A ghazal is a type of poem that is constructed with couplets, repeated words, and rhyming words.
At a minimum, there are five total couplets in a poem. This form does not exceed fifteen couplets at any time. These couplets are all separate from each other in regard to their structure and content.
The lines of a ghazal are all the same length but there is no single rhyme scheme, in English, that has to be used. In the first couplet, the writing brings in a rhyme scheme with both lines rhyming. this is then followed by every other couplet in which the second line rhymes with the lines of the first couplet. Each couplet ends with the same word or phrase (known as the radif) in some versions. This word or phrase is preceded by the rhyming word, known as the qafia. (This is the word that appears twice in the first couplet and then once in every couplet after).
Sometimes a poet will choose to include something personal in the last couplet. This might be a reference to the author, their name, or a signature of some kind. The ghazal form usually speaks about deep, metaphysical questions of life as well as love and longing. They are usually melancholy and reserved.
History of the Ghazal
The form originated in seventh-century Arabia and is now most popular with Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani musicians. But, it has been picked up by many well-known English-speaking writers. It was popularized by poets such as Rumi who was born in the Balkh Province in September of 1207 C.E. The form was used in numerous other languages, such as Pashto, Turkish and more. Poets such as Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spanish speaking writer, also experiment with the ghazal.
Today, the ghazal retains its popularity in the middle east and South Asia. It is held in high regard by the nobility of those regions. One of the reasons is that ghazals can be so complex that they are often only accessible to those with higher levels of education.
Examples of Ghazals
Example #1 Ghazal by John Hollander
John Hollander is one of the best-known English language poets to attempt and succeed at writing a ghazal. Unlike many English poets, he chose to stick to the precise structure outlined above. This example is a clever one in that it lays out the rules for writing and understanding a ghazal and its various couplets. Here are the few three couplets of ‘Ghazal’:
For couplets, the ghazal is prime; at the end
Of each one’s a refrain like a chime: “at the end.”
But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,
It’s this second line only will rhyme at the end.
On a string of such strange, unpronounceable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!
It is quite obvious from the first stanza what the repeating word is going to be. The phrase “at the end” appears at the end of the first two lines and then at the end of the second line in each following couplet. The rhyming word, or the qafia, is also easy to spot. It is, from the first line to the last line of this excerpt: “prime,” “chime,” “rhyme,” and “lime”. The following couplets all use a connected rhyming word. Such as “crime,” “climb,” or “dime”.
Example #2 The sky has never seen such a moon by Rumi
Due to the complexity of the form, it is quite difficult to accurately translate, and keep all the elements, ghazals from one language to the next. A good example of how the words and meaning, but not the form, maybe conveyed is in Rumi’s ‘The sky has never seen such a moon’. Here are the first three couplets of this lovely poem:
The sky has never seen such a moon, not even in its dreams,
No water could ever extinguish the fire of its light,
Look at my body, and look at my soul
From his cup of love, my soul is drunk, my body ruined
The tavern keeper became my heart’s companion
Love turned my blood into wine, and burned my heart
The imagery in these lines is striking. Rumi moves couplet to couplet connecting images of drinking, the soul, and the heart.