How the ghazal traveled from 6th-century Arabia to Persia, India and the English-speaking world

 Published 12 Jan 2019

The trajectory of the ghazal is unlike that of any other literary form that has had a history of traversing beyond its spatial confines. A brief tour through the passages of this poetic form and its diverse routes would reveal both its uniqueness and universal appeal.

When the ghazal moved out of the Arabian Peninsula, it found a hospitable space in medieval Spain where it was written both in the Arabic and the Hebrew languages. In yet another instance, we have the ghazal reaching out to west African languages like Hausa and Fulfulde.

Even while these ghazals developed their own marks, they also kept close to the Arabic model by retaining the traditional Arabic metres and forms. It was only when the ghazal reached Persia in the middle of the 8th century that it started developing its own contours even while it did not entirely disengage from the formal patterns of the Arabic ghazals.

Later, the Persian ghazal acquired its definite character when it developed its own stylistic marks in refurbishing the matla, the first sher of the ghazal, and evolving a pattern of refrains (radeef) as the last unit of expression in the second line of each sher. It also defined the length of the ghazal from seven to 15 shers, and made way for the poets to use their signature in maqta, the last sher of the composition.

Abdullah Jafar Rudaki, the first canonical ghazal writer of Persia towards the end of the 9th century, was followed in chronological order by other major poets like Sanai Ghaznavi and Fariduddin Attar in the 12th century, Sadi Shirazi and Jalaluddin Rumi in the 13th and Hafiz Shirazi in the 14th century.

The Persian ghazal matured further after the classical models in the subsequent centuries but it always distinguished itself for two of its most distinctive qualities: its acute mystical preoccupations and its keen philosophical concerns. The ghazal written in Persian, the dominant literary language of central Asia and India, made remarkable impact and proved quite consequential in the development of the ghazal as an archetypal form of poetic expression in the East.

Even the poets who wrote in other languages looked towards Persia for mature models. Turkey, for example, being another destination of the ghazal, offered yet another variation on the Persian ghazal.

Ali Shir Navai of Afghan descent, who was supposed to be the founder of Uzbek literature, brought it closer to new linguistic habits and exposed it to the extinct Chagatai language of Turkey in the mid-15th century, and Fuzuli brought the ghazal to Azerbaijani Turkish in tone and tenor at the beginning of the 16th century.

Outside Arabia where it originated, and Persia where it matured, it was in India that the ghazal found its most hospitable destination. Even though the ghazal in India is sometimes traced back to the 13th century in the works of Amir Khusrau, its Urdu incarnation is rightly identified in Mohammad Quli Qutub Shah towards the latter half of the 16th century, and Vali Deccani in the succeeding century.

Looking back, one may clearly notice that it has passed through several stages of development in form, content and language, ever since its first flowering in the Deccan and its subsequent branching out in various directions of India.

While prominent literary centres like the Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow created competitive conditions for the development of the ghazal, several others spread over the length and breadth of the country championed their own features of style. All of them contributed together in constructing a larger and comprehensive tradition of ghazal writing which has kept growing ever since.

The most remarkable feature of the ghazal in India which stands out quite prominently is that the poets of various linguistic, regional and religious affiliations joined hands to broaden its thematic and stylistic frontiers and impart to it a unique resilience that has stayed with it through all the phases of literary history.

The ghazal, as a literary form which has no other approximate form in any of the literatures, has long elicited the attention of poets writing in several Western languages.

When the Orient lured Germany in the 19th century, the ghazal reached there with the translations of Persian works. Friedrich Schlegal, an Orientalist who studied Sanskrit, chose to make his bold experiments in this form.

His contemporary, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, imitated Persian models, translated ghazals, and wrote under the Oriental influence and published his collection, West-ostliche Divan. We also have, in the same line of descent, Friedrich Rückert, another Orientalist, writing his ghazals and publishing them in Ghaselen.

August Graf von Platen, a master of 12 languages, is yet another example who practised this form, adhered to the Persian form of rhythm and rhyme through his qaafia and radeef, and published his collections Ghaselen and Neue Ghaselen.

In modern times, the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca wrote his ghazals, called gecelos, and included them in his last collection of poems, Divan del Tamarit, which also reflected his ever-abiding interest in Arab Andalusian culture. The appeal of the ghazal travelled in other directions as well, which is exemplified by compositions in languages as diverse as French, Italian and English.

In modern times, the ghazal found its larger acceptance in the English-speaking world. Adrienne Rich, John Hollander and Robert Bly in America, Jim Harrison, John Thompson, Phyllis Webb and Douglas Barbour in Canada, and Judith Wright in Australia are just a few of the many poets who brought the ghazal to new literary spaces, as they experimented with this form and made way for many others to emulate.

