Writing ghazal in English

March 22, 2015

Discovering the intricacies of ghazal writing with Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Writing ghazal in English

Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s Baker of Tarifa based on the history of interfaith tolerance in Al-Andalus won the 2011 San Diego Book Award for poetry. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times and have been translated into Spanish and Urdu. She is the winner of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize among other awards, and her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies worldwide.

She represents Pakistan on the website UniVerse: A United Nations of Poetry, and has taught in the MFA program at San Diego State University as a writer-in-residence. She is a guest columnist for 3 Quarks Daily. Kohl and Chalk, her new book, has won the 2013 San Diego Book Award.

She was a part of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) recently in a session titled ‘The English Ghazal’ and had some interesting things to tell us.

The News on Sunday: For a South Asian ghazal enthusiast, English ghazal is a rather paradoxical term. What was your reaction when you first heard this phrase? Tell us briefly how your interest in this form developed over the years.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: A photocopy of Adrienne Rich’s ghazal that a Chinese American friend was reading became my first encounter with the English ghazal. The year was 1996. I was quite excited to see that the ghazal had crossed over into contemporary American letters, though these ghazal poems bore little resemblance to the Urdu ghazal.

My personal interest in writing a ghazal was sparked more than ten years later when, as an MFA student, I realised I had given all the western forms a try (sonnets, villanelles, pantoums etc.) mostly as an undergrad at Reed College but I had yet to write a ghazal. Knowing the legacy of Agha Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri American poet who taught America the mechanics and the sensibility of the Urdu ghazal in the 1990s and who taught at this very program (Warren Wilson) years ago, I decided I must try the form.

TNS: You recently discussed the English ghazal at the LLF. What was the response of the audience?

SZH: It was daunting to bring the English ghazal to an audience that knows the tradition of ghazal in Urdu so deeply. The ghazal in Urdu dominates all other art forms. Famous ghazal couplets are quoted in regular conversation, ghazals are sung for classical, folk and pop music, even qawwali. I was quite pleased by the response to my talk, and thrilled by the excellent questions and comments, especially from the students in the audience.

TNS: The Urdu ghazal, like its Persian counterpart, was cultivated in highly favourable circumstances in its nascent phase. What chances do you see for the English ghazal at present?

SZH: The Urdu ghazal thrived under court patronage in Muslim India, reaching efflorescence during the reign of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar -- himself a fine ghazal poet. This golden age of the ghazal tragically coincided with the collapse of the Mughal rule and the beginning of the British raj. The ghazal entered the twentieth century as a relic of the court culture. However, it was soon reinvigorated and became a celebrated lyrical form; modern ghazals became popular in film and on radio and television as songs.

I think of the ghazal as a game in which the poet wins as the audience wins -- a shared moment of surprise, anticipation, outburst.

In the West, ghazal has had its own unique journeys: Hafiz’s Persian ghazals inspired Goethe’s Ghazalen, Muslim Spain’s Arabic ghazals inspired Lorca’s gacelas, and Ghalib’s Urdu ghazals became the earliest model of the form in America. The popularity of the form has steadily increased since the 1960s when the earliest ghazals were written in the US. Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of "real American ghazals" in his book Ravishing Disunities has acquired the status of a textbook on the form with poems modelling the authentic ghazal.

TNS: Ghazal is essentially connected to the mushaira culture, where a big gathering of highly charged, expectant audience is waiting for the terminal contour of each couplet, to shower praise upon the poet. In an English poetry gathering, however, this atmosphere is missing. How do you compensate for ghazal’s tradition of daad-o-tehseen?

SZH: It is true the performance is a key aspect of ghazal and Urdu ghazals are composed with the musahira or poetry-reading in mind, and that this tradition of interaction between the poet and the audience is missing in the culture of the English ghazal. I call the ghazal mushaira a sensibility akin to Lorca’s "duende", the spirit that makes art come to life. At my recent talk on the ghazal form in Istanbul, a writer asked if this sensibility can be called ghazal’s ada (or peculiar gesture). l find that quite an accurate and charming definition. Can this ada, this unique dynamic between poet and audience, become part of the English ghazal? To a certain extent, yes.

When I read my own ghazals, I invite the audience to chime in as I deliver the radif or refrain -- I try to recreate the communal feel of the ghazal in this way. It doesn’t always work but it works incredibly well when the audience includes a sizeable number of poets.

TNS: What is your personal experience in ghazal writing? What sort of challenges do you face while using an Eastern poetic form for a poem in a Western language?

SZH: There is a long list of challenges but the most glaring one is the fact that ghazal has no thematic unity. Readers of poetry in English have a hard time dealing with that -- no title, no theme, no cohesive narrative with a beginning, middle and end; each verse being a separate entity with its own unique tone, theme and even a different addressee.


The fact that the ghazal disallows or limits enjambment also poses a problem because the poetic line of the couplet, which can be a delightfully engaging and beautiful unit in Urdu, may read as stilted and artificial in English poetry because we’re used to breaking the line in other ways. Much of the emotional effect and surprise is carried by the line break in English -- when writing a ghazal, one must learn to use instead the "hinge", the rhetorical turn of the couplet instead, and learn to use sonic devices, the internal rhyme (qafia) and (radif) to maximum effect. But the ghazal has a magical way of adapting to different poetic traditions -- as is evident from the history of the form.

TNS: The creative process is certainly a mystery, but we can perhaps discuss the mechanics of ghazal writing. Does an idea strike you directly in the English language, or does it initiate in Urdu and takes a final shape later on?

SZH: I dream in both Urdu and English but the real language of poetry is the image. Once I have an image to work with, I translate it into English. Translating an image that comes from a different culture is not always easy but sometimes its strangeness and unwillingness to be translated is a windfall; by refusing to be explained, it enacts its true self and requires very little work from me.

TNS: Ghazal has been defined variously as flirting with women or talking amorously to them or as the last desperate cry of the gazelle when cornered by the hunter. How do you define the ghazal?

SZH: I think of the ghazal as a puzzle that offers itself as a unique configuration of music and meaning, one enticing line at a time; a game that the poet baits the audience into participating in, a game in which the poet wins as the audience wins -- a shared moment of surprise, anticipation, outburst. At its best, ghazal is flirtation with the intellect -- a philosophical provocation, playful yet profound, as in the case of Ghalib’s ghazals.

TNS: Does ghazal have a future in English?

SZH: Contemporary poetry in English has absorbed many foreign forms -- from Japanese, Italian, to Malay and French. Poetry written in these forms has, over time, become an inextricable part of the American literary tradition. In the past fifty years or so, the ghazal has also joined this tradition. Poets continue to experiment with this form, some very successfully so.

The best of poetry can enable a whole linguistic tradition, even a civilization, to move forward and it does so through a fierce use of the imagination; foreign poetic forms such as the ghazal push us into that unchartered realm of the imagination by giving us a grid, a set of strange rules, a new aesthetic sensibility, then setting us free to fill the form as our own spirit dictates.

Writing ghazal in English