My Poetry Archive: The Ghazal Page
The Persian-style ghazal consists of a series of thematically unconnected couplets (shers) with lines of equal length, unified by a refrain (radif) at the end of the second line of each sher (in the first, at the end of both lines). The radif is preceded by a monorhyme (qafia). Traditionally the writer's name occurs somewhere in the final sher.
I first became aware of the ghazal form in the wake of 9/11. On that day my son George, an ethnomusicologist specializing in Persianate cultures, opened at random his volume of the medieval Persian poet Hafez. Hafez is regarded as an oracle in the Persian-speaking world, much the same way Virgil was in medieval Europe. And George landed on a ghazal which spoke to him so powerfully that he made a rough English translation. The refrain (radif) was Do not be consumed by grief. I put it in the winter 2001 issue of Types & Shadows, the Journal of the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts, of which I was then editor.
The foremost advocate and practitioner of the Persian-style ghazal in English was the late Agha Shalid Ali (1949-2001), who was dismayed by the prevailing fashion for defining a ghazal as a series of disjointed couplets with neither radif nor qafia. I have his own book of Persian-style ghazals in English, Call me Ishmael Tonight, as well as a collection he compiled of Persian-style ghazals by American poets, Ravishing Disunities. They are both delightful and inspiring, the moreso since so many of them depart from the traditional subjects of romantic love and mysticism; some are playful unto hilarity.
When I tried my first ghazal, I found it to be such a congenial form that I wrote several more. The disjointed couplets provide a great way to use the bits and pieces which inhabit my mind, and the monorhyme spurs odd connections. As for putting my name in the final sher, I have a triple advantage: I can use Esther, green leaf, or mirror.
Having written four that I felt were presentable, I cast about for a place to submit them for publication, and found The Ghazal Page. Gene Doty, a retired professor of Engish based in Missouri, goes by the editorial nom de web of Gino Peregrini. On his site he explores the ins and outs of ghazals in styles both Persian and Arabic.
I sent him my four ghazals, which he published in the October 2007 issue: Progress, Chocolate guzzle, Agenda, and Threnody. He added an editorial comment (below the last one) that floored me.
The following year Gino presented us with a series of challenges, i.e. everyone was to write a ghazal on the given radif. I participated in two of those: Clouds and Rain and Sugar .
Gino is also interested in exploring the possibilities of the ghazal form for variants, hybrids, and the like. The tercet challenge asked us to find a way of writing 3-line shers. I tried expanding the monorhyme into what I called a Welsh ghazal. Another hybrid, which was published in this year's April Fool issue, was Haibun: Failed ghazal with interruptions
The ghazal continues to be a form I turn to for inspiration, for instance when I'm stuck during National Poetry Writing month.