What is a ghazal, and who writes them? In short, it’s a poem that is typically composed of anywhere between five and fifteen couplets that are, according to the American Academy of Poets, “structurally, thematically, and emotionally autonomous.” Traditionally, the first couplet of a ghazal will introduce a scheme, which subsequent couplets will pick up. The final couplet of a ghazal usually will refer to the poet and sometimes even includes his or her name. It’s a poetic form that began in what we now call the Middle East in the seventh century, and it was popularized in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by Rumi and Hafiz, two internationally renowned Persian poets. Since its introduction, it is a form that has been employed by poets in a variety of language and for varying uses. Today, we’d like to think a bit more about the ghazal’s origins and its contemporary appearances.
The Many Languages of the Ghazal
In what language will you characteristically find a ghazal written? These poems that, in their classic forms, dealt with issues of love and loss, typically appeared in Persian. Yet as early as the eighteenth century, ghazals began appearing in Northern India in Urdu. Soon afterward, poets from other linguistic traditions also began to adopt the form of the ghazal, and poems written in this form soon materialized in Hindi, Pashto, Hebrew, and Turkish, according to the American Academy of Poets*.
As early as the late eighteenth century, ghazals also appeared in German. To be sure, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was interested in the form and began experimenting with it relatively early on. By the time the twentieth century rolled around, poets in nearly all European language traditions had tried their hands at writing a ghazal, including the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. But eventually, the ghazal was introduced to American audiences in a form relatively close to its Persian original by the Indian poet Agha Shahid Ali.
Agha Shahid Ali and the Ghazal’s (Re)introduction to the West
Agha Shahid Ali was born in India in 1949 but spent most of his young life and early adulthood in Kashmir. He moved to the United States in the mid 1970s and began writing entirely in English, but in forms influenced by Urdu and Persian literature. In particular, many credit him with introducing—or reintroducing, as the case may be—the ghazal to American readers.
An article from the Poetry Foundation** cites the literature scholar Amardeep Singh’s description of the style developed by Ali as “ghazalesque,” as his poems bring together “rhythms and forms of the Indo-Islamic tradition with a distinctly American approach to storytelling.” We’ll let you judge a little bit for yourself. Here are the beginning and end lines of his poem “Tonight”:
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?
Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”—to gem—“Me to adorn—How tell”—tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
. . .
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
Ali is not the only American poet to experiment with the ghazal. If you find the lines of his poem that we’ve cited here intriguing, we recommend seeking out one of his many books of ghazals. But if you’re looking to expand your twentieth-century ghazal shelf beyond the work of Ali, we should mention that the American poets Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich also have experimented with the ghazal form. In short, writers of ghazals hail from many parts of the world and write in a variety of languages. Now that you know, you can seek out these works in the poetry section of your favorite bookshop.