About the Ghazal

The ghazal is often erroneously compared to the sonnet. True, both are given forms with histories dating back centuries, and both have long traditions steeped in love poetry. But aesthetically, they stand poles apart from each other. The sonnet demands unity: one topic, one rhetorical point to make. The ghazal loves disunity (not the same as fragmentation) and can have as many topics as it has verses.

According Frances W. Pritchett, Professor Emerita of Modern Indic Languages at Columbia University, “A ghazal, in short, is a series of semantically independent two-line mini-poems that have a strong formal unity— but usually no particular unity beyond that, though sometimes small groups of verses can be marked as a connected ‘verse-set’…. Thus in performance, oral reciters and singers freely reorder the verses of a ghazal, and almost always omit a good number of them” (Pritchett “Overview of the Genre”).

While the ghazal eschews thematic and narrative unity, it does not embrace surrealism or the surrealist’s obsession with the unconscious. In fact, ghazals tend to focus not on the inner life of the poet but on aspects of the poet’s world: politics, faith, love, family, war, art, etc. Nor is the ghazal a free verse form. It imposes demanding strictures on the poet, and it is rather unforgiving when those strictures are not kept. In North America, the Persian model is most prominent thanks to Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), the Kashmiri-American poet who set out the formal requirements of the ghazal in English. My ghazals follow this model.


Shahid Ali compares the ghazal to a necklace and likens each couplet to a separate precious stone. This principle means that the couplet must be fully end-stopped. The true ghazal does not permit enjambment between couplets. “Think of each couplet as a separate poem,” Shahid Ali advises, “in which the first line serves the function of the octave of a Petrarchan sonnet and the second line the sestet. That is, there must be a turn, a volta, when one moves from line 1 to line 2 of a couplet.” (Agha, Ravishing Disunities 183) It is in the turn that the ghazal dazzles and surprises. Like the turn of a melody, it always gives pleasure no matter how familiar the tune.


To take his analogy a little further, I would add that the juxtaposition of couplets gives the ghazal a wholeness of effect, much the same way that the right arrangement of stones gives the necklace a beauty beyond that of any individual stone or any other combination of stones. The whole is greater than the sum of its couplets, to paraphrase the old cliche. While oral reciters may omit and rearrange couplets in performances, as Prof. Pritchett notes, the ghazal in print never varies in composition.

Rhyme, Refrain and Repetition

Ghazals rhyme, but never at the end of a line. The rhyme, which is called the qafia, immediately precedes the refrain, called the radif, a short phrase or single word. The rhyme-refrain (qafia-radif) combination occurs at the end of both lines of the first couplet, then at the end of the second line of every couplet that follows. While the rhyme word will change, the rhyme remains the same throughout the ghazal.

It is important to remember that the ghazal is meant for performance. The qafia-radif repetition in the first couplet sets up the audience, creating a sense of anticipation for what will come. In traditional ghazal recitations, called mushairas, the audience actually calls out the refrain in a kind of call-and-response pattern, getting more excited as the poet turns each couplet in surprising ways while never breaking form. Think of the great ballroom dancers. Fred and Ginger may twirl and leap and swing, but they always keep to the form of the foxtrot. They work it — or better, play it — without violating it, an achievement that requires great creativity and delights audiences.

Structure and the Ghazal Line

A ghazal generally consists of five to fifteen couplets. In Ravishing Disunities, Agha illustrates the ghazal structure thus:

Couplet one:
_______________________ rhyme A + refrain
_______________________ rhyme A + refrain

Couplet two:
_______________________ rhyme A + refrain

Couplet three:
_______________________ rhyme A + refrain

(Ravishing Disunities 184)

In addition to the qafia-radif scheme, the ghazal line is measured. In English, it can follow a syllabic pattern ranging from 10 to 16 syllables per line, or it can consist of classic English meters and feet structured around a specific number of stresses per line. It is the poet’s choice. Again, the ghazal is not a free verse form. As with classic blank verse or syllabic verse, the poet must adhere to his/her choice of line length and pattern. Any variation should be resisted. If irresistible, it must be for effect.

