May-Jun 2012: Ghazal: An Eastern Inheritance

Essay

by

vivek sharma

from Reading Hour May-Jun 2012

Ghazal: an elegy or ode to a beloved, a lyrical, stylized lament, a play of words, and a wistful cry rolled into five couplets or more. Like a sonnet or haiku, it is a formal poem, traditionally written under strict metrical and rhyming constraints. Unlike stanzas in other verse forms, each couplet (sher) is a complete thought and a poem in itself. Each couplet ends with a repeating word or a phrase radif (‘tonight’ in Fig. 1) that is preceded by a rhyming pattern kaafiya (’spell-expel-cell’ etc. in Fig. 1) across the couplets. The opening couplet or matla announces the refrain and the rhyme scheme in its first line, and the remaining couplets arrive in the same meter (bahr). These constraints synergistically create an effect of passion, obsession, even a sob or sigh! Although each new couplet begins with a first line that can traverse a different landscape of feeling, the return to refrain in the second line is like a homecoming. The kaafiya signals the return. The last couplet (maqta) often contains the chosen name or pseudonym of a poet (takhalus), as if the poet signs off with his ‘last words’. The constraints within the ghazal form echo the constraints imposed by society on love, thought, liberty and ideas.

The English language is one of the few Western/European languages where the ghazal has made an appearance on the page. This essay is formally about the Anglicized ghazal, but to imagine, inspire, write and judge poems in a particular form, requires an awareness of its clichés and characteristics. No poet in English must write an essay or a collection of sonnets without a certain familiarity with Shakespeare, though missing out on sonnets written in Indian languages is perhaps permissible.

In the 7th century, the ghazal was Arabic. By the 10th century, she had conquered hearts and lands in the East. The form reached its maturity at the hands of Persian masters. In the West, when Goethe and Lorca experimented with this form, they were primarily inspired by the ghazal of Hafiz (or Hafez), the fourteenth century Farsi poet, said to be its greatest exponent. The celebrated 13th century poet, Amir Khusrau was probably the first major poet to popularize the ghazal in the Indian subcontinent and to infuse words from khadi boli (early version of Hindi/Urdu). Subsequently, Urdu poets like Wali Deccani, ‘Mir’, Ghalib, Dard, Dagh, Zauq, Momin, Faiz, Faraz and Firaq, as well as Dushyant Kumar (Hindi), Shiv Kumar Batalvi (Punjabi) and numerous Bollywood lyricists contributed to the ghazal’s popularity in India. Unforgettable ghazals performed by classically trained singers enchanted the love-stricken as well as the literary minded in India, Pakistan, Iran, the Arab world and elsewhere. Ghalib, whose ghazals raise philosophical questions, is probably the most celebrated poet in the Urdu language. The ghazal’s introduction to American poets is often linked to the Ghalib translation project of Aijaz Ahmed (1960s). Poets like Adrienne Rich, William Stafford and W. S. Merwin worked with a literal translation of Ghalib’s ghazals to render their own versions in English. The translation project spawned an interest in the form, but early on, American poets wrote ghazals without an awareness of its rich, multi-cultural, multi-layered history, and paid insufficient attention to the formal constraints.

In fact, before Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) took the stage to chide poets for calling any string of couplets a ghazal, English (American) poets created verses without constraints, without refrain, without meter, without the unity that is enforced by the rhyme scheme and the lament-like undercurrent. The ghazals were without allusion or gratitude to the rich Eastern inheritance. Anguished by reading what passed for ghazal in English and acutely aware of the sub-textual richness of the form due to his Indian heritage, Shahid pointed out that “the Americans had got the ghazal quite wrong”. He explained, with examples, how to craft a ghazal in English. He later edited an anthology “Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English” of many contemporary poets he had accepted into the fold (including some I would still dismiss as unrealized or unsuccessful attempts). The most compelling in the anthology is his own “Call Me Ishmael Tonight” (Fig. 1).

Celebrated ghazals by masters in Arabic, Persian, Urdu or Hindi have all the formal elements woven into an intricate, beautiful tapestry. In these ghazals, even though all constraints (social and literary) are respected, the resulting verses are very lyrical, ready to be recited or sung to diverse audiences who marvel at every turn of phrase and choice of rhyme, and find release and joy in the ageless words. In fact, the performance of a ghazal in the East involves a protocol unmatched by any I know of in Western poetry. The poet recites the first line of a couplet and repeats it, accentuating the effect by changing the tone or by stretching out or stressing a word. The audience repeats a phrase or the line, building an expectation. Now the second line is begun amidst much fanfare. Soon the refrain is on everybody’s lips, but the mystery of what might come before the refrain sustains the excitement. One couplet wins the approval of the audience; now the next is another battle, another journey, another conquest, till the final verse brings the lament to a halt, after which only a silent ache, a memory remains.

