I know how small a poem can be:/the point on a fish hook.
February 28, 2006 10:59 PM   Subscribe

The Ghazal is a kind of poetry, originally of pre-Islamic Persian origin, consisting entirely of couplets, called "sher," that share (no pun intended) an end rhyme. Well-liked especially in India and Pakistan, the difficult-to-master form has experienced a surge of popularity among, of all people, white Canadians. Spurred by the breathtaking poems of the late John Thompson, contemporary writers like Phyllis Webb and Eric Folsom have created a interesting hybridized verision--"The Bastard Ghazal". That's not, of course, to ignore Kiran Ahluwalia, an Indian-Candian ghazal singer who hews more closely to the form's origins.
posted by maxreax (13 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There's also this article from 2001 about the work of Agha Shahid Ali, which is the first thing I ever read about ghazals.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:16 PM on February 28, 2006

Ghazals are an important element in Vikram Seth's fantastic if overstuffed book A Suitable Boy, which is how I know about them.

I heard Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan a couple of years ago at a WOMAD festival singing the qawwali music which uses ghazals as lyrics. Ecstatic stuff. He and his troupe sat on the ground (it makes you closer to God, apparently), swayed and clapped, and mesmerised everyone who heard it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:46 PM on February 28, 2006

When I graduated from college, my friend's father flew in from Pakistan for the ceremony. My friend has spent all the holidays with my family and we were excited to finally meet his father. At dinner after commencement, my family, my friend, and his father had dinner. Conversation was a bit awkward because his dad didn't speak English very well and the only Urdu I knew were swears and insults. After my father asking about what the weather was like in Pakistan for the fifth time, I tried to forge some better common ground by asking about Ghalib's ghazals. My friend's dad lit up and we talked about Urdu poetry for awhile. He was very impressed I knew anything about Ghalib (all I actually knew was that there was aguy named Ghalib and he wrote something called ghazals). Mistaking my attempt at conversation as a deep rooted interest he promised that he would send some poetry to me.

Two months later my friend sheepishly came over to my apartment with 10 hour long video tapes of a Pakistani television broadcast of the life of Ghalib. He had received the package from his dad with a note that he was to sit with me and watch the whole thing, translating the entire 10 hours.

And that is my story about ghazals.
posted by Falconetti at 11:50 PM on February 28, 2006

You can listen to Ghazals via streaming audio here

A few other resources:

More information on Ghalib

What is a Ghazal?
posted by sk381 at 1:29 AM on March 1, 2006

John Thompson is the closest thing to a poetic genius that Canada has ever produced. I encourage you to track down his collected poems. His death was a terrible loss.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 6:34 AM on March 1, 2006

(In celebration of this fascinating post, I will now proceed to listen to Qawwali music for the rest of the day, and thereby drive my officemate mad.)
posted by infidelpants at 7:41 AM on March 1, 2006

Being Persian and having parents who are very interested in Persian literature (including ghazal), I'm ashamed to admit I know very little about the subject. But years ago I did see Mohammad Reza Shajarian perform when he played in the Bay Area, and it was amazing.

I chuckled when I read Kiran Ahluwalia's name, because kiran means "penises" in Farsi. It'll be awkward if she ever performs in Iran.
posted by Devils Slide at 7:46 AM on March 1, 2006

Very interesting post. There are basically two approaches you can take to importing a foreign form with strict rules. One is Agha Shahid Ali's:
And just as others had to do for the haiku, Ali now has to fight for the ghazal's structural integrity—its rules and regulations, so to speak—as it passes into English. To do this he must undo impressions built in the 1960's and 1970's, when the form first came to attention in English and when, in general, rules of form were being thrown to the wind.

"That was unfortunate, because the ghazal is nothing if not about rules," notes Ali. "Western poets were then aiming wildly at the exotic, so they wrote the poems they would have written anyway and just called them ghazals."
The other is Andy Weaver's:
Technically, the ghazal also has a very strict scheme of internal rhyme and end repetition. I’ll refer you to Agha Shahid Ali’s introduction to Ravishing DisUnities for a better, more detailed (if somewhat condescending) explanation of these aspects, because, unlike Ali, I don’t believe that the lack of these aspects invalidates most English language ghazals. I base my belief on one simple fact: when the classical ghazals are translated into English, the rhyme schemes are always lost, and yet the results are still breath-taking. To completely agree with Ali is to admit that the works of Ghalib, for example, are not really ghazals once they’re translated. Maybe this is true, but the distinction seems unimportant to me...
Well, it seems important to me. I'm with Ali: if you want to write something in English vaguely inspired by your idea of what a ghazal is, fine, but don't call it a ghazal.

Of course, the main thing is the poetry; nomenclature is a secondary issue... but one not unimportant to some of us.

Another point: the post, and the imported tradition it describes, focus on the Urdu ghazal (hence the "pronounced guzzle"). But it came to India from Persia, where it reached its highest flowering; the great masters of the ghazal (pronounced more like ka-ZAL in Persian, with both as as in cat) are Sa'di, Hafez, and Rumi.
posted by languagehat at 8:27 AM on March 1, 2006

This is great. I tried to compose a few--even given the fact that the ersatz "ghazal in English" plays loose with the rules, they're still damn hard to pull off.

What languagehat said, although if poets were sticklers and purists for cross-cultural forms, we'd miss out on a lot of great stuff (Ezra Pound, for one prominent example. And any sonnet written in English, for another).
posted by bardic at 9:37 AM on March 1, 2006

For all Ghazal (poetry) lovers, there is an absolute scholarly treatise by Francis W. Pinochet on Mirza Ghalib, aptly titled Desert of Roses. Even if one is a relative newbie, one can get a hang of ghazals, shers, their formation (rhyme) etc. It has explanation, notes from other poets, translation, transliteration, anecdotes etc for each and every sher (couplet) and surprisingly v. easy to navigate. Simply, a must-read.

Ghalib was one of the shayars(poet) who took the ghazal form to its popularity and was well-received by both the purists and the masses. He was a very jovial fellow blessed with a v.good sense of humour, and used to playing pranks with friends, other competing shayars of his time, and even with emperors.

You can also get Mir Taqi Mir, another classic shayar (safe to say a major contributor to Urdu language) and some more from Francis' homepage.
posted by forwebsites at 10:32 AM on March 1, 2006

This is one of the best posts/comment threads in a long, long time. I grew up listening to this stuff - my Iranian father played his old tapes quite often. Once again, outstanding contributions by all. (Makes me wish I had more to contribute myself.)
posted by blendor at 11:20 AM on March 1, 2006

Devils Slide : "I chuckled when I read Kiran Ahluwalia's name, because kiran means 'penises' in Farsi."

And 'rays' in Sanskrit/Hindi.
posted by Gyan at 12:41 PM on March 1, 2006

I'm a ghazal guzzler, nyuck nyuck, gaga for ghazals. Gyan, that's funny, it's like catzi in Italian meaning penises and in Greek meaning please sit down. Fun little polyglot twists.

Good ghazals on the Afghani music sites, feasts of streaming audio. I like the Afghani music sites, rich sources of free streaming audio.

Okay, somewhat tangentially, not ghazals but classic Arabic instrumental via CDBaby.

hmmm, looking for ghazals on an Iranian music site I came across this bizarre mp3 called My Sweet Little Terrorist.

Umm Khulthum's
singing is wonderful.
posted by nickyskye at 6:16 PM on March 1, 2006

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