Signature Couplet

In the ghazal tradition, the poet “signs” the poem. In practice, this means that the poet cleverly works his/her name somewhere into the last two lines. Agha gives us the classic example in his famous ghazal “In Arabic”:

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: Listen, listen:
It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.
(Agha, Call Me Ishmael Tonight 81)

Called the makhta, the signature couplet allows the poet to sign off with a flourish. It is less a requirement of the form than an opportunity. Here the poet can have some fun after working the form well over several verses. Some poets even sign with a literary pseudonym or jazzy “handle.”

The Ghazal Aesthetic and the Master/Slave Analogy

So why bother? Why should poets submit themselves to the seemingly arbitrary strictures of the ghazal? Why have Urdu, Arabic, Turkish and Persian poets done so for a millennium up to this very day? Agha offers this insight: “Once a poet establishes the scheme — with total freedom, I might add — she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of the slave trying to master the master” (Agha, Ravishing Disunities 3).

We Westerners don’t like the analogy. Slavery, even metaphorical, is anathema to the democratic spirit. And for American poets, the idea of submission is particularly offensive. We like to see ourselves as rebels, lone wolves standing aloof from bourgeois convention, intentionally sticking it in the eye of authority. We refuse to be managed, taking secret satisfaction in our inability to hold nine-to-five jobs and taking great pride in our freelance lives. But our democratic instinct can blind us to the beautiful irony in the second part of Agha’s statement: “…the alluring tension of the slave trying to master the master.” The ghazal poet reverses the power relationship: slave becomes master, subject becomes king, human becomes divine, tail wags dog.

Poets who manage this reversal, even for only one ghazal, achieve a virtuosity they often never knew they had. The ghazal is all about the limits of language. Its form, not at all arbitrary but honed over centuries of practice, heightens the poet’s consciousness of language and prosody to a fevered pitch. Yet because of, not despite, its strictures, the ghazal cannot be written from the head. The key to mastering the ghazal is feeling, not intellect. Again, Agha offers an insight: “Perhaps one way to welcome the shackles of the form and be in emotional tune with them is to remember one definition of the word ghazal: it is the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it will die” (Ravishing Disunities 3).

The ghazal is intense. While poets long ago extended it beyond its roots in ancient love poetry, the ghazal has always kept its emotional intensity. Turning submission into mastery demands that the poet be willing to write with abandon about grief, loneliness, rage, ecstasy, shame, terror, joy, jealousy, longing and love (i.e., the kind where the lover feels most vulnerable). Because the form does not allow the poet to rant, sermonize, or indulge in any way, the emotional torque can make writing the ghazal maddening. But when diction and form click together and release the emotion, the poet experiences the exhilaration of an endorphin high. You don’t need anyone to tell you the verse sings; you can hear it. Writing the ghazal can become quite addictive, which helps explain its longevity.

Of course, a single ghazal can explore several intense emotions at once. Remember, each couplet stands alone emotionally as well as thematically. In terms of subject matter, a ghazal can also span a wide range of topics. Just as Agha’s metaphorical necklace can consist of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, the couplets within single ghazal can be a mix of autobiography, pure fiction, mythic allusions, cultural references, mystical experiences — anything from the poet’s life and experience. A couplet about unrequited love can follow one about racism which in turn follows another about astrophysics, etc. While ghazals are formally strict, they are anarchic about content. The poet’s aesthetic sensibility and purpose totally determine the themes, emotions and topics.

Despite the ghazal’s intensity, or perhaps because of it, ghazal poets are famous (or notorious) for an irreverent sense of humor. In many traditional ghazals, for instance, the beloved can be a lover or God. The form’s rigors and compression enable the poet to leave the ambiguity unresolved and walk a kind of razor’s edge between piety and blasphemy, angel and devil, spiritual and erotic. While we moderns may no longer fear God, we have our own sacred cows. The modern ghazal in English invites (or dares) the poet to have a little fun with them, especially the political and cultural ones.

Works Cited

Agha Shahid Ali, Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2003

Agha Shahid Ali, ed. Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Pritchett, Frances W. “Overview of the Genre.” A Desertful of Roses: The Urdu Ghazals of Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib.” Columbia University. Web. March 1, 2015.