Rich believed that “the film (She was particularly influenced by Charles Olson’s theory of projective verse and the techniques of the new wave cinema, specifically, the cinematic techniques of Jean Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini(9)) and the poem and the dream have enormous amounts in common. She did not focus on the form or the unity in her ghazals, but saw the autonomy of the couplets as an instrument to convey different pictures and imagery through her poems. If one reads Rich’s ghazals, there are vivid visual images encapsulated in the couplets that give her the freedom to present multiple ideas through one poem. Rich tried to amalgamate new concepts, images, and words from foreign languages, as she uses the word ‘raga’ in one of her ghazals, that she read in translation or translated, thus creating intertextuality in her writings. Her poetry is deemed as erotic-political, and Neda Ali Zadeh Kashani observes that, “the technique of non-linear unity in the ghazals helped Rich to bring together several matters like feminism, lesbian life, politics, revolution, Black Power, the Vietnam War, and the events of the 1960s in general.”(10)
So many minds in search of bodies
groping their way among artificial limbs.
stays of tooled whalebone in the
— erotic scrimshaw, practical even in lust.
Whoever thought of inserting a ship in a bottle?
Long weeks without women do this to a man.
In his essay ’The Ghazal: A poorly Adapted Form in English,’ Pariksith Singh criticizes Adrienne Rich for introducing the free verse ghazal, and in many ways corrupting the sanctity of the form. “Adrienne Rich and many others have written free verse ghazals. They have used a string of couplets in vers libre. Unrelated in content, as their criteria for a ghazal. To me, this is like calling a fourteen line poem a sonnet. While I do not contest a poet’s freedom to modernize and improvise, one should know the rules before deciding to break them.” (11)
Yet, others followed. Phyllis Webb's anti-ghazals focus on "the particular, the local, the dialectical, and private," as she declares in the preface of her book Water and Light (12). Liza Potvin analyses Webb’s work saying, “The ghazal form is expanded in Webb's verse, and the object is no longer a passive woman, who is instead mocked by Webb as "the Beloved in her bored flesh," as she writes in another anti-ghazal. The traditional ghazal as form is reduced to "this stringy instrument scraping away, / Whining about love's ultimate perfection", while the conventional conceptualization of transcendental love itself is undermined by a playful tone. The centrality of male creativity and the male sexual response is displaced, its authority neutralized through ridicule, contradiction, and disparity. What the anti-ghazals reflect instead is a spirit of female self-affirmation, the result of Webb's long struggle towards personal, poetic, and spiritual autonomy.”(13)
The beloved represents not particularly a woman but an idealized and universal image of love. Webb’s anti-ghazals include interventions in the broad and social contexts that construct the individual subject. In one of her anti-ghazals, Webb speaks to Ghalib about how he romanticizes every single subject, she has a conversation with Ghalib, conveying her agony.
Ah Ghalib, you are drinking too much,
Your lines are becoming a maudlin
Here, take this tea and sober up, The moon
Is full tonight, and I can’t sleep
Ah Ghalib, you are almost asleep,
Head on the table, hand flung out,
Upturned. In the blue and white jar
A cherry branch, dark pink in moonlight –
From the land of
Only what is
Webb, unlike Rich, refuses to even keep the couplets autonomous. The anti-ghazal is visually in couplets, but they are interwoven into one poem. In Rich’s couplets or her other contemporaries such as Jim Harrison and Galway Kinnell, if you pick out a couplet, it is a universe all by itself, but that is not the case with Phyllis Webb. The couplet below by Kinnell from ‘Sheffield Ghazal 4: Driving west’ is a fine example of the statement above.
A girl puts her head on a boy's shoulder; they are driving west.
