Jalsaghar: A World of Ghazals

This Foreword to Jalsaghar was written by Gene Doty in 2014.

Jalsaghar: A World of Ghazals


The world of Steffen Horstmann's Jalsaghar is global and familiar, yet somehow loosened from specific political/geographical/historical references. For instance, in the opening couplet of “Houses:”


          Houses in which bombs left empty spaces.

          Their shattered mirrors haunted with faces.


One could describe these ghazals as depicting a shattering world, "haunted with faces."


From its origins in Arabic, the ghazal migrated to other languages, notably Farsi and Urdu, but many others as well. Now, the ghazal is becoming naturalized as a form in English poetry. For those not familiar with the conventions of the Urdu ghazal, two important ones are: both lines of the first couplet and the second line of each succeeding couplet end with the same word or brief phrase. Just before this refrain, there is a word that rhymes with the words preceding the refrain in the other lines. Common variations include using only one of these devices or using near rhymes or variations on the word in the refrain. 


Steffen mostly uses the traditional Persian/Urdu ghazal form, and uses it well. His lines tend to be shorter than often found in English ghazals, many running 8-10 syllables and four or five accents. The following couplet, from "Ghazal (Late at Night)," illustrates Steffen's use of the form. (This is an opening couplet.)


               I wander streets we would walk at night,          

               Passing cafés where we'd talk at night.


Another convention of the Urdu ghazal is that the last couplet contains the poet's name or pen-name. Steffen doesn't utilize this convention much; a pronoun often serves that purpose. Here is the last couplet from "Whom We Call Ishmael:"


                We search for him whose words have guided us ~

                The Belovéd ~ whom we call Ishmael tonight.


Adapting a verse form with such specific conventions into English can be difficult. Steffen follows the conventions effectively, and he departs from them equally effectively. Using a rhyme with no refrain allows him to collate and overlap images, as in the last two couplets of "Broken Ghazal:"  


         We once sped on rails to autumnal lands.

         Now clouds travel the routes of those defunct trains.


         My hands memorize your hourglass waist ...

         Slow winds pass through distant sands, sifting grains.


This ghazal exemplifies Steffen's use of startling imagery, speaking of love in a variety of settings from pastoral to urban.


Another variation in English ghazals is three-line stanzas (tercets instead of couplets). Robert Bly devised this form, and several poets have written fine ghazals with it. Steffen's "Light Streams Through the Stained Glass Madonna," is an example of his use of light-imagery to express transcendent emotions and experiences.

A firm convention of the ghazal is that each couplet is considered an independent poem and the theme should jump and shift between them. Even though these discontinuities are important, there is also the tradition of ghazals with sustained, continuous themes. One of these in Jalsaghar is "Whom We Call Ishmael," a portrayal of social-political-spiritual catastrophe. As a whole, the ghazal depicts an apocalypse with ghosts, executions, falling angels, tornadoes, and (suddenly) The Belovéd, who is now called Ishmael. Since each couplet is separate, this poem definitely feels like a ghazal; yet the scene is built up like a montage of photographs, or stills from a movie.


"Whom We Call Ishmael" depicts a world of violence and shadows. The title not only recalls the opening of Moby Dick but also the traditional descent of the Arabic tribes from Abraham's son by Hagar, Ishmael. Rejection, exile, familial alienation resonate with other imagery of this ghazal. The last line, as well as the title, also alludes to Agha Shahid Ali's posthumous collection of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight. Steffen works this rich texture of allusions into a poem that will make perfect sense even to the reader who "gets" none of the allusions.


"[Translucent hummingbirds emanating]": the monorhyme of this ghazal floats and flickers like a hummingbird, as the poem depicts exotic scenes from across the world: Italy, Russia, India, Japan, Mexico, in a shifting overlay of references. It is well worth the reader's time to do a little Web searching to find the multiple meanings of the words involved. 


A Foreword is not the place to do detailed prosodic analyses of the poems in the collection, so I've selected one line from an early poem as an example of Steffen’s melodic ear:


          Words whir like insects from books in a pyre,


Listen to the relations of the vowels in "Words whir" and notice how "books" picks up the "c" in insects, and then how the closing "r" reflects "Words whir." Similar aspects can be seen in any of the lines of these ghazals. Part of the pleasure is hearing them in your own reading.


Steffen's meter is especially admirable ~ or rhythm, which is perhaps the better term as being more inclusive of the features of the language that make it a poem. Many of his ghazals use iambic pentameter adroitly, always expressively united with the imagery and meaning of the lines.


Another formal feature of these ghazals is condensed syntax. This is not the artificial syntax of "poetry" using an old-fashioned language with syntactic inversions and other tricks to get the meter and rhyme to work. No, this feature slows the pace of reading and draws attention to dynamism of the imagery. One example, the first couplet of "Ghazal of the Black Water:”


         Beneath trees shadows pool like black water.

         Ships spin in vortexes gales fuel in black water.


The second line uses both elision and condensation. Here is an expanded version which I offer hoping to clarify his method. My additions are in square brackets.


          Ships spin in vortexes [that are] fuel[ed by] gales in black water.


Both a relative clause and a passive voice (the words in brackets) are omitted to make the line more powerful, more intense, more musical.


Steffen Horstmann's ghazals illuminate the form's potential in English. He has been devoted to the study of the ghazal's development over the centuries and has stayed current regarding its adoption into English poetry. As a result, his ghazals are well-grounded in the traditions of both English poetry and the ghazal. 




Gene Doty


Editor, The Ghazal Page