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What is a ghazal? The essence of emotion in poetry

Hannah Lee Kidder
NovelPad Author
Forms of poetry are as plentiful and unique as snowflakes in an avalanche, because poets throughout time have constantly tweaked existing formats to create something new. Some forms have been around for centuries, like the ghazal. The ghazal has roots in 600s Arabia, and it is still popular today.
Let’s look at some definitions, examples, prominent poets, and spin-offs of the ghazal.

What is a ghazal?

A ghazal is a form of poetry that has origins in Arabic and Persian literature as early as the seventh century. It has been adopted and adapted into various languages, including Urdu, Turkish, and English. Ghazals are known for their lyrical and emotive qualities and are typically composed of rhyming couplets.

Key characteristics of a ghazal poem

Here are a few rules and commonalities in the ghazal structure.

1. Meter and radif

Ghazals, like many forms of poetry, follow their own unique rhyme and meter pattern. Each line typically ends with the same rhyme or refrain word, known as the "radif," and the meter is usually consistent throughout the poem.

2. Emotive content

Ghazals often focus on themes of love, loss, longing, and the complexities of human emotions. They can be highly emotional and express the poet's innermost feelings. It's the Mushy McMush of poetry content.

3. Versatility

Ghazals can encompass a wide range of topics, not limited to love. They might explore philosophical, spiritual, or social themes, but typically stick to the form of expressing those ideas from an emotional standpoint.

4. Conciseness

Ghazals tend to be relatively short, with each couplet (or sher) forming a complete thought or idea. This concise structure allows poets to convey deep emotions in a brief format.

5. Poet's signature

A ghazal traditionally ends with a "takhallus" or pen name (a pseudonym used by the poet) and may include the poet's name or part of their name in the final couplet. This is a way for the poet to leave their mark on the work, which is a fascinating concept in poetry, since it's often difficult to track who the first poet to use a certain method is.

Prominent ghazal poets and poem examples

The form of ghazal has evolved over centuries and continues to be a beloved and respected genre in many cultures. Many writers have brought their own unique spin to the traditional form, leaving their own signature. Here are some examples of ghazal poets and an example piece translated to English. Keep in mind that the ghazals are more effective in their original language, as is true for most translated pieces. Translating while preserving full poetic effect can be challenging.

1. Rumi

Rumi, full name Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, was a 13th-century poet, scholar, and mystic.
The sky has never seen such a moon
The sky has never seen such a moon, not even in its dreams, No water could ever extinguish the fire of its light,
Look at my body, and look at my soul From his cup of love, my soul is drunk, my body ruined
The tavern keeper became my heart’s companion Love turned my blood into wine, and burned my heart
As my eyes fill with the image of his face, a voice resounds, "Well done, cup. Excellent, wine."
Looking into the ocean of love My heart suddenly dove in, calling, "Find me!"
The face of the sun is Shams, the glory of Tabriz, Our hearts, like clouds, trail after him.

2. Hafiz

Hafiz or Hafez, full name Khwāje Shams-od-Dīn Moḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, was a Persian poet whose works are considered by many Iranians as the highest examples of literature. Ghazal 84
Dear wine boy, bring us wine. The fast's over. Give us the cup. The well-known past's over.
It's time to say prayers we've long forgotten. Thank God the break from wine at last's over.
Intoxicate me so I will forget Those I've known well and those I've passed over.
We catch the scent of what's inside the cup. We send, in thanks, our deepest prayers over.
From the dead heart new life had reached the soul. From the soft breeze your perfume passed over.
The prideful ascetic followed danger. The path to a safe life's been passed over.
I spent all my heart's currency on wine. My counterfeit coins have been passed over.
How long can one repent in such turmoil? Pour wine, at last the madness is over.
Don't try to lead Hafez down the hard path. He's discovered wine. The hard path's over.

3. Mirza Ghalib

Mirza Beg Asadullah Khan, also known as Asad, Mirza Ghalib, or simply Ghalib, was a popular Indian poet in the 1800s. Some, not all, came back as tulip and rose; What faces must lie beneath dust, who knows.
What colourful gatherings I would recall, Now pictures in oblivion's niche, they repose.
Let my eyes shed blood, this night of parting: As two lighted candles I shall imagine those.
On those beauteous women shall fall my revenge In paradise: they'll be houris, forever close.
To him belong sleep, peace, the fullest nights On whose arms, dishevelled, your hair flows.
Wine rejoices the heart. To whom the cup came, His hand's lines like the vein of life arose.
I profess one God, I abandon old rites, When all sects die away, one faith follows.
When man is used to sorrows, sorrow fails; Many hardships have made easy hardship's blows
Should Ghalib still weep, you will find, O world These dwellings drowned in ruin, where nothing grows.

The Duplex

Modern Louisiana poet Jericho Brown invented his own poem form called the duplex, which is somewhere between a ghazal and a sonnet. It consists of 14 lines, arranged in couplets, where the first line of each couplet repeats words and/or phrases from the line preceding. The last line of the poem repeats something from the first line of the poem.

Duplex (I Begin With Love) by Jericho Brown

I begin with love, hoping to end there. I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.
 I don’t want to leave a messy corpse Full of medicines that turn in the sun.
Some of my medicines turn in the sun. Some of us don’t need hell to be good.
    Those who need least, need hell to be good.   What are the symptoms of your sickness?
Here is one symptom of my sickness: Men who love me are men who miss me.
    Men who leave me are men who miss me     In the dream where I am an island.
In the dream where I am an island, I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there. The Duplex is a great example of how poetry is a conversation between cultures. We bounce formats and concepts between each other, adding our own twists each time until we’re left with something entirely new. Art is evolution, evolution is art, etc.
The ghazal is an ancient form of poetry that has seen many adaptations across time and cultures. When you write your ghazal, will you stick to tradition, or will you add your own flair?
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