The windshield wipers wipe, homesickness one way, wanderlust the other, back and forth
Webb defies every rule of the ghazal form and the ghazals-ness of her
ghazals or anti-ghazals is in question. How are they different from a western
poem? In a broader sense, she had
departed from the structure of the ghazal. From a personal standpoint, what
Webb presents, cannot be deemed as a ghazal, not even a reflection of the
notion of ghazals These problems are not new, in medieval Europe the Petrarchan
sonnet paved the way for the Shakespearean sonnet, but the English still held
on to the form and purity of a sonnet even though they introduced new rhyme
schemes. Webb, on the other hand, if talking in the context of the sonnet, has
taken away everything – the iambic pentameter, the sestet, the octave and the
During the last thirty years of the twentieth century, the ghazal underwent remarkable transformations. While we’ve discussed how the ghazals deviated from the form, our focus will now be on how they were brought back to the original Persian form by incorporating its traditional rhyme, stanzaic features and most importantly the qafiya and the radif. The change was brought by Agha Shahid Ali, a poet, translator, and essayist, who declared “the Persian model” as “the real thing.” Shahid composed many ghazals himself that were posthumously published by his literary trust in ‘Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals,’ a book that gets its title from a line in his ghazal ‘Tonight.’ (15) He wrote extensively on the issue of ghazals, compiled an Anthology of ghazals called ‘Ravishing DisUnities – Real Ghazals in English’ and translated Faiz Ahmed Faiz in his book, ‘A Rebel’s Silhouette.’ Faiz’s translation and the anthology that Shahid compiled identified him with ghazals even before his own ghazals were published. Louis Werner, in ‘The Gift of Ghazals’ writes that “But by his own estimation, Ali's translations of Faiz's ghazals are unsatisfying. He chides himself for taking too many liberties with structure in order to clarify meaning, sacrificing a ghazal's signature reticence, ellipsis, and abbreviated metaphor to fill gaps of meaning with words. When he realized this, he set himself the task of finding the ghazal’s proper English language formulae, not by translating from the Urdu masters, but by writing original poems, in English.”(7) Agha Shahid Ali grew up in Kashmir and Delhi, (and later moved to America) reading and admiring the ghazals of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and listening to Begum Akhtar’s ghazals, and for someone who comes from that background, it is only natural that he dismisses the anti-ghazals and the free-verse ghazals, and starts a campaign to revive form. David Caplan mentions that, “In a sense, the principles that Ali advocated for the ghazal no more define it than the rhyme and metrical schemes that Petrarch and Dante employed to define the English sonnet. (If they did, a great number of canonical examples would not qualify as sonnets.) As a form moves across languages, some of its elements are not reproducible; Persian and Urdu ghazals employ elaborate meters not available in English. With remarkable speed, though, Ali changed the expectations that American poets and readers bring to the form. (16) In the introduction to his anthology, ‘Ravishing DisUnities,’ Shahid wrote that “many American poets (the list is surprisingly long) have either misunderstood or ignored the form, and those who have followed them have accepted their examples to represent the real thing.”(17) He considers the deviation from the form an insult to a very significant element of his culture.
In the introduction to the anthology, he reminds the reader of the importance of form in a ghazal, the vitality of unity that is brought along with the form. “I love forms,” he wrote in the introduction to ‘Ravishing DisUnities,’ “but I do not wish to come across as some kind of rheumatic formalist. I’m not…However, the issue here is that by following the form of the ghazals, the writer could find herself tantalizingly liberated.” When one reads or hears a recitation of a ghazal in form, there is an evident flow that catches the attention. The repetition of the refrain, the breaks, the unity. Shahid wasn’t the first one to write the ghazal in form, there had been others – John Hollander’s ‘Ghazal on Ghazals,’ and ‘Ghazal: The Shade of the Author of Indian Love Lyrics Speaks,’ are fine examples, but it was Shahid who brought in the atmosphere of vibrancy to the ghazals in English. While the ghazal-ness of even his ghazals is in question, his poetry reflects the wit and the demeanour of what a ghazal should sound like, making an interesting read. His ghazal ‘Tonight’, is a fine example of a ghazal exploring the issues within the boundaries of the form.
Where 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 out 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.
Like Adrienne Rich, Agha Shahid Ali influenced development, and in many ways the improvement of the ghazals as soon as he entered the scene. While he pioneered the ghazals in form, other poets, and his contemporaries started writing ghazals the way they were meant to be written. With ‘cause fevers’ as the radif, John Haag writes to Shahid in his ghazal’s maqta
“Oh Shahid, you’ve treated me cruelly – such mad
Intractable forms, when I write, cause fevers”
Through his anthology, Shahid has been instrumental in bringing out the ghazals written in form and presenting them to the world. While it is clear to the eye that not all of them have mastered the form, a few ghazals have. Shelli Jankowski Smith’s ghazal, ‘An Introductory Ghazal’ brings out the true form, and one can, if one tries, feel the effect that has to be created by a ghazal, the mysticism and the longing for the beloved are evident in it.
“This is an invitation” are the words of my brother.
After all, as a poet, isn’t Hafiz my brother?
I enter the garden, his scent still trapped in sweat
Bearded pale on the face of the briar-rose, my brother
It was almost within one year after ‘Ravishing DisUnities’
was published that a new form of ghazal sprouted in
Some love to watch the sea bushes appearing at dawn,
To see night fall from the goose wings, and to hear
The conversations the night sea has with the dawn.
