Commentary on Ghazals by Eric Folsom
More on Ghazals by Gene Doty
More Commentary on Ghazals by Jane Reichhold
The Very Best Explanation of Ghazal on the Web


For Rose, a 30th Valentine by Gene Doty
Slipping Away by Eric Folsom
Just Another Yuppie Raising Children by Eric Folsom
A Taste of Entry by Werner Reichhold
Ghazal #1 by Gene Doty
Ghazal #2 by Gene Doty
Ghazal #3 by Gene Doty




Commentary on Ghazals

Commentary on Ghazals

Eric Folsom

The ghazal, many will tell you, is an ancient Persian form of verse. The OED notes that it is generally erotic in nature, limited in the number of stanzas, and uses a recurring rhyme. The western impression, dating back to the last century and earlier, is that ghazals celebrate love and wine, but it is interesting to discover that ghazals can be found today in modern pop music. The Indo-British singer known as Najma for instance, uses a number of ghazals (in Hindi if my memory is correct) as the lyrics of her songs. They are quite haunting, long soft syllables with tabla and saxophone solos, and gist of the words amounts to no more than the usual hyperbole of love song lyrics. No Bacchanalia.

In the U.S. of course, people like Bly and Rich have been the catalysts for the emergence of the new English language form of the ghazal. In Canada, however, the catalyst was a transplanted Englishman named John Thompson. He lived at Wood Point, New Brunswick, not far from what may arguably be the most famous landscape in Canadian verse, the Tantramar Marshes near Fundy Bay. Thompson's writing was utterly unlike the Canadian classics by Bliss Carman and others. He wrote instead a kind of agonized nature and man poetry, a type of free verse akin to Galway Kinnell and Ted Hughes, and in the last years before his suicide he turned to the ghazal.

Thompson wrote a brief introduction to the ghazal in his posthumous collection Stilt Jack. He notes that ghazals proceed by couplets, five to a poem — though he himself ignores the rule — and that the couplets have "no necessary logical, progressive, narrative, thematic (or whatever) connection." In other words, a strong underground, so to speak, connection does and must exist, but the association is beyond words, beyond our ability to articulate except insofar as the poem itself articulates. As Thompson says, "the poem has no palpable intention upon us. It breaks, has to be listened to as a song: its order is clandestine."

In the years since Thompson's ground-breaking work, the ghazal in Canada has been taken up by Phyllis Webb and Tony Cozier, but never again in the same gut-wrenching, beautiful, heart-breaking way that John Thompson did. The form itself is elusive, like trying to hammer down Zen with three inch spikes. Nice when it works, though.

The trick, in my estimation, is to let each couplet stand as an object, perfected and twisted to its own individual end... and then see what calls to it. What voice in the lonely night would answer such an image? What can you make from a piece of driftwood found on a deserted lake?

Let go.



Gene Doty

Since I first read about ghazals in Carol Atkins' Lynx article, I've pursued information about the form and written some myself. I appreciate Thomas L. Ferte's piece in Lynx IX.I. I have a few thoughts about ghazals in English.

First, the linking aspect, which Carol Atkins emphasized, was what first appealed to me. Without the "jumping" from couplet to couplet, an English "ghazal" would only be a poem in couplets.

Second, I've found my ghazals tend to have longer lines than my other poems usually do. Long lines is a feature I'd like to see retained in English ghazals (but what counts as a long line?)

Third, I've not used rhyme. There do seem to be possibilities in that direction, and I'd like to see some English ghazals that use rhyme.

Fourth, I've tried the convention of "signing" the ghazal in the last link and feel uncomfortable with it. I wonder if that is a convention that will carry over into English.

Fifth, almost all of the ghazals I've done are spiritual or erotic (or both) in content and image. John Drury (Creating Poetry) invites open experimentation. I'd be reluctant to argue that English ghazals should be limited in subject matter. Perhaps this point is similar to discussions over the distinction between haiku and senryu.

I believe Jim Harrison is another American poet who has done ghazals.



Jane Reichhold

Ghazal writers gather round. Into our dim awareness of the form comes another ray of light.

First of all, if you have been pronouncing the term as gay-zaal. It's now wrong. The official Arabic is supposed to sound like ghuzzle. I don't know about you, but I am dashed.

When I first heard of the ghazal, it was presented as a carpe diem poem with wine and women as the answer to all of man's woes. I could enjoy Rumi's poems but I was soon tired of the tavern atmosphere of other authors. And now to know the term is spoken as ghuzzle?

It was the poetry of English writers making free with the form and introducing wide new subject matter who gave me a new appreciation of the genre. Eric Folsom of Canada and Gene Doty of Missouri were among the first ghazal writers to be published in Lynx. Many readers enjoyed the leaps of subject matter (rather like a renga) between the couplets and the parallel lines often echoed the two-line links. The lack of narrative, the non-linear progression, the ambiguity and the switches in person and place were familiar attributes from the renga.

The other day I received Poetry Pilot, The Newsletter of the Academy of American Poets, and in it was an article, "Transparently Invisible: An Invitation from the Real Ghazal" by Agha Shahid Ali, who describes himself as a "Third-World Muslim" and student of the 1300 year old poetry form -- the ghazal. (When you read that word did you say to yourself -- ghuzzle?)

The main thrust of his article was to show us how wrong and how far from the "real thing" our English ghazals are. He relates how he views our efforts as "irritating" and "at best amusing". According to Agha Shahid Ali, the only "real" ghazals are those which follow the stringent scheme of the rhyme within the first couplet and the strict use of the refrain. The "refrain" is the very last word in the couplet which, he insists, must be repeated as the last word in each of the following couplets.

