The Ghazal

The ghazal — one of the forms that will be considered in this spring’s Jersey City Writers poetry competition — dates back to seventh-century Arabia. As the form flourished in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Persia (Hafiz and Rumi are two well-known Persian writers of ghazals from this period), it can now be found in many languages, including Farsi, Arabic, Hindi, Pashto, Urdu, Turkish, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and, more recently, English. Though in many traditions ghazals have often been sung or recited, in English they primarily live on the page.

Ghazals traditionally deal with some mix of love, longing, loss, death, metaphysical questions, religious belief, and mysticism. Emotionally, they may be romantic, passionate, melancholy, or even witty or irreverent. They often center around a beloved: a lover, a cherished person or part of the world, or perhaps a higher being–a divine beloved. You can get creative with this! Elise Paschen’s poem, “Sam’s Ghazal,” is a poem of love, jealousy, and devotion written “to” Paschen “from” her dog, Sam.

While we refer to a ghazal as a single poem, it is better understood as a collection of two-line mini-poems that share a common meter, rhyme pattern, and refrain (described below). Each verse of a ghazal should be semantically autonomous, able to stand on its own, though these independent verses will play off each other to create greater thematic and emotional complexity when collected into a ghazal. In fact, as Holly Jensen notes, since each verse of the ghazal is its own small poem “[they] need not [even] tell a single narrative, share a single voice, or use common imagery.” The ghazal’s sonic patterns will do the work of bringing the verses together into a unified whole.

Structurally, a ghazal has these basic characteristics:

  • It is a poem of five to twelve (or so) two-line verses.
  • Since each verse is an independent mini-poem unto itself, there should be no enjambment between the verses. With the exception of the first and last verses, which have some special features, the verses in ghazal can be freely added, omitted, or rearranged.
  • In each verse there should be a turn, or volta, when moving from the first line to the second.
  • Each verse uses the same rhyme and refrain. (Yes, just one rhyme for the whole ghazal!)
  • The refrain may be a word or a phrase. If the refrain is a prepositional phrase, it’s OK to switch up the prepositions (for example, “in our bed” may become “on our bed”).
  • The refrain appears at the end of the second line of each verse.
  • The rhyme appears immediately before the refrain in the second line of each verse.
  • With the exception of the first line of the first verse (i.e., the first line of the whole ghazal), the first line of a verse can be anything–there are no sonic restrictions.
  • First verse only: The rhyme and refrain occur at the end of both lines of the ghazal’s first verse. This is how the reader/listener learns what rhyme-refrain combination the ghazal is using. The refrain will be the same words at the end of both lines; the rhyme is the same sound (though different words) coming just before the refrain in both lines.
  • Each line of the ghazal should be about the same length, including the rhyme and refrain. The length may be short, medium, or even very long, as long as you are consistent in whatever syllable length or metrical system you choose for your ghazal.
  • The last verse of the ghazal often contains the poet’s “signature,” invoking the poet’s name, a persona/pen name, or perhaps a reference to the meaning/derivation of the poet’s name.
  • Not all ghazals follow all these rules–it’s OK if your last verse doesn’t have a signature, for example. But when writing your ghazal do try your best to stick to the rhyme, refrain, and line length you have chosen.

This list of rules might seem overwhelming at first, but you will quickly get a feel for how they all work together simply by reading a few poems. A good starting point is John Hollander’s famous Ghazal on Ghazals, which walks you through the main rules as the poem progresses. (Hollander uses the pen name “Qafia Radif” as his signature in the last verse. This “name” refers to the poet as one who uses rhyme (qafia) and refrain (radif) in his poem.)

Other notable ghazals available online include John Canaday’s “New England”, G.S. Sharat Chandra’s “The Anonymous Lover”, Marcyn Del Clements’ “Dreams”, and John Drury’s “For Laurie” .

And finally, be sure to check out Paul Muldoon’s impressive poem, “A Double Ghazal for Seamus Heaney”. Can you see why Muldoon calls this a “double” ghazal?

Further Reading

If you are interested in learning more about the ghazal, Agha Shahib Ali’s seminal anthology of English-language ghazals, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, is an invaluable resource. You can read excerpts via Google Books, borrow a copy through your library, or purchase from your local bookshop or an online retailer.

Other online resources include:

* The Academy of American Poets’ article on the ghazal

* Holly Jensen’s Introduction to the Ghazal

* Frances W. Pritchett’s discussion of the ghazal, including a description of oral recitation of ghazals and a glossary of terms related to the ghazal (qafia, radif, shir, matla, etc).

Write with us

The ghazal is one of the forms that will be considered in this spring’s Jersey City Writers poetry competition. The deadline for this competition is April 10, 2017; please see this blog post for more information.

Join us for a workshop at Gia Gelato at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 25, to explore the ghazal and write one of your own.


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