If we can't find Heaven, there are always bluejays.
Now you know why I spent my twenties crying.
Cries are required from those who wake disturbed at dawn.
Adam was called in to name the Red-Winged
Blackbirds, the Diamond Rattlers, and the Ring-Tailed
Raccoons washing God in the streams at dawn.
Centuries later, the Mesopotamian gods,
All curls and ears, showed up; behind them the Generals
With their blue-coated sons who will die at dawn.
Those grasshopper-eating hermits were so good
To stay all day in the cave; but it is also sweet
To see the fenceposts gradually appear at dawn.
People in love with the setting stars are right
To adore the baby who smells of the stable, but we know
That even the setting stars will disappear at dawn.
His ghazals have brought into light something new. It is neither an absolute deviation from the ghazal form, nor is it the true ghazal but what one can call a ‘distorted’ ghazal. There have been others who have started writing the tercet ghazal, one of them being David Jajajel, who has extensively written about the ghazals, various essays shedding light on the history of the ghazals and the true form, His ghazal ‘Opening Night’ is true to the form of the tercet.
One cannot deny that that American poets like Adrienne Rich, Phyllis Webb, Galway Kinnell and Jim Harrison have accomplished in creating a new wave of ghazals that has been followed by many, and their ghazals and anti-ghazals have led to the popularization of the ancient form. From a personal standpoint, Rich’s ghazals reflects the melancholy and demeanour of a ghazal, and partly because of the repetition of images, which in many ways act like the radif, reiterating a similar thought. New, hybrid concepts of ghazals have arisen since the ghazal was introduced in the west, such as the tercet ghazal, and in this age of change and cultural exchange of sensibilities and universalization of ideas, it is only natural that birth will be given to new models. No one owns the ghazal, nor should anyone own the ghazal, or even try and preserve it. Deliberate preservation of any art form is followed by stagnation, and the ghazal must go on. As for the true measure of ghazals, it all boils down to what was said, and what was left unsaid. If the couplets convey the essence of a ghazal, even if the poet manages to not pen down the refrain and evoke the pain of separation, or reproduce the cry of the gazelle while conveying the grief, longing, and misery – the ghazal’s raison d’etre is vindicated.
Elizabeth T Gray – The
2. Lyric Poetry in Urdu:
the Ghazal by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and Frances W. Pritchett (
3. Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism - Edited by Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker “Breaking into Song: Some Notes on Refrain - John Hollander” (Ithaca Books, 1985)
4. Jalajel, David. “A Short History of the Ghazal.” The Ghazal Page, (www.ghazalpage.net)
5. Aijaz Ahmad – Ghazals of Ghalib “Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 1994)
6. Federico García Lorca – Divan & Other Writings (Bonewhistle Press, 1974)
7. A Gift of Ghazals - by Louis Werner (Aramco World, 2001)
8. Adrienne Rich – Leaflets: “Introduction” (W. W. Norton & Company, 1969)
Claire Keyes – The
Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich
Ali Zadeh Kashani - Adrienne
Rich’s Ghazals and the Persian Poetic Tradition (
11. The Companion to poetic Genre – Edited by Erik Martiny “The Free verse and the Formal: The English Ghazal – Lisa Sewell” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
12. Phyllis Webb – Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti- Ghazals: Poems “Introduction” (Coach House Press, 1984)
13. Liza Potvin - Phyllis
Webb: The Voice That Breaks (
New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition – Edited by Annie Finch
Agha Shahid Ali “The Ghazal in
15. Agha Shahid Ali – Call me Ishmael Tonight (W. W. Norton, 2004)
of Possibility: Contemporary poetry and Poetic Form, David Caplan “In That
Thicket of Bitter Roots: The Ghazal in
17. Agha Shahid Ali – Ravishing DisUnities “Introduction” “Shelli Jankowski Smith’s ghazal, An Introductory Ghazal” “John Haag’s ghazal, Cause Fevers” (Wesleyan, 2000)
· Agha Shahid Ali – The Rebel’s Silhouette (University of Massachusetts Press, 1991)
· Phyllis Webb – Sunday Water: Thirteen Anti-Ghazals (Island Writing Series, 1982)
· Adrienne Rich – The Will to Change: Poems 1968-1970 (Norton, 1971) Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991-1995 (W.W. Norton, 1995)
· Robert Bly – The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (HarperCollins, 2001)
· Jim Harrison – Outlyer and Ghazals (Simon and Schuster, 1971)
· August Graf von Platen – Ghaselen (Heyder, 1821)