What is a Ghazal?
The Ghazal is one of the most popular forms of poetry across the Middle East and South Asia, but has risen in popularity in the West. It uses refrain and rhyme, and sometimes shared length of couplets.
The Ghazal originated in Arabia in the 7th Century, evolving from the Qasida, a much longer form of poetry comparable to the Ode. Due to this long lineage, as a component of the Qasida, it is considered one of the oldest forms of poetry still in use. Supposedly, the name comes from the sound a wounded gazelle makes as it dies, although it means something akin to “conversations with women” in Persian.
Qasidas were often used to aggrandise rulers, tribes or moral messages, beginning with a prelude called the Nasīb, a nostalgic, highly ornamented and stylised section. In time, this section would grow apart from the Qasida, retaining its metre and en-rhyme but with more of a focus on love.
The Ghazal came into its own during the Ummayyad Era (661–750), evolving in line with musical demands and becoming shorter. ʿUmar ibn Abī Rabīʿah, of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, is one of the earliest writers of Ghazal.
With the spread of Islam, the Ghazal made its way across Africa and Spain. Commonly the popularity of the Ghazal was tied to the spread of the Arabic language; however, examples of Ghazal written in Hebrew have been found, dating to Medieval Spain.
It is in the 10th Century that the most significant changes to the Ghazal emerged, owing to its arrival and dispersion across Iran. The Persian Ghazal did not use radical enjambment between the two halves of the couplets, preferring to treat them as complete clauses, and the Persian Ghazal formalised the use of common rhyme in the opening couplet.
The Persian Ghazal underwent further evolution following the Mongol invasions. The Radif, a repeating word used directly after the rhyme in every rhyming line of the poem, originally an obscure feature, became a standard part of the Ghazal. Additionally, during this period, Takhallus—the mentioning of the poet’s pen name in the final couplet—became commonplace.
Over time the couplets became more autonomous, functioning as separate poems in their own right. Further proliferation continued, with the form arriving in the Indian subcontinent. Amir Khusru was one of the earlier Indian poets writing in the form, writing Ghazals in both Persian and Hindi. Persian was the dominant literary language of India; however, Ghazals were written in many of the country’s other prominent languages, such as Hindi, Gugurati, Punjabi, Bengali, and Urdu.
The classical Ghazal world, with its rich patrons, is considered to have died off in the Indian Revolution of 1857. This attempt to remove the East India Company from power in Colonial India also inspired the anti-Ghazal ‘natural poetry movement’ which used the Ghazal as a tool of protest against the Ghazal’s limited imagery and restrictive diction.
The Ghazal arrived in Europe in the 19th Century, through translations of earlier Persian work. Goethe is particularly noted for his translations of Ghazals, inspiring other German poets, including Friedrich Rückert and August Graf von Platen to adopt the form. The Ghazal has developed into a sizeable body of German-language work owing to this influence.
The Ghazal was known to English writers by the 1920s. However, in the 60s the Ghazal came to be understood in English as a free-verse poem—a series of disconnected couplets.
In the 90s, the poet Agha Shahid Ali began to insist on the form’s formal restraints, calling them “real Ghazals,” and editing a 2000 landmark anthology titled Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, although less than a tenth of the Ghazal in the collection observed the strict form.
A Ghazal is formed of between five and fifteen couplets. Each of these couplets is not required to address a central theme; instead the couplets are anchored by the refrain and rhyme, as well as their shared length (though the metre is not always imposed when written in English).
Unusually, the Ghazal does no strictly focus on end-rhyme. The word considered to rhyme is instead the penultimate word, while the final word is considered the refrain—a word that repeats in both lines of the couplet, as well as the final line of each couplet.
Adapting notation used for rhyme, a Ghazal should resemble:
In this example, the letter shows the rhyming structure for the penultimate word, and the R where stated is the final word refrain on each line.
The Ghazal evolved from being used to praise leaders or cultures, so it is perhaps obvious that it should eventually grow into a romantic form.
The Ghazal narrator is often speaking from a position in which the object of their affections is unattainable, though this is not always a person. The Ghazal has enjoyed popularity amongst writers of Middle-Eastern descent as a way of reflecting upon their diaspora and cultural history. In this, the love is instead a nostalgia.
Owing to its loose nature, the Gazhal has proven useful to express a range of content. As the form has evolved over its long history, sub-genres have emerged containing themes of courtly love (udharî), eroticism (hissî), and homo-eroticism (mudhakkar).
The Ghazal does not, at first, seem like a complex form, but its resolute rhyming can be quite taxing for the writer, and its lack of central theme can develop a less obsessive sense of focus in the aspiring poet.
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© 2019 Connor Sansby
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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.