The Ghazal: A Poorly Adapted Form in English

By Pariksith Singh, MD

The ghazal is perhaps one of the most exotic forms of poetry. Steeped in oriental traditions and imagery, it stands unique in being a major non-narrative lyrical form of poetry in world literature. No other form poem follows the classical rules of rhyme and rhythm, and yet, gives a complete leeway to the poet to vary subject matter at will with each stanza.


Briefly, a ghazal in its classical form comprises an odd number of thematically related or unrelated couplets strung together by a common rhythm and a rhyme scheme (aa, ba, ca, da, ea, …). On the one hand, this makes it highly conducive to poetry of love and mysticism allowing impulsive shifts of thought and free association; on the other, it also places greater demands on the poet in some ways. As one critic has pointed out, the ghazal is easy to write but difficult to master. Free verse may hide (or reveal, depending on how one may look at it) much of a poet’s mediocrity but a ghazal will starkly highlight it. Even in Urdu, there are seldom more than a few poets writing quality ghazals at one time and a good ghazal is as difficult to write as perhaps a good sestina.


The word ghazal derives from the word ghazaal from Arabic, which means a gazelle. And that perhaps sums up in one word what the form stands for. Delicate and graceful, quick and erratic, the gazelle moves in leaps and bounds, often changing directions from one jump to another, often reversing its course entirely, capricious yes, but ever delightfully energetic and beautiful. 


Historically, the ghazal originated in Persia and migrated along with the moguls to India. There it became one of the foremost vehicles of poetic expression of a new language, Urdu, which came out of a commingling of Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Punjabi and Hindi. In Urdu Literature, its importance rivals that of a sonnet in English.


The Exemplars of the Urdu Ghazal


The ghazal was used highly successfully by Mirza Ghalib, easily the greatest poet in Urdu to this date. He exploited the natural rhythm and felicity of the language to reach new heights of simplicity and lyricism. An example of Ghalib’s wit can be seen in this translation (translation mine) of his ghazal:


You bring a rose to your face and say, like this.

Show me with my own lips how to lean for a kiss.


How to steal hearts without a word from your lips.

Each action of hers reeks with attitude like this.


When I suggested that her guests leave,

She asked me to get up and go, like this.


Do you feel that closeness brings an end to passion?

The waves in the sea still toss and turn, like this.


Those who say that the Persian ghazal is greater than Urdu,

Read them a selection of my verse, like this.


With time, however, the ghazal adopted new themes and imagery. It gave up the traditional rose, the moon and the Saaqi (the wine-bearer). Fervent religious reformers like Iqbal and romantic realists like Faiz entrenched it indelibly in the consciousness of the Indian sub-continent.


The Ghazal in English


The ghazal, thus, is full of great possibilities. It can be sung, it can move masses, and it can be a prayer or an ode or an elegy or a love-lyric or a call for revolution. Unfortunately, it has never fulfilled its promise in English. This may be due to the lack of awareness of its true structure, the lack of rhyming words in English, or the non-linear structure of the form itself, which requires a new mode of thinking. More likely, this is so because it has never been successfully adapted into English. The language has always risen to new challenges in the past and all that may be needed is to create an appreciation of the form among poets and critics.


Adrienne Rich and many others have written free verse ghazals. They have used a string of couplets in vers libre, usually more than four or five, and unrelated in content, as their criteria of ghazal. To me, this is equivalent to calling a fourteen-line poem a sonnet. While I do not contest a poet’s freedom to modernize and improvise, I feel that an attempt must be made to create the ghazal in its classical form, too. One should know the rules before deciding to break them.


The Mastery of the Craft


One must appreciate that the ghazal in some ways is diametrically opposite to free verse. The ghazal, as discussed earlier, while adhering to external form rigorously, leaves the emotion to leap from one couplet to another. It relies solely on unity of rhythm, the radeef, while free verse poems usually rely on unity of thought or image. An analogue to the ghazal may be the renga in its classical form with strict rules regarding syllable count, season words, etc., and a strictly non-narrative structure. The other kin to a ghazal may be sequence, though the sequence has no formal structure.


The first couplet in a ghazal provides the zemeen or basis on which all subsequent couplets stand. The theme of the following couplets may be unrelated, may contradict the previous one, may represent another perspective on the idea, and may even be part of a narrative (though this is less common). The second line in a couplet sometimes may even be unrelated to the first.


Often each couplet is an entirely different poem in itself, yoked to others only by reason of rhyme and rhythm. The strict limitation of form and length with stanzas of two lines only, each of which is an independent poem in itself places immense pressure on the poet. He must excel with each line. He has to touch the reader’s or listener’s intellect or emotions quickly and just as quickly move on. There is no time for expostulation.

The ghazal writer relies on pun, paradox, bathos and other literary devices or tarqeebs. Brevity is the key. An example of witty spiritual insouciance or romantic flirtation can be seen in this line from Ghalib and Faiz respectively (translations mine):


Is it ordained that each shall get the same reply?

Come, let us take a trip to Mount Sinai.


Love in the heart makes them upset;

On my lips, it becomes a secret.


The English Ghazal


To attempt an English metrical equivalent, one should perhaps limit oneself between five to twelve feet per couplet, like most English meters. Each line may include two hemistiches, though this is not essential. The two lines in a couplet may not have the same number of feet.


The earliest English poetry, to my understanding, was based on rhythm and not so much a metrical prosody. Urdu, being a relatively new language, does the same. The zemeen or basic rhythm is the key. Usually, each line is end-stopped and does not use, what Coleridge called, a feminine ending. Thus, a typical zemeen in Urdu may sound taut and simple as in this couplet:


That you were not aware,

We could hardly care.


Or it may be more spread out and complex:


Such pain that even wounds could not be witnesses;

At your arrival, there were no apocalypses.


(Above two examples translated from my ghazals in Urdu)


In place of rhyming the last word of each couplet, one may use a phrase as a refrain, as in Ghalib’s ghazal in the first section of this essay. Or one may use slant rhymes or incomplete rhymes and that would depend on the creativity of the poet. Or, one may use internal rhymes to bolster the refrain, e.g.,


Wounds of light have dared to flow

Since I moved closer to you.


Kiss them with the lips of sight,

The tongue of eyes whispers to you.


Lost in the stars you wake anew,

Mirrors at night are jewelers to you.


(Translated from my ghazals in Urdu)


All these rules, however, are only on the surface. The true measure of a ghazal is its saleeqah or the way a certain thing is said or not said, or left unsaid. Wit is highly prized along with nazuk-khayali or the subtlety of thought of feeling. An example of this fineness of perception can be seen in this couplet of Ghalib:


At each turn, you ask me who am I.

Tell me, is this the way to reply.


The ghazal then, to quote T. S. Eliot in another context, is a ‘precise way of thinking or feeling’. Trans-creating it into English may mean a new self-discipline and self-development. If the attempt succeeds, ‘a new wing to the opulent mansion of English poetry’ will be added and we shall have learnt something new in the process. Seeing the resourcefulness of the modern poets in English, I have no doubt that the English ghazal will soon become a native in this foreign soil and thrive in this land of immigrants.




(Parts of this essay published in ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum, 1997, Volume 7, Number Three and in SIRS, a resource publication for libraries in U.S. and Canada.)