RULES FOR WRITING ARABIC GHAZALS IN ENGLISH-- A SUMMARY
- All of these rules are meant to be broken.
- It is the oldest tradition in English poetry to break the rules. The fun to be had in breaking them is the primary reason we have formal rules.
- If you do not agree with (2), please ask Aelfric, Layamon, Spenser, the King James Psalms translators, Milton, Blake, Hopkins, and everybody else.
Much of what is written about the ghazal as a poetic form in English is modelled after the Persian ghazal. Agha Shahid Ali has propounded in great detail on how the Persian ghazal as a form can be adapted into English. Very little has yet to be written about adapting the Arabic form.
Yet, the Arabic form is known from before the 6th century AD. Therefore, it is much older than the Persian ghazal. The relationship between the two might be compared to the relationship between the Italian and the Spenserian sonnet.
In an attempt to remedy this deficit, I wish to present guidelines for the Arabic poetic form that can be adopted by poets writing in English.
There are two indispensable elements of a classical Arabic poem – `arûd (meter) and qâfiyah (end rhyme). In fact, the field of poetics has been traditionally called `ilm al-`arûd wal-qâfiyah (the science of meter and rhyme).
We will look at the essential conditions for each of these elements and how to best express them in English.
I. `Arûd (meter)
Arabic meters are quantitative, based on a succession of voweled and unvoweled consonants. In English studies, we would be more familiar with looking at open and closed syllables, but the Arabic meter requires looking more precisely at the individual consonants themselves. These meters do not render themselves directly into English metrical forms.
There are, however, numerous metrical series offering a great variety of choices to the poet. Each metrical series, or bahr, defines an Arabic long line (bayt), which is comprised of two balanced hemistiches.
The following rules can be applied to approximate the Arabic meter in English verse:
The poet has the option to write in long lines, as is traditional, or in couplets if the poet wishes. (All further discussion will refer to the long line and its component hemistiches. A couplet simply presents each hemistich on a separate line.)
All the lines of a single Arabic poem must share the same meter. Each long line must have either a regular, fixed meter or at least a clearly audible metric or rhythmic uniformity. This latter concession is in light of the fact that Arabic meters can sound quite variable to the English ear, though still showing great rhythmic uniformity. In either case, it is absolutely essential that the line divides naturally into two balanced halves (hemistiches) that lend the long line a medial, metrical caesura, though the poet does not have to use the caesura syntactically. Indeed, the metrical caesura can occur in the middle of a word. It is entirely up to the poet whether she wants to highlight or obscure the caesura with the syntax.
The length of a verse’s hemistich should be no shorter than a trimeter and no longer than a heptameter. This means that if the poet is writing in accentual or accentual-syllabic verse, the hemistich will have at least three and no more than seven metrical accents. If the poet prefers to write in syllabic verse, the hemistich should have between six and fourteen syllables. Of course, all lines of a single poem will be strictly of the same length. If the poet opts for a freestyle rhythm, the long lines must still be roughly the same length, have roughly the same number of accents or syllables, and divide rhythmically into balanced halves.
The above rules may seem a bit rigid, but they are just as important to a poet aspiring to write in the “pure” form of an Arabic ghazal as the sher and radif are to a poet wishing to write in the “pure” form of a Persian ghazal.
Be adventurous. If the essence of the Persian ghazal is the autonomy of the sher – where each sher in the poem is like a pearl in a necklace – the essence of the Arabic form is in the bayt’s pronounced, exciting and long metrical rhythms.
Certainly, many an Arabic bahr comes across as sounding strongly iambic, and a poet will be faithful to the Arabic bayt by using a long iambic line of between six and fourteen metrical feet. However, more complex metrical patterns can and should be aspired to.
Though it is impossible to render the Arabic quantitative meters precisely into any accentual-syllabic line that could be useful for writing English poetry, a person who listens to Arabic poetry with an English ear will discern a number of clear accentual-syllabic patterns. The following are just to give an idea of what might be heard:
- / - - / - - / - - / - || - / - - / - - / - - / -
/ - / - / - - / - / - || / - / - / - - / - / -
- / - - / / - - / - - / / - || - / - - / / - - / - - / / -
- - / - / - - / - / || - - / - / - - / - /
- / - / / - / - || - / - / / - / -
[Key: - = unstressed syllable / = stressed syllable || = metrical caesura]
Each one of these sequences, and an infinite number of others, can be the metrical basis for a poem of any length. Of course, unless the poet wants a really sing-song or bouncy poem, these meters will have to be toned down and varied a bit. (We should remember that Arabic meters always sound a bit variable to an English ear.) Still, the poet can be as imaginative as possible in constructing the underlying metrical sense of the poem, and then apply the artistry of using the syntax to emphasize or play against the medial caesura to achieve various poetic objectives.
II. Qâfiyah (end rhyme)
- The rhyme must be the same for each line of the poem (monorhyme).
- Full rhyme, microrhyme, or other form of slant rhyme may be used. In the case of slant rhyme, it should not be so subtle as to obscure the consistency of the rhyming sound. The rhyme is an important unifying element of the poem.
- It is a common and desirable practice – though not mandatory – that in the poem’s opening line, the first hemistich also takes the rhyme. In this case, the first line will have a clearly discernable syntactical pause at the hemistich.
