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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.)

More to read in Literature DIY

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A Digression

Dr. Koshy A.V. is presently working as an Assistant Professor in the English Department of Jazan University, Saudi Arabia. He has many books, degrees, diplomas, certificates, prizes, and awards to his credit and also, besides teaching, is an editor, anthology maker, poet, critic and writer of fiction. He runs an autism NPO with his wife, Anna Gabriel.
All Posts of Dr Ampat Varghese Koshy

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