Ghazals, Short Lyrical Poems that Blend Arabic and American Cultures

Ravi Shankar
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Like the pantoum, the ghazal arose in another language and has recently come to life in English despite the difficulties of technical translation. Ghazals originated in 8th century Arabic verse, came to the Indian subcontinent with Sufis in the 12th century, and flourished in the voices of the great Persian mystics, Rumi in the 13th century and Hafez in the 14th century. After Goethe became enamored of the form, ghazals became popular among 19th century German poets, as well as more recent generations like the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. In the last 20 years, the ghazal has taken its place among the adopted poetic forms used by many contemporary poets writing in English.

A ghazal is a short lyric poem composed of a series of about 5 to 15 couplets, each of which stands independently on its own as a poetic thought. The couplets are linked through a rhyme scheme established in both lines of the first couplet and continued in the 2nd line of each following pair of lines. (Some critics specify that this rhyme carried through the 2nd line of each couplet must actually, in strict ghazal form, be the same ending word.) The meter is not strictly determined, but the lines of the couplets must be of equal length. Themes usually are connected to love and longing, either romantic desire for a mortal beloved, or a spiritual longing for communion with a higher power. The closing signature couplet of a ghazal often includes the poet’s name or an allusion to it.

Ghazals traditionally invoke universal themes like love, melancholy, desire and address metaphysical questions. Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar and Begum Akhtar made ghazals popular in the United States during the 1960s. Americans also discovered ghazals through the New Delhi poet Agha Shahid Ali, who blended Indo-Islamic traditions with American-style storytelling.