XVI:3 October, 2001

A Journal for Linking Poets    


Ghazal Gathering 
by Jane Reichhold

There is room for your article or essay in the next issue of Lynx. Rant, rage and inform - it is up to you to be heard - or read as the case may be.

Jane Reichhold

By not being involved with the beginning of the active haiku movement in the USA in the late sixties, (I was busy getting out of the country), I never knew about the ways and methods by which the genre came to be so well-known. Until 1980, I thought I was the only person in the modern world writing haiku in English. And I was so ill-informed of the form that I did not recognize how haiku was influencing the writers I was studying who never would have admitted to admiring the genre let alone putting their own poems in an imitation of the form. Sometimes, it seems, ignorance is truly bliss as I am often grateful to have been spared the haiku wars of the seventies with the load of anger and jealousy they espoused and perpetuated. Already, by the eighties, the rough spots had been patched with asphalt and the new paths were smoothed with handrails and almost adequate signs as more and better translations showed us that the early educators had not been able to give us the whole story of what a haiku was to the Japanese.

With the ghazal my position has been somewhat different. When Werner and I were passed Lynx from Terri Lee Grell in 1992, the very first issue had a ghazal in it and in the next issue was an article about ghazal writing by Edna Kovac. Her view and her opinions were off-center enough to evoke a lively response from Thomas Foote, and other writers who had studied the genre more. Yet all of these writers were dependent upon translations and the spare knowledge of introductions in books of ghazal translation. In spite of these drawbacks, or perhaps in the freedom of much ignorance, a number of poets were happily experimenting with the form. Eric Folsom of Canada had written a whole sheaf of them which he gave us to publish as we had space in Lynx. It was rare that there was an issue without at least one or two ghazals; a fact that was true in the past and currently.

Over the years we had how-to articles on the ghazal, usually written by the persons who were filling the ghazal columns with their examples. Ken Leibman, Bruce Williams, Red Slider, Gene Doty, Harsangeet Kaur Bhullar (read her article on her web site), William Dennis and Agha Shahid Ali all had their say. As it had been with haiku, each person’s discovery of their part of the elephant changed the understanding of the whole animal.

At first there was no agreement even on how to spell the word. Earliest reports on the form have spelled it ‘ghasel’ and ‘ghasal’ and even ‘gazel’. Now it seems to be that most persons use ‘ghazal’ yet we still have not agreed how to pronounce ‘ghazal’ in English. Is it to be spoken as gay-zel; calling to mind the grace of the leaping animal of the savanna? Or are we to say ‘ghuzzle’ to commemorate these old poems of the divinity of wine drinking? Or shall we imitate the Indian tongue with the silent gh leaving one with a wisp of an ‘h’ or even an ‘r’ almost connected to the ‘uzzle’ which when spoken before the uninitiated sounds like a speech defect forcing one to spell out the term in order to agree on the subject matter. In spite of the newer lessons, it seems that the original sounds were closer to the sound of ‘gay-zel’. Even the Germans, who had discovered the genre at the time of Goethe, (he wrote his versions as Westoestlicher Divan - 1819), spelled the term "Ghaselen’.

Next comes the problem of how to title the poems. Authorities maintain that in the original language the ghazal has no title. And when the ghazal is written out this is so. The first word is the beginning of the first line. And yet, when native speakers wish to refer to a specific poem they usually call it by the radif or the repeated word that works as the refrain. Since many English versions of the ghazal dispense with the repeat or rhyme, there is nothing to identify one ghazal from another. Some persons (I am thinking of Werner Reichhold) has the first few words of the first line set in a bold font to indicate that this shall be the title without repeating the beginning words. Others only number their ghazals and many of the ones printed in Lynx came out as "Ghazal One" and "Ghazal Two".

