The simplest way to characterize a ghazal (pronounced “guzzle”) is to say that it is a series of self-contained couplets (2-line verses) in groups of 5 or more, possibly loosely revolving around an implicit theme. There is much more to say about a ghazal: its ancient Arabic origins, its incredible popularity in its native lands, the many conventions illuminating the ghazal experience in its original languages, conventions about rhyming and themes and number of syllables and how the author’s name is usually woven into the last line. But the ghazal is new to North America, at least on the timeline of poetry, and we don’t have such conventions here. Here ghazals are simply grouped couplets, generally free verse, although some poets try to involve some of the original form’s rhyme scheme. To clarify, here’s an excerpt from a meditation on the Western ghazal (That Bastard Ghazal):
People often compare the ghazal to the sonnet formally, since they’re both brief “takes” on a situation, usually love. However, the comparison is a pretty poor one, because of that fundamental aspect of the ghazal: the lack of unity. In other words, each couplet is not only self-contained grammatically; they are also self-contained in terms of ideas, imagery, allusions, etc….Consider the opening ghazal in John Thompson’s Stilt Jack:
Now you have burned your books: you’ll go
with nothing but your blind, stupefied heart.
On the hook, big trout lie like stone:
terror, and they fiercely whip their heads, unmoved.
Kitchens, women and fire: can you
do without these, your blood in your mouth?
Rough wool, oil-tanned leather, prime northern goose down,
a hard, hard eye.
Think of your house: as you speak, it falls,
fond, foolish man. And your wife.
They call it the thing of things, essence
of essences: great northern snowy owl; whiteness.
It is this lack of logical that usually draws readers and poets to the form—there’s nothing else really like it in English language poetry. A sonnet is like a crown filled with precious jewels all set into an ornate, well wrought crown of beautiful gold. By comparison, a ghazal would be those same jewels held together by an invisible string. There’s really no comparison at all. Apples and oranges, the sonnets agree. Oranges and antelopes, the ghazals assent.