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How to Write an English Ghazal

September 14, 2019 | By

This is a brief description on how to write or not write an English ghazal with its rules and regulations and do’s and don’ts.

For all who want a definition of the ghazal here it is.

1. It must be in couplets. A minimum of five couplets is required.

2. It must rhyme in the following manner:
‘aa’ in the first couplet and then every second line of each following couplet should end with the rhyme ‘a’.
This is called the radeef.

3. There must be a corresponding rhyme with the first word before the first radeef and the word just before the radeef in the second line of each couplet, which is the tough part (at least for me). This is called the kaafiya.

4. All lines must have the same number of syllables.

5. The theme is usually amatory, romantic, of love, loss, and separation, tragic, and generally the poem makes use of stock images or words.

Here is one of the best examples by Agha Shahid Ali:

Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar
~ Laurence Hope

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?
Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”—to gem—“Me to adorn—How tell”—tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar—
All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.
Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.
He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.
In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.
God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day—
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.
Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.
The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.
My rivals for your love—you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

The radeef is “tonight”. The rhyme or kaafiya is spell, (ex)pel, tell, cell, fell etc. There are twelve syllables in each line.

(And . . . thee Job learns of his losses from four messengers – each messenger ends his statement “I alone have escaped to tell you” (Job 1.13-19) [New Revised Standard Version])

Shabir Ahmad Mir, my friend and an expert from Kashmir, adds that “radeef is more of a refrain than rhyme, while kaafiya is rhyme. Also as per classic Persio-Arabic tradition as well as Hindi-Urdu prosody a ghazal may not have a radeef and in that case kaafiya becomes the end rhyme; such a ghazal being called as “gair-murradif ghazal”. ”  Amita Paul, another expert, much prefers this kind of ghazal to the tortured kind Agha Shahid Ali promoted which is difficult to write and also says even three couplets are enough.

I concur with their opinion. To start and to end with, for those who write in English, the ghair murradif ghazal and shorter ghazals lead to more power-packed emotion-filled ghazals. We can also play around with the form. I have done it sometimes.

Each couplet must stand as a poem in itself and all the couplets together form a poem too at the same time in a ghazal. Whether you use your name or not is optional, but if used it is done in the last couplet. A ghazal can have in it several themes, even disparate ones, there is nothing saying you should have only one theme, but it is good for beginners to stick to one.

I want to add something more which is that the English ghazal has presently evolved into a free verse form that usually uses only one of the rules, either only radeef or if not free verse then syllabic count and has any theme as its domain. My problem is with people who work backwards meaning write five or three couplets and call it a ghazal or join in the attempt at the end of its history. To me they are like those who jump through no hoop and set at naught those who jumped first through one, then several and then at the end say “look, no hands ma.” These poets say “look, no hands ma,” right at the beginning of their journey as poets and their poems having emotional draw still get acclaim which is okay but I doubt they can be called ghazallers. If you write three couplets and rhyme and call it a free verse ghazal and get hundred likes and feel pleased you may be a modern poet and experimental but you are not a ‘ghazal-ler’, if I may coin such a word, unless you (he and she) keep on practising the form. Same with sonnets or anything else that is a form. End of lesson’s part one.

(The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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A Digression

Dr Koshy A. V. is presently an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Jazan University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has written, co-written and co-edited many books of criticism, fiction and poetry to his credit with authors like A.V. Varghese, Gorakhnath Gangane, Angel Meredith, Madhumita Ghosh, Zeenath Ibrahim, Rukhaya MK and Bina Biswas, among others, and one of them, a solo effort and pamphlet, 'A Treatise on Poetry for Beginners' was reprinted once as 'Art of Poetry.' He is a Pushcart Poetry Prize nominee (2012), and four times Best Poem winner in Destiny Poets UK ICOP (2013, 2014, 2018, 2019) and he was thrice featured in Camel Saloon’s The Hump for best poem/editor’s pick. Even as a child he won the Shankar's International Award for writing, at the age of six or seven. He is a reputed critic and expert on Samuel Beckett, having done his Ph.D on him as well as having written a book on him, "Samuel Beckett's English Poetry", besides being a literary theoretician. His other books include "Wake Up, India: Essays for Our Times", co-authored with Dr Bina Biswas, and "Mahesh Dattani's Plays: Staging the Invisibles," research essays by many collected and co-edited with Bina Biswas, "The Significant Anthology" that he edited with Reena Prasad and Michele Baron, a collection of his stories "Scream and Other Urbane Legends" published by Lifi, and an anthology or collection of poetry "Igniting Key," with Bina Biswas and Pramila Khadun. He has edited or co-edited many books including A Man Outside History by Naseer Ahmed Nasir and Inklinks: An Anthology by PoetsCorner and Umbilical Chords with Dr Madan Gandhi, Dr Santosh Bakaya , Himali Narang and Vineetha Mekkoth. He instituted the Reuel International Literary Prize in 2014 for excellence in writing and runs an Autism NPO with his wife Anna Gabriel. The first Reuel prize was given to Dr Santosh Bakaya. He administers with the help of others the literary group Rejected Stuff on Facebook, also known as THE SIGNIFICANT LEAGUE. His poems have been studied in a research paper by Dr Zeenath Ibrahim and by Kiriti Sengupta in The Dazzling Bards and translated into Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, German, Bengali, Tamil, Spanish, Arabic and Malayalam. He won World Bank’s Urgent Evoke and participated in European Union’s Edgeryders. He has been interviewed extensively by people like Gina McKnight. He has other degrees like a Dip.Ed, diplomas, certificates and awards or prizes to his credit including best researcher and academic 2018 in Jazan University, besides his UGC and doctorate on Beckett. He attributes everything to God’s grace and the prayers and good wishes of his loved ones and friends. His latest books are "Allusions to Simplicity" and "Birds of Different Feathers", both collections of poetry like his first one "Figs". He is working on ten books now, one being on Bob Dylan. He has a certificate in Masters of World Literature from HarvardX, USA, earned in 2019, and a certificate from Nanowrimo USA in 2018, besides completing 2019 NAPOWRIMO, USA. He also co-edited with Reena Prasad, Michele Baron and Anna Gabriel "Silhouette I and II featuring Eternal Links", and contributed to "Eyes Bloodshot: Hallowe'en Tales" edited by Firdaus Parvez, both short story anthologies. His other book is "Wrighteings: In Media Res", a collection of essays, and he has contributed to international magazines, both online and print, and poetry and short story anthologies aplenty. He was a columnist for Niamh Clune's Plum Tree, Ireland, and has been published by Barry Mowles, Brian Wrixon, Bezine, Madswirl, Spillwords, Wagon, Oddball magazine, Setu, Tuck magazine, the Pangolin Review, OPA ,Metaworker, Atunis Galaktike, Nothing, No one, Nowhere, Episteme, Virogray etc. He also has many research papers to his credit in places like Langlit, uncollected as yet. He has had retrospectives of his work done by Duane Vorhees and Glory Sasikala in duanesnewpoetree.blogspot.com and Glomag respectively. He recently achieved ten thousand reads on Research Gate for his research articles on display there.
All Posts of Dr Ampat Varghese Koshy

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