- Repeating the same rhyming word in successive lines of the poem should be strictly avoided except when there is a clear and overriding stylistic justification for it. The most acceptable justification for repetition is if the poem is praising God or pining for the beloved and the name of the subject is the rhyming word itself.
- Radical enjambment between verses that pivots syntactically on the rhyming word should be the exception, not the rule. The rule should be at least a mild degree of syntactical autonomy for each long line. However, the complete autonomy of the long line is not important in the Arabic ghazal.
III. Examples of a Valid Bayt (long line) with Qâfiyah:
In the examples below, two short vertical line segments are used to indicate the division between the hemistiches. The rhyme is indicated in red. In all cases, the verses could be represented as couplets by dividing them into two lines at the hemistich.
Accentual-syllabic long lines:
How thrilling it is to receive such a token || of honour from one whose good name is oft spoken
Whose victuals are not so much crabbed as they’re lobstered, || no carapace curled back concealing what’s hidden,
But stretched out quite plainly, obscuring no blemish || and shedding no shell in a manner unbidden;
So florid and fleshy, they’re justly applauded || the taste and good prepping that leave tongues quite smitten.
Unclawed and undeviled, the tails are more succu-||-lent, chopped off the living, and tasting like chicken.
Goblins minting coinages out of kilter...|| Treasure houses squandering gold and silver...
Elfin bankers’ empires running rampant...|| Knights and dragons bartering helter-skelter...
Wizard-summoned policies brew and conjure || royal edicts floundering left of centre...
Even Sir Philip Sydney can get into the act!
And all with teares bedeawd, || and eyes cast vp on hie,
O help, O help ye Gods, || they ghastly gan to crie.
Tho with benign aspect || sometime didst vs behold,
Thou hast in Britons va-||-lour tane delight of old
Syllabic long lines:
How you’re degrading me. If you’re out to vex me || then beware, for as relentlessly I will be –
likewise I will be – bent on despairing of you, || and with equal or even sicker fervency.
Truly, had you been me – a perverse and twisted || and malignant take on myself admittedly –
you would have been far worse in your fabulous rage, || but too difficult to shove aside callously.
“Freestyle” long lines:
don’t let the nights hold back what they despise || & embroil yourself in what randomness misconceives
absorb yourself in the stillness of the days || for the static of the universe perpetually flees
& be not a child permeable to simplicity || acting the part of a rigour that deceives
as if virtues have become rare in the microcosm || & you are loath that they are all one sees
reveal yourself as mean against those virtues || & expose them although misery reprieves
Staring down an Arabian road, a dusty, || hot and dry Arabian thoroughfare –
Sandy desert, sterile pale brown, no || tree or greenery discernable anywhere –
I can see ahead on the asphalt a || piece of paper catching the morning glare.
Perched on top I see quite distinctly a || mottled frog, contentedly sitting there.
I approach. The scrap of old paper is || just some refuse discarded without care,
But the frog reveals itself for a leaf, the || sort of leaf you find in its dark wooded lair
of late autumn on the ground in frosty || northern forests, stirring in mists so rare,
Tossing through the chill morning breeze as an || earthy, cool humidity fills the air.
IV. A Word on Stanzas
The pioneering poets who set themselves to the task of adapting Persian ghazals into English saw fit not only to write each hemistich on a separate line, but to present each set of two hemistiches (sher) as a separate stanza – a couplet. They were certainly correct in doing so. This is because the Persian ghazal poets, though they usually write both hemistiches on a single line, treat the hemistich poetically as a separate verse and the sher as an independent couplet.
By contrast, the Arab poets approach the hemistich as a verse only when and if they feel like it. The long line (bayt) is what matters to them, and they traditionally never grouped these into stanzas. Therefore, I believe the question of stanzas when writing English poems in the Arabic form is something best left to the poet’s discretion.
This is because using couplets as stanzas with a break between them is – for adapting the Arabic form – something totally arbitrary and contrived. It would be far more faithful to the Arabic form to set out the long lines stacked one on top of the other without any stanza breaks at all. The second most faithful would be to split the long line into two at the hemistich, but still stack the lines on top of one another without any stanza breaks.
I see no objection to setting an Arabic ghazal in the couplet form that English-language Persian ghazals are written in. However, once a poet is willing to make stanza breaks at all, the poet might as well make them wherever it seems appropriate, as long as the stanza break is not placed between the two hemistiches of a long line.
 Arabic is a Semitic language, and like Hebrew, it does not write out its vowels. It only recognizes consonants as being actual letters. Vowels are referred to as “movement”. This is further complicated by the fact that Arabic has long vowels that are created by a vowel (movement) on a previous letter followed by an unvoweled (y) or (w), or an (alif). Arabs recognize these as being long vowels, and in poetics they make a distinction between them and other unvoweled consonants when it comes to rhyme (qâfiyah).
For instance, the ridf – a feature of certain qâfiyahs – must be a long vowel. However, for purely metrical considerations (`arûd), Arab poets recognize the long vowel merely as a voweled consonant followed by an unvoweled consonant.
 -  The syllabic example is actually a rather complex interpretation of an Arabic bahr known as wâfir. However, it comes across in English very much as a 24-syllable syllabic meter. Likewise, the example that begins “Staring down an Arabian road...” is another complex metrical experiment based on the bahr called madîd, but it comes across with a very freestyle sound.