In the native language the ghazal also does not contain the author’s name in the place where we expect it in an English poem – under the title (since there is no title, this makes sense). In the ghazal the author weaves his name into the lines of the last couplet (very few are known by women, which does not mean that women didn’t write them; only that their poems were not saved). Sometimes the person takes on a persona or a nickname but it is the handle by which he is known as writer. For English writers, the idea of putting their name into their poem seems to be very egotistic and calls too much attention to themselves yet whether the name is here or there is truly neither "here nor there". If poets are able to take this step, it often takes a while to feel comfortable with the practice. Having a non de plume makes it easier. Strange how easily we accept one convention and how hard it is to do something new. (An aside: I have noticed in the posting of the poems sent to Open Mic that often even free verse no longer has a title and many of those with titles will only place their name below the poem. Something is afoot and happening here.)

It has been fairly easy for everyone to agree that the ghazal should be written in couplets – two lines that have some kind of a cohesion of thought and syntax. And yet, because when written in Farsi or Urdu, there is no space between the couplets, many translations were at first printed out like a sonnet. Now the ghazal couplet is set so each one can be identified and enjoyed as a single stanza or poem.

When one hears a ghazal spoken there is often the feeling that the first line has a middle break - as strong as a colon or semi-colon. The break in the second line, if it is there at all, is sometimes as soft as a comma or the use of the idea of an ‘and’ or ‘yet’. There is not much emphasis put on this factor so it is rarely argued except in comparing translations. Yet, if one works with the need for meter and rhythm these breaks become of greater importance.

Since the length of the ghazal is not an issue, everything is possible and will certainly be tried. Somehow there is the idea that five couplets is the minimum; otherwise how can the poet show his (and hopefully her) versatility and acrobatics in less lines? Since each couplet can theoretically stand alone, it is possible to have just one verse, but these are very rare.

The really big sticking place in ghazal discussions concerns the radif or the repeat. The most relaxed position of proponents of the repeat is that one only needs to use the same word to end each of the second lines of the couplets.




The trick and gymnastics becomes the twist of the mind to make bold leaps in subject matter between the couplets and yet end up with the same word at the end of the various ideas to end the line. When live audiences listen to a poet recite a ghazal, they hang on every word waiting to see how the images can twist around to land on the very same spot of a repeated word. Sometimes the radif is a one-word noun. The author only needs to pick one that has several meanings or uses, line these down the page and fill in the blanks (it is not that easy to do, but helps the beginner).

Sometimes the repeat occurs with a rhyme in the next to the last word (which is repeated throughout). An example would be in couplets ending with "went too", "rent too" , "sent two", and "went to". Another example is "to you", shoo you", and "boo you". I think you get the idea.

An elaboration on this technique is to require that the first use of the radif end the first break in the first line.

-------------love, -------------

A variation is to end both lines of the beginning couplet with the repeat.


For most English ears, especially ones tired of rhymes, this feels like overkill, so it is very often ignored by thinking that the repeat ending the couplet is enough. Subsequent lines then only continue the rhyme (qafia) or repeat-refrain (radif) at the end of the couplet. Some people, I am thinking of Agha Shahid Ali in his book Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, maintain that unless there is a repeat or rhyme in all the couplets, the work cannot be righteously called a ghazal. All of the poems he has picked as "real ghazals" have this feature firmly in place. If one takes this stand, the major portion of the ghazals written thus far, by such poets as Adrienne Rich (Leaflets), Wallace Stevens, Robert Bly, Gene Doty and myself are not "real". 

As the translations become more faithful, as native speakers continue to educate us about the genre, more and more people are accepting this feature and working with the idea of the repeat in their poems. In the table of contents of Ravishing DisUnities you can find the famous names of Maxin Kumin, Diane Ackerman, and W.S. Merwin. Among the familiar names of persons who have been in Lynx are: Marcyn Del Clements, Katherine Coles, Robert William Watkins and Bruce Williams and all of their poems have the repeat firmly in place.

The fact that non-English ghazals are either ‘sung’ or spoken to musical accompaniment, demands that the lines have a similar beat count or meter. The author is fairly free in establishing this factor. Sticking to it is another matter – the one that shows the poet’s mettle. Most people do not count syllables or even beats but simply rely on their own sense of music to determine the length of the lines or not. Yet there is always someone who wants to make a hard and fast rule about this factor.

