The Cry of the Gazelle: the English Ghazal in Rhymes & Refrains

 Anannya Dasgupta

In his Introduction to Ravishing Disunities (2000), Agha Shahid Ali famously diagnosed that those claiming to write the ghazal in English have got it wrong. He was responding to the popularity of the English ghazal among American poets in the previous decades, which saw stalwarts like Adrienne Rich, James Harrison, W. S. Merwin and Mark Strand among others write and popularize the form. And it is precisely over the question of form that Ali turns acerbic: ‘a free verse ghazal is a contradiction in terms. As perhaps a free verse sonnet is, arguably, not?’ The problem according to Ali then, which continues to persist, was that ghazal writers clung to what they thought was the essence of the form without actually following the strictures of the form. Why the ghazal affords this continued temptation, in a way that many scholars are willing to defend, will be evident from an interesting formal requirement in the classical Persian and Urdu ghazal.

Ghazals by Sa'di (Wikipedia Commons)
Ghazals by Sa’di (Wikipedia Commons)

The real thing, as Ali calls it, demands a minimum of five couplets or shers that function independently and can be abstracted without loss of context. Structural disunity as a way of achieving progressive thought in a form meant to bear deeply emotive content (the ghazal literally means the cry of a gazelle) has appealed to the writers of the English ghazal who have caught the spirit of this principal without paying attention to the corresponding formal unities. The real thing, to go back to Ali, also calls for a strict rhyme scheme, an internal mono-rhyme, and a signature in the final couplet. The opening couplet of the ghazal is called a matla; it has the special burden of declaring the qafia and setting up the radif. Qafia is the internal mono-rhyme appearing after the first couplet in the second line of every couplet that follows the first. The radif or the refrain is a word or phrase repeated at the end of both the lines in the matla and from then on tagged to the qafia of every couplet. The rhyme and the refrain are further constrained by the beher or a regular line length. The closing couplet is a special one and is called the maqta. Not unlike the last couplet of the sonnet, the maqta works out a resolution and delivers a surprise ending. The additional uniqueness of the ghazal’s maqta is derived from a device called the takhallus where the poet signs the poem with a name, a pseudonym or a self-referential gesture about the ghazal or the poet’s predicament.

Read Anannya’s Four English Ghazals.

Unrhymed, unrefrained, unsigned ghazals then may be beautiful poems but are not ghazals. So why do the writers of the English ghazal in America and elsewhere choose not to do it? Gene Doty points out that very few English translations of the Persian and Urdu ghazals are translated with the qafia and radif, indicating that they might not be that important. Adhering to the internal rhyme along with the tagged refrain in translations is a task herculean enough to be impossible. Those translations that do manage it on occasion do so by encumbering sound at the cost of sense. While translations are one way for the ghazal to travel to English, and it has done so by losing form, the other way is for poets to take up the ghazal in English and adhere to the integrity of its form so that it travels recognizably as itself not mistaken for some incognito free verse. Nothing that travels stays the same. And no formal poem can be any good till it becomes familiar. The formal English ghazal is not the travelling poor copy of Hafiz, Ghalib or Faiz but for poets to own in form and content so that it is familiar enough to make anew.

What does it mean for a poet in English to own the ghazal in the face of scepticism from its lovers in Persian and Urdu? Practicing poets will answer this differently. For me it has meant familiarizing myself to what the form best carries and finding a way to use the poetic conventions without losing them to hollow repetition. An immersion in the Persian and Urdu ghazals opens up a sensibility of lyric pain. Pain not of maudlin tears (though there can be those too), but of abiding loss that marks the mortal condition at its most joyous and most intensely beautiful. The best ghazals are contemplative of loss and profound in the simplicity of insight they have to offer. Poetry in general and the ghazal in particular leaves little room for the poet to write without completely investing herself in it. The takhallus or the signature ensures that the poem is stamped and owned, that you are of the poem as much as the poem is yours. But the takhallus is a challenge for a poet with a Sanskrit name writing in English. After various failed attempts at pseudonyms and rebellion against the form (I left it out in several ghazals), a friend’s suggestion offered me a solution that has become an exercise in ownership. My first name Anannya means one who has no other; my friend suggested that I play with the meaning of the word and all its synonyms as my takhallus and so I did. Finding a way to get the conventions of the ghazal to work for me has helped me invest more deeply in the experience of writing a ghazal than when I chose not to.


Anannya Dasgupta is a photographer and a poet who is always looking for words and images that are equal to the real and imaginary experiences that make up life. For three years now she has been running a blog called “Daily Riyaaz” every April for the poem-a-day challenge where she encourages her fellow participating poets to write more ghazals. These ghazals were written during last year’s “Daily Riyaaz.” She is also an Assistant Professor of English at Shiv Nadar University.


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