Ghazal

On the flip side, as it were, from the fragmented, non sequitur, collage poetry I sometimes complain about, is the ghazal  (correctly pronounced, they tell me, something like a rhyme with “guzzle” but with a longer, throatier “gh” at the beginning).

Here are the first few couplets from the ghazal “Miscellany” by Nancy King:

Spread the tarot with care with me.
Future is daily fare with me.

Cats know eyeing can unnerve.
If you agree, come stare with me.

A confidence is heading here,
a dangerous need to share with me.

An Anjou lost no one an Eden.
Regard the innocent pear with me.

Ghazals are made up of anywhere from a few to many autonomous couplets with equal-length lines (be it meter, syllables, or beats) and a repeating rhyme (a qafia) and refrain (a radif) at the end of each 2nd line, which is introduced twice in the very first couplet (“care with me / fare with me”). Often the poet’s name is used in the very last couplet. The form dates back to the seventh century in a variety of Middle Eastern and other languages.

Pretty much all of my knowledge of the ghazal comes from Agha Shahid Ali‘s 2000 anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, a collection of ghazals by over 100 poets (from Forrest Gander to Martha Collins to W.S. Merwin to Paul Muldoon, to name a few). Ali says in the introduction, “One should at any time be able to pluck a couplet like a stone from a necklace, and it should continue to shine in that vivid isolation, though it would have a different lustre among and with the other stones.” To use the obvious metaphor, this anthology is quite a jewelry box of poems.

How is a form that’s entirely made up of disconnected shards the flip side of contemporary poetry’s mash-up tendencies? The white space between couplets and the repetition create the pressure needed to elevate bits and pieces to a whole (stones to necklace). The couplets, when they’re good, are complete. Entire. More than one-liners they are whole feelings or scenes or thoughts or emotions, moments. Bad ghazals bore, stumble, and drift apart, but when the form is really working, reading the focused, framed whatever-that-couplet-is-doing is like wandering a gallery of paintings. They can feel like they’re entire worlds,  as good prose poems (Russell Edson!) do.

There are seven ghazals in the anthology by William Matthews (a reliably wonderful poet) — “Dazzle,” “Frazzle,” “Guzzle,” “Muzzle,” “Puzzle,” “Drizzle,” and “Nozzle.” A few of my favorite couplets —

from “Nozzle,”

Bad company, my parents called my friends.
But what name did they have for me alone?

from “Puzzle,”

Let’s couple. Let’s multiply. If we then
divide, the lawyers will set a figure.

from “Frazzle,”

Veil (bee-keeper’s? bridal?), Vale (tears), Vail (Colorado).
Phonics? No avail. Better learn to spell, after all.

and my favorite couplet from these ghazals, from “Dazzle,”

If it’s not under pressure, it’s not grace,
but only manners. Or, even worse, charm.

The refrains tend to be simple and short —  “our lives,” “in Paradise,” “do not speak,” “Jesus,” “poems,” “the world,” “at the core,” “with her” — but there’s something about the repetition of that simple, short refrain, the looking at “our lives” or “the world” or whathaveyou from different angle after different angle that makes them expand. John Hollander, in a grand little ghazal explaining ghazals, says,

Each new couplet’s a different ascent: no great peak
But a low hill quite easy to climb at the end.

And another couplet goes for a fruit basket analogy instead of the jeweled necklace, equally spot-on:

On a string of such strange, unpronounceable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

The couplets in a ghazal are to be autonomous, in the traditional form, and they are, but of course also aren’t because two things set next to each other become related. There’s something fascinating about the way that happens.

And one more great couplet (since silent film is, awesomely, the rage du jour again), from Gander’s “Sensations Upon Arriving:”

The wind snatches thistle-seeds. The rooks go flapping by as wildly
as eyebrows when actors pretend to be scared in silent films.

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