The aspect of the ghazal that interests writers of haiku and renga is the leap that is to be made between couplets. Within a couplet there is to be a strong cohesion; enough to make it a complete and independent ‘little poem’ in the same way a renga link can be a haiku. The hard part for many Westerners is to then drop that subject, make a leap into completely new territory with new ideas and images. This is a basic aspect of inner ghazal construction yet is so easily ignored if one has not learned to appreciate renga. Stream of consciousness writing prepares the poet for this path but one has to be a little wild and courageous to do it well. Learning the various techniques and methods of renga linking is invaluable for ghazal writing.

As with the haiku, the ideas of punctuation and capitalization are open to the author and thus, show a wide range of possibilities. Some persons capitalize only the first word of the couplet and begin the second line with a lower case letter. Many capitalize the first word of all lines regardless of sentence syntax. Some persons make sentences within the couplets and use common English capitalization however the lines form. Some people drop all caps, which gets problematic as the ghazal, more than the haiku, seems to need punctuation to guide the reader around the courses. As is often repeated: there is to be absolutely no enjambment between the couplets. This almost demands a period at the end of the couplet unless the sentence syntax is very clear. Yet the practice the poet takes up for these factors seems more dependent on the previous habits of the author’s for writing poetry than any conformity of the ghazal form.

Subject matter has greatly enlarged since the ghazal has flown from the lips in Persia and India. Where once the form was filled with songs praising wine drinking, religious ecstasy and (mostly) homosexual love (though the word ‘ghazal’ supposedly means "talking to women") - much in the vein of our country and Western music, it has now enlarged to accept any variation or modification of these practices and spreads out into philosophy, observation and stream of consciousness writing. There is an immense lyricism in original ghazals – a factor that makes the genre so attractive to Western poets, as it is carried in the arms of sorrow, heartbreak and wit.

More and more it is becoming fashionable in English to toss around the official terms of matla (the opening couplet), radif (the repeated word or refrain), qafia (rhyme), makha (last verse) sher (poem), mushaira (poetry gathering) but none of these will assure of you writing an acceptable ghazal in English. But do not let mispronunciations hold you back. Your experiments in poetry will simply be joining a longer line of historical figures’ efforts.

Where did the ghazal come from?

The first master of the form is usually recognized as being the Persian poet Hafiz (1325 – 1389), so that this century was considered the golden age of the genre in Farsi (Persian language). Ghalib (1797 – 1869) is the recognized master in the Urdu language. Agha Shahid Ali claims that the form was already known in the seventh century in Persia. This boast makes me wonder if there is a connection between that date and the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (649 AD) with the resulting Diaspora of the Jewish people whose most widely published poetry form was the parallelism as is familiar to us in the Psalms of the Old Testament. If these ancient poems are translated from the Hebrew in a more faithful manner, and forgetting the verse numbering system of current Bibles, one can rediscover the parallelism of poetry in the Psalms. (Take a look at Psalms of the New Testament if you need proof.)

One can almost see where the ‘new’ rules of the ghazal tightened up the form and gave it new hoops to jump through as the poets got parallelism down pat. And nowadays, there is very little interest in parallelism perhaps because of its primitive beginnings and the ease with which one can compose the couplets. The form of parallelism also flourished in early Chinese poetry and was taken to Japan where they added the idea of the leap and the twist to make tanka. Still parts of tanka are parallels. The comparisons of effects in nature and human feelings are a product of parallel thinking. And in tanka, when this is all there is, the verse lacks the excitement. The challenge of the active twist or pivot is the major excitement of both tanka and the ghazal. Korea checks in with the same development of parallels with an added twist to create its sijo.

At this point in time, more and more translations of the works of the famous, and even not so famous ghazal poets are beginning to appear in English. As the situation always is, no one is completely happy with the works of anyone else in the field. Due to a variety of meanings for one word, it is almost impossible to use one English word to end each of the couplets in translations as in the original. In the thirty poems of Ghalib, translated by Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta (his son-in-law) in The Lightning Should have Fallen on Ghalib, only one, built on the word "enough" but given the title "Leftovers in the Cup" by Bly, keeps the refrain in all nine verses.

