IN SEARCH OF THE CONTEMPORARY GHAZAL

Holly Jensen

Watkins, R.W., ed. Contemporary Ghazals. Nocturnal Iris Publications, 2014. Pp 76. 

Available through Amazon. $8.99 USD. ISBN-10: 1500575739/ ISBN-13: 978-1500575731

The anthology Contemporary Ghazals includes 41 poems by 13 poets and an 11-page introduction by R. W. Watkins, who edits the collection as well as the Canadian print publication of the same name. Poets mostly adhere to conventions of the form, such as the qafia and radif (rhyme and refrain), end-stopped, independent ashaar (couplets), and makta (the last couplet wherein the poet evokes herself, an alter ego, or pen name). As a bonus, Watkins' introduction is thorough and readable, making this anthology equally approachable for novices and longtime ghazal lovers alike. 

The title of the anthology raises a number of questions, namely, What is a contemporary ghazal and how does it fit into today's poetry landscape? After all, the form's roots stretch back to 7th-century Arabia, as Watkins reminds us in his introduction. Can it adapt, or is it destined to be relegated to the growing heap of antiquated, spurned formal poetry? 

HELP ME FAIL TO FORGET WE LIVE ON PLANET WINE

--NICOLA MASCIANDARO, FROM   CONTEMPORARY GHAZALS

Images and motifs associated with the ghazal masters are vivid, but are they entrenched? Can those winsome wine-bearers, sublime gardens steeped in perfume, court intrigue, and pious indulgence— gilded by the passage of time and freighted by veneration— be supplanted by our tawdry modern lives? 

And then there is the matter of form. Formal poetry is clearly out of vogue in the majority of today's poetical landscape. (Even as a ghazal lover, I can't say I lose much sleep over a dearth of tanka, triolets, and pantoums in the pages of literary magazines.) We should acknowledge, however, that in a sense formal verse is alive and well, as much of contemporary, mainstream literary poetry follows an unacknowledged form of sorts: sustained image, narrative, or voice followed by a quiet revelation. The ghazal subverts the very concept. (Or is it the other way around?) 

NEW YORK BELONGS AT DAYBREAK TO ONLY ME

-- AGHA SHAHID ALI

This centuries-old form easily translates to a contemporary context, thanks to its mercurial, sometimes abstruse nature. The ghazal has one foot in this world and one foot in the other world. Wine isn't simply wine, just as the palace isn't merely a palace, and the Beloved excels at shifting from form to form. (“Reveal to the lovesick their beloved: a full moon draped in decorous clouds," Vivek Sharma writes.) All poems play with the literal and the figurative, but ambiguity is the lifeblood of ghazals. Thus, the kaleidoscopic Beloved.  

The ghazal has survived for centuries because its form taps into a universal cadence. (“Deep inseminating form, not formality," as Nicola Masciandaro might describe it.) I'd venture, however, that the fragmented makeup of the ghazal is particularly suited for a world full of (we are told and tell ourselves) dwindling attention spans and compartmentalized lives.  

Pithy, punchy, potent, and complete, the ghazal's couplet is the original tweet.

LETS SUCK WINE FROM THESE STONES

--DENVER BUTSON

Contemporary Ghazals constitutes the first English language ghazal anthology since Agha Shahid Ali's Ravishing DisUnities debuted in 2000. Nearly 15 years after his death, Ali, the champion of the English language Persian ghazal, still looms large. It's significant that he, through alphabetical serendipity, opens the collection and then hands the baton, as it were, off to the rest of the poets. 

Modern life is effortlessly infused throughout the poems. An afternoon at the baseball park (Barbara Little), Deep Throat (Daniel Hales) joints, STDs, NASA, and even a former mayor of Toronto (Watkins) fit perfectly alongside images inherited from poets of the past: “blasphemous apostles," Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha, “smitten" lips (Sharma), a Turkish garden (Bill West), vipers, and Arabian stallions (Steffen Horstmann).

Poems also circle the the time-honored obsessions of ghazals. Loss and longing (Horstmann: “with my touch your ghost turned to mist today") live alongside lust. (West: “A swan's neck— the curve of your back, my arms around your hips,/ in my wide-open mind's eye, you're nude.") And ghazals, as always, return to romance:

I keep my gate unlocked all night,
The loved one will not come, I know. (I. H. Rizvi) 

Beads of dew shine in willows like the pearls
In Ophelia's tresses of braided light. (Horstmann) 

If this should be your birthday, St. Valentine's your patron saint;
you're well aware the thought gives you a fright, but don't know why. (William Dennis)

Ghazals refract both the secular and the spiritual. Sharma writes, “Sages say, every idol, image, symbol is a sermon, music to the devotees./ Fill the sky with love-psalms, illustrated by the shape-shifting, pious clouds." As with classical ghazals, contemporary ghazals knit the spiritual world, the natural world, and the natural impulse of love. 

Eternity and mortality also color the everyday life of these poems. “Birdsong, transcendent paradox of mortality: Li Po/ composed eternal music to a few of Gerard's Sparrows," Teresa M. Pfeifer notes, while Rizvi searches the horizon and watches as the “tired sun bathed in blood is drowned," and Watkins writes, “An immortal is molded through two-edged transcendence:/ first composing as relief, then slow decomposition." 

YOU ARE
BUT A SHADOW
IN THE DARK 

-- MARCYN DEL CLEMENTS

Turning to the construction of the poems, the ghazals are pleasantly diverse. Radifs (refrains) always give a sense of the scope of approaches, and in this anthology, poets employ everything from “Pennsylvania night" (Denver Butson) to “but don't know why" (Dennis), “other shore" (Hales), “in the rain" (Marcyn Del Clements),  “outer dark" (Horstmann), and “sepia tones" (Little).

Pfeifer mines her refrain, “Gerard's Sparrows," for 16 couplets. (My favorite of the 16 ashaar: “With God we gathered a gift of rhyme,/ small seeds for the Beloved who knew Gerard's Sparrows.") Butson hands over his first line (and, therefore, rhyme and refrain) to other poets: Lalic, James Wright, Carson, and Bayes in the case of his Drowning Ghazal series, Kees, Jim Harrison, and Justice in other poems. 

A variety of approaches are on display. Masciandaro's poem, for instance, treats part of a word (-ality) as the refrain, rather than a phrase or full word. (This leads to couplets ending in “reality," “abnormality," “triviality," etc.) Ann Keith's contributions add variety, as they also follow the Arabic tradition, which favors monorhyme over the Persian form's refrain. Structurally, Rizvi and Watkins also stray from the usual couplet format of Persian ghazals. 

HERE'S A LITTLE SECRET: EVERYONE HAS A BROKEN HEART

-- BARBARA LITTLE 

Longtime readers of the The Ghazal Page will recognize some of Contemporary Ghazals' poets (Dennis, Sharma, and Horstmann, for example) while others in the anthology are a pleasure to meet for the first time. If you're unfamiliar with Watkins' print journal (five issues have been published since 2003), this book acts as an excellent compendium. Quite simply, the anthology Contemporary Ghazals belongs in the library of every ghazal lover and ghazalkar.