It was also explained how the first couplet has a rhyme half-way into each of the two lines. This pattern is followed only in the beginning. Subsequent couplets are bound only to repeat the last word. For a bad example:

On a day sublime, like this one here
A sample prime of the art of June

It had previously been my understanding that the refrain was not a repeat of the same word but the use of words within the same rhyme family -- June, moon, hewn, etc. (Dig out the Capricorn Rhyming Dictionary.) It seems there is a bit more latitude if one could simply rhyme -- far or close -- the last word of each couplet.

Though it is possible to work out a poem using the same word in its various uses as the refrain (especially some of our words with many meanings like strike, love, art, etc.) there is a limited number of "good" useable words. Perhaps this is reason enough to get started -- get dibs on the best ones.

Additional motivation is given by Agha Shahid Ali who is collecting poems for "an anthology of real ghazals in English". "No free-verse ghazals." (Emphasis his) The deadline is September 30, 1996. Send your ghazals to him at Department of English, Bartlett Hall, University of Massachussettes-Amherst, Amhurst, MA 01003.

If you wish to read more English translations of ghazals, two books are mentioned. One by Carolyn Kizer who translated Faiz Ahmed Faiz (no title given) and The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz by Elizabeth T. Gray. I have just requested these from my bookstore, so until a report is available from someone, you are on your own with these.

Your comments and information are gladly accepted by email to


For Rose, a 30th Valentine

Gene Doty

Saturn bright in the southern sky
after a gradually mellowing sunset.

At the banquet, I watch you carefully place
the trout's skin over its dull eyes.

Our flesh ages day-by-day,
changing us into other beings entirely.

A menu of all the meals we've taken together;
only one thing nourishes us.

Deep in your eyes I glimpse silence
waiting to receive me again.

Every sound this evening, a lover's touch,
sweet & brief, lingering resonance.

Signs of age surface in our flesh,
drifting tints of sorrow & absence.

Venus blazes beyond your west window;
in your bed, our limbs spell jOy.



Slipping Away

Eric Folsom

Whatever lies frozen in the ice, a mitten or a Buick,
suspended as though floating upside down in the sky.

The fiddle music was over, so the priest went home
and saw the ghost of his father sitting on the bed.

Late in the season when the ice gets soft,
some drunk tries to cross at night and disappears.

Most people worry about saying the wrong thing,
think too long about the darkness beneath their feet.

Wheels lock automatically
when passenger doors are open.

She gave her daughter the red sweater and a key
to the safety deposit box down at the bank.

Something that shouldn't have been there;
a car in the same spot for days, gathering tickets.



Just Another Yuppie Raising Children

Eric Folsom

When the lights came on, our apartment
had been reborn as a red hibiscus.

In those days everything went into my journals,
each ordinary discovery about love and children.

The sweetness of our cumulative sleep deficit;
the baby woke again, and we danced with her till dawn.

I said to my anti-war friends: we've won,
don't you see they're all getting old and dying?

Weighing the hour in my chapped hands,
I borrowed the lanolin you bought for your breasts.

Laboring with love for love, the wedding ring
on the spice shelves while I do the dishes.



A Taste of Entry

Werner Reichhold

Dark matter, in her eyes the health of distance,
when with delay the plane landed in a burst of flames.

Barefaced in transformation starboard, first touch
of essential ground; temporarily not embodied, wave

of a soul enters the mosaic of a time-shredding reptile;
it is mushroom, hot consistency rooming with a taste

of sudden entry; no disc preformatted, abundant energy
offers a first tickle to Anna's toes.

Her three-month-old fetus rebuilding its watery
boundaries into the unnamed; slip, slit sliding unlimited

stream of fear? The pilot on its nomadic journey,
flight flooded, pouring air; the the navigator's needle oscillating

to a picture in his wallet said no; nineteen, college.
karate and breath of a surfer bursting leeward.

here the one sail's move changes speed.-
There lingers a logic of no withdrawal from barefooted

flames on delay, a manifold of almost-touch.
may I, the mail go greeting foamed stamps?



Ghazal #1

by Gene Doty

The belt of joined metal plates clanks
when I take her hips and pull her close.

I make my mouth the size of her nipple;
the Country's flag pops in the wind.

An alphabet of touches
--press the letter O to your lips.

I hear her voice upstairs,
her radio left on all day long.

Sharp consonants of the doorknocker,
the dog woofs in counterpoint.

The body too will cease to be,
become minor fragments, ashes and gas.



Ghazal #2

by Gene Doty

Cow's skull in the creek bed.
a runnel of mossy water alongside.

Chalky face of our classmate
shadowed by the casket's patient lid.

Hot weather: we sleep on the haywagon,
waking to dew on our thin blankets.

Soft ecstasy of the maggots in the possum's corpse;
floating children in a mist of pain.

What you want is what you are;
demons swarming in frightened wrists.



Ghazal #3

by Gene Doty

Sitting in the outhouse,
the child sings a slow song.

August in Kansas
melts his mother's face.

She lies in darkness, crying
while sunlight burnishes the grass.

In a kitchen corner,
the child's shoes gather dust.

Two sides of each cube grooved
so the blocks lock together.

So abstract, the twiggy letters
shape no clue to sound.

For more of Gene Doty's ghazals .

Copyright © by AHA Books 1995.

All Rights remain with authors.