This factor of being unable to use the repeat in another language causes the problem that the reader who becomes enamored of the ghazal through translations, and uses them as models for poems in English, will be happy to not use rhyme or refrain. And some very excellent poems can be written in this manner which deserve to be accepted as they are. On the other hand, the ghazal teacher, the ghazal pope, will be directing traffic saying "that is a ghazal" and "that one is not a ghazal" based on this lone point.

My problem is that I can admire ghazals in translation that do not twist themselves out of shape in order to keep the rhyme / repeat and when I read ghazals in English that do keep this structure I get a feeling I am being strangled or hit over the head. Rarely am I able to enjoy the way the poet solves the challenge. Usually the repeat bangs shut the door of images streaming in my head with a movement that is akin to pain. And like the rhymed English verse, this type of ghazal puts my mind to sleep when I know how the next couplet will end.

I would like for us to remain open to all kinds of ghazals, as Gene Doty does with his Ghazal Page web site. I think his attitude is more positive, more modern, more interesting than the hard and fast rules of persons like Agha Shahid Ali who want to establish what he calls "the real ghazal in English". My idea is that we stay open to all variations and attempts so that the poets themselves, by their words and their works, will establish how the ghazal will become in the new land of our language. Instead of making ourselves write to a formal pattern, if we are allowed to try on different robes of different colors to see what garment carries best the message of the heart, I feel the ghazal has a real chance to become a beloved genre in our foreign lands.

A list of translations you might read:

1. The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib:Selected Poems of Ghalib translated by Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta. The Ecco Press: 1999.

2. A Garden Beyond Paradise – The Mystic Poetry of Rumi translated by Jonathan Star and Sharhram Shiua. Bantam Books: 1992.

3. The Kabir Book – Forty-Four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir translated by Robert Bly. Beacon Press: 1977.

4. The Spiritual Wisdom of Haféz – Teachings of the Philosopher of Love translated by Haleh Pourafzal and Roger Mongomery. Inner Traditions International: 1998.

5. A Unique Ghazal Companion which contains a collection of Hindi, Marathi & English equivalents of over 9000 Urdu words used in Ghazals, with 4000 couplets for reference. You can know more about the book by visiting the website. The book is in paper back edition, Pages: 274, Size: Double Crown, Cost via Air Mail US$ 22.95

Ghazals in English:

1. Zero by Gene Doty. AHA Online Books: 1999.

2. Gene Doty’s Ghazal Page  which also has his article on the form.

3. "Leaflets" (1968) in Collected Early Poems 1950 – 1970 by Adrienne Rich. W.W. Norton: 1993.

4. "The Man With the Blue Guitar" in The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens. Random House: 1971.

5. Stanzas for "The Man With the Blue Guitar" in Wallace Stevens Opus Posthumous edited by Milton J. Bates. Random House: 1990.

6. Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English edited by Agha Shahid Ali. Wesleyan University Press: 2000.

6. Ghazals written in English by the biki


1. Listen to ghazals from radio in India 

2. An Indian Pop Star who sings ghazals

3 . A mailing list dedicated to urdu poetry & hindi poetry (Ghazal / kavita)

3. Gazal (sic) - Urdu Poetic Songs by David Courtney, 

4. Ghalib - Poet and Poetry The Ghazal 

5. Website on Hafiz and his love poetry: 

6. Use the ghazals of Hafiz for divination – just ask a question and the ghazal you need to read will appear: 

7. Books on Hafiz at 

8. Is this a joke?  - Ghazal Car Co. Inc - Kalamazoo MI 

9. A leading Trucks Spare Parts Company in Dubai



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Back issues:
XV:2 June, 2000
XV:3 October, 2000
XVI:1 February, 2001
XVI:2 June, 2001

  Copyright ©  by Jane Reichhold 2001.

Next Lynx is scheduled for February, 2002.
Deadline is January 1, 2002.