Poetry Up Close And Personal: The Ghazal

where Urdu is commonly spoken. source: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/IE_Satem_Urdu.html

where Urdu is commonly spoken. source: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/IE_Satem_Urdu.html

Let’s talk about the ghazal. Which, by the way (and I have this on good authority), is pronounced ‘guzzle.’ Originally an Urdu tradition, it has made its way via Europe (Germany) to the US, and that alone — the differences in culture — makes it very interesting to look at. Here’s a ghazal by teacher and poet Manoshi Chatterjee, performed by the author. No doubt the first thing you notice is that she’s singing rather than reading the poem. And did you notice the audience participation? The responses when she got to parts that audience members either liked a lot or felt otherwise strongly about? I’ll admit right here and now that I have no idea what the words mean that she is saying / singing, or what the audience is saying, and I’d not be surprised if it’s the same for you, highly esteemed reader of my humble blog. All the important stuff is there, though: you likely noticed a good deal of repetition, a sort of call and answer pattern, a consistency in stanza length and line length, and some rhyme. Welcome to the ghazal. The ghazal, according to poet Agha Shahid Ali, who was an authority on this form, needs to meet the following requirements:

  • consist of couplets, i.e. two-line stanzas (usually 5 to 12, but could be any number)
  • each couplet must stand on its own, i.e. no enjambments
  • the first couplet establishes both the rhyme and the refrain, and will have the refrain as the end of both lines of the couplet
  • the refrain can be either a word or a phrase
  • each couplet must contain the refrain at the end of the second line
  • each couplet must contain a rhyme immediately before the refrain
  • the rhyme is the same throughout the poem
  • the lines are consistent in length (metrical or syllabic)
  • the final couplet is a signature couplet, i.e. it should contain the poet’s name (first or last)
  • typically, the ghazal speaks of longing, intoxication, or the beauty of the beloved (or any mixture thereof)

And because theory is dry like a slice of cake left out for a day in Utah climate, here’s an example in English: Hip-Hop Ghazal (Patricia Smith)

Hip-Hop Ghazal

By Patricia Smith

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.
As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.
Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping ‘tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.
Engines grinding, rotating, smokin’, gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.
Gotta love us girls, just struttin’ down Manhattan streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.
Crying ’bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.


Source: Poetry (July/August 2007). I like this poem as an example because it certainly captures the spoken and performative aspect of the ghazal. And, well, it’s simply a fun poem! I don’t know about you, but I’m excited about writing a ghazal or two this weekend. Happy writing!


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. I can see the audience guzzling this ghazal. They clearly enjoyed it very much. Wish I knew what she was saying!

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