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture's road will you expel tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
Lord, cried out the idols, Don't let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
In the heart's veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron's left to toll its knell tonight.
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

Fig. 1 – Call Me Ishmael Tonight – Agha Shahid Ali


The Ghazal is an address by a poet-protagonist to a beloved (who could be imaginary, distant or absent). It is always a declaration, but hardly ever a monologue. It has a detached sense of a lost cause, yet hints of a latent hope that it will reach its intended ears. Sentimentality is abstracted to the extent that it becomes a metaphor for any unrealizable desire, or any cause worth pining, fighting or dying for. The sufi poets of the subcontinent and of Persia compose verses to the almighty, as the ultimate beloved. All good ghazals appeal in multiple incarnations; sensuous from the lips of a courtesan, spiritual in the company of dancing dervishes, entertaining when recited among friends and thought provoking for critics and close listeners. In Farsi or Urdu, a ghazal engages in a dialogue with verses that came before, and the task of writing fresh verses involves a heightened sensibility that helps in creating suspense, pleasure, catharsis, nirvana.
Why must a ghazal in English care for the inheritance of loss, for cultures full of constraints, or the unfulfilled desires and mysticism of foreign lands? One compelling reason, I think, is the fact that just India alone has more English speakers than the US and UK combined. If we account for all the countries and cultures that have a memory of the ghazal in another language, ignoring this inheritance is like imagining the English language without the backdrop of European history, religious practices, politics, and literature.

Is an Arabic, Urdu, Persian, or Hindi ghazal translatable into English, or is it so deeply rooted in a culture that is so alien to Western culture and audiences that every translation is bound to fail as a poem in its own right in English? Can any English ghazal feel true to its form to readers and poets with a bilingual imagination, familiar with excellent non-English examples? For someone like me the difficulty is in recreating a ghazal’s tension in a way that can appeal to readers from the West and the East simultaneously (though often for different reasons). When Muslim poets express their desire for wine, praise the goblet or a tavern, they break religious or regional laws. Lines can cost lives; breaking constraints can bring shackles and prison cells. The audience derives a guilty pleasure in hearing the echoes of protest within a poem outwardly addressed to a distant, lost, unresponsive or unattainable beloved. The presentation of sensual desire through seemingly platonic lines and the pronouncement of doubt in another (God, king, or beloved) is extraordinary only when difficult barriers exist and words echo the throb of real anguish. A lament and near-blasphemy presented in such style that the listener is forced to marvel and exclaim in pleasure: Wah! Poetry in the west is often the leisurely pursuit of Byrons, Dickinsons and New Englanders but when saying anything or everything is permitted, how can you find the tension and tacit protest that sustains the paradoxical, wistful writing of a ghazal?

I personally feel that the ‘Anglicized ghazal’ is in an early stage of development and a Hafez or a Ghalib will arrive in English when the language and the world is ready for him (or her). I began writing ghazals in English after my friend and mentor Thomas Lux urged me to. He tested my sensibility for the form by first showing me the efforts of an American poet. Marking my disgust, he introduced me to Shahid’s ghazals. The biggest challenge is to write lines that a bilingual imagination like mine does not corrupt with ideas untranslatable for listeners with only one shared language. While Shahid brought the sensibility of the East to the ghazal in English, so far no bards (or singers) have managed to popularize the English ghazal in the East.

Some time ago, I acknowledged the form has a formidable future in English, when I listened with astonishment and joy to Heather McHugh recite “Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun” (Fig. 2) with a gusto that would make any Urdu or Farsi poet proud.

Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?
I blame the soup: I'm a primordially
stirred person.
Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.
The apparatus of his selves made an ab-
surd person.
The sound I make is sympathy's: sad dogs are tied afar.
But howling I become an ever more un-
heard person.
McHugh, you'll be the death of me -- each self and second studied!
Addressing you like this, I'm halfway to the
third person.

Fig. 2 – Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun – Heather McHugh

 

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