On being introduced to Ghalib during the death centenary year of the poet in 1969, and on translating his ghazals, Adrienne Rich developed an instant liking for the form. Later, she wrote her ghazals independently and published seventeen of them in Leaflets as “Homage to Ghalib” and, subsequently, nine more in The Will To Change as “The Blue Ghazals”.

In her Collected Early Poems, she acknowledged her debt and wrote: “My ghazals are personal and public, American and Twentieth Century; but they owe much to the presence of Ghalib in my mind: a poet, self-educated and profoundly learned who owned no property and borrowed his books, writing in an age of political and cultural break-up.”

Similarly, the ghazal caught the imagination of John Hollander to the extent that he defined its poetics and wrote a ghazal on the ghazal, a kind of definitional piece, following the strict discipline of the form with its qaafia and radeef falling in place.

At a remove from Rich and Hollander, we have quite a few Canadian poets making their forays into this form. Jim Harrison, who published 65 of his ghazals in Outlyer and Ghazals, was aware of the Arabic and Persian ghazal tradition and knew of Rich’s excursion into this form.

He is one of the more prominent poets to discover the ghazal and find space for all that he considered crude and queer to write about, along with all that was normal and natural. “After several years spent with longer forms,” he said, “I’ve tried to regain some of the spontaneity of the dance, the song unencumbered by any philosophical apparatus, faithful only to its own music.”

Another poet, John Thompson, in his carefully crafted ghazals in Still Jackalso valued the freedom that the ghazal afforded, but he did not mistake it for surrealist or free association poems violating a sense of order. Instead, he valued them as “poems of careful construction performing controlled progression” with no deliberate design upon the reader. He found in it a way to test the limits of imagination that might lose the track of reason, if left unguarded.

Yet another variation in the writing of the ghazal may be seen in Phyllis Webb’s Sunday Water and Water and Light. She evolved the concept of “anti ghazal” and found in them a space for “the particular, the local, the dialectical and private”.

She degendered the form and resorted to a subversive way by de-valorising the female figure, which the ghazal had been traditionally valorising ever since its inception. A much more radical position was adopted by Douglas Barbour in his ghazals included in Visible Visions and Breathtakes. He chose to try the limits of sound and form by modulating breath as a mode of expression and bringing it closer to performance poetry.

With this entirely new mode of apprehension, Barbour added yet another facet to the fast emerging body of the North American ghazal. “Indeed, a very particular sound, for example, caught my imagination,” he said, “when I thought of ghazals, the sound of breathing itself. There was a form and there was a breath.

And there appeared what I call the breath ghazals.” Compositions by Douglas Lochhead in Tiger in the Skull and Max Plater in Rain on the Mountains may be read alongside the compositions by the North American poets.

The prominent Australian poet, Judith Wright, who began as a traditionalist, turned quite experimental towards the end of her career when she too experimented with this form in a section, “Shadow of Fire”, containing ghazals in her collection, Phantom Dwelling. In her departure from the traditional ghazal, she maintained thematic continuity in her couplets and gave her compositions a title.

Like all other poets, she too executed a variety of experiences in her couplets like the experiences of warfare, birth, growth, decay, contemporary life and the inevitability of the human fate. In the hands of all the poets mentioned above, as also many others who practised this form, it may be marked that they treated the ghazal with great respect and curiosity.

It was an immigrant form for them in which they saw the prospects of simulation and assimilation to enrich their own poetic capital. They saw in it the possibility of exploring newer areas of experience that could be expressed in manners hitherto unknown in the European tradition.

Carrying the argument further, I should like to assert that the ghazal in English acquired its definite face and form with Agha Shahid Ali who wrote his own ghazals, but more importantly, he created a condition for the poets to write their ghazals, observing its formal requirements.

He despaired over the way poets treated this form as a way of writing free verse, which he thought was a contradiction in terms if one wanted to write a real ghazal. Considering their efforts “amusing”, he brought them face to face with the rigorous demands that the ghazal made.

Compositions by Daine Ackerman, John Hollander, WS Merwin, William Matthews, Paul Muldoon, Maxine Kumin, Keki N Daruwalla, to name just a few, included in his Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English, amply show how far the ghazal had moved towards meeting the rigorous demands of the form after Ali’s intervention.

Excerpted with permission from the Preface to Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi: The Wonderful World of Urdu Ghazals, selected edited and translated by Anisur Rahman, HarperCollins India.( Scroll )