Saturday, September 08, 2012

Ghazal - An Eastern Inheritance

Ghazal: the last words of a dying deer to its beloved, strung together in the form of rhyming couplets. Ghazal is an elegy and an ode, a lyrical and stylized lament, a whimsical play of words, a wistful cry rolled into five couplets or more. Ghazal, like sonnet or villanelle or haiku or sestina, is an example of a formal poem and is supposed to be written under strict metrical and rhyming constraints. Each couplet (sher) is a complete thought and a poem in itself. Each couplet ends with a repeating word or phrase (like tonight is the refrain or radif above), and the word immediately before the refrain (expel, cell, hell) rhymes across the couplets. The opening couplet (or matla) announces the refrain and the rhyme scheme (called kaafiya) in the first line itself, and the remaining couplets arrive in the same meter (bahr). The meter, rhyming penultimate word and the refrain synergistically provide an effect of passion, obsession, perhaps even a periodic sob or sigh, and though each new couplets begins with a first line that can travel a different landscape of feeling, the return to refrain in second couplet is like a homecoming. The penultimate word signals the return. The last couplet (maqta) often contains the chosen name or pseudonym of a poet (takhalus), as if the poet signs off with a couplet that contains his last words, his epitaph. These constraints within the form are similar to the constraints imposed by the society on love, thought, liberty and ideas. The English language is one of the few Western/European languages where ghazal (pronounced ghuzzle) has made an appearance on the page. My essay is formally about the Anglicized ghazal, but to imagine, inspire, write and judge poems in a particular form, requires an awareness of its clichés and characteristics. No poet in English must write an essay or a collection of sonnets without a certain familiarity with Shakespeare, though missing out on sonnets written in Indian languages is perhaps permissible.

In the beginning, in seventh century, ghazal was Arabic. By the tenth century, she conquered many hearts and lands in the East. The form reached its maturity as a form in the hands of Persian masters. In the West, when Goethe and Lorca experimented with this form: they were primarily inspired by the ghazal of Hafiz (or Hafez), the fourteenth century Farsi poet, said to be the greatest exponent of the form. The celebrated thirteenth century poet, Amir Khusrau was probably the first major poet to popularize ghazal in the Indian subcontinent and first to infuse words from khadi boli (early version of Hindi/Urdu). Subsequently, Urdu poets like Wali Deccani, Mir Taqi 'Mir', Ghalib, Dard, Dagh, Zauq, Momin, Faiz, Faraz, Firaq, Faiz and Faraz, as well as Dushyant Kumar (Hindi), Shiv Kumar Batalvi (Punjabi) and numerous Bollywood lyricists contributed to the popularity of ghazal in India. Ghazal, performed by celebrated, classically trained singers in varied languages have supplied many unforgettable rhymes to love-stricken as well as to literary minded classes and masses in India, Pakistan, Iran, Arab world and elsewhere. Mirza Ghalib, whose ghazals are infused with philosophical questions, is probably the most celebrated poet in the Urdu language. The introduction of ghazal to American poets is often linked to the Ghalib translation project of Aljaz Ahmed in 1960s. Adrienne Rich, William Stafford and W. S. Merwin all worked with a literal translation of Ghalib's Urdu ghazals to render their own versions in English. The translation project spawned an interest in the form, but early on, American poets wrote ghazals without an awareness of its rich, multi-cultural, multi-layered history, and without attention to any formal constraints.

In fact, before Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) took a loudspeaker and a sledgehammer to chide poets for calling any string of couplets written by them as a ghazal, English (American) poets created verses without constraints, without refrain, without meter, without a unity that is enforced by the rhyme scheme and the lament-like undercurrent. They created so-called ghazals without allusions or gratitude to a rich Eastern inheritance. Anguished by reading what passed for ghazal in English and acutely aware of the sub-textual richness of the form due to his Indian heritage, Shahid pointed out that "the Americans had got the ghazal quite wrong". Like a teacher and Eastern mystic he patiently explained, with examples he created, how to craft a ghazal in English. He later edited an anthology "Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English" where many contemporary poets wrote ghazals that Shahid accepted into the fold (many that I would dismiss as unrealized or unsuccessful attempts). Before revisiting the formal elements necessary for composing a ghazal, here are selected couplets from a ghazal by Shahid that appears in his collection titled "Call Me Ishmael Tonight":

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

Celebrated ghazals by masters in Arabic, Persian, Urdu or Hindi have all the formal elements woven into a tapestry that is intricate, complex, and beautiful. In these cerebral yet popular ghazals, even through all constraints (social and literary) are respected, the resulting verses are musical and lyrical, ready to be recited or sung to diverse audiences who marvel at every turn of phrase, every choice of rhyme, and find relief, release, joy in the ageless words of the poet. In fact, performance of a ghazal in the East involves a protocol unmatched by any I know of in the Western poetry. The poet first recites a line, then repeats it, accentuating the effect by changing the tone or by stretching out or stressing a word. The audience repeats a phrase or the line, an expectation is built up. Now the second line of the couplet is released amongst much fanfare. Soon the refrain is on only everybody's lip, but the mystery of what could come before the refrain sustains the excitement. One couplet won the approval of the audience, now the next is another battle, another farewell, another journey, another quest, till the final verse brings the lament to a halt, after which only a silent ache, a memory remains.

Ghazal is by nature an address by a poet-protagonist (dying deer) to a beloved (who could be imaginary, distant or absent). Ghazal is always a declaration, but hardly ever a monologue. A farewell song with a detached sense of a lost cause, and also craving expressed with a latent hope that it will reach the intended ears. Sentimentality, abstracted to the extent that it becomes a metaphor for any unfulfilled or unrealizable dream or desire or rather every cause worth pining, dying or fighting for. The sufi poets of the subcontinent and of Persia compose verses addressing the almighty as the ultimate beloved. All good ghazals arrive in multiple incarnations, sensuous from the lips of a courtesan, spiritual in the company of dancing dervishes or sufis, entertaining when recited in a drunken party and thought provoking for critics and casual listeners. In Farsi or Urdu, every ghazal engages in a dialogue with verses that came before, and the task of writing fresh verses involves a heightened sensibility that helps in creating suspense, surprise, pleasure, catharsis, nirvana. Why must a ghazal in English care for the inheritance of loss, these cultures full of constraints, semantics of unfulfilled desires or the mysticism of foreign lands? One compelling reason, I think, is the fact that just India alone has more English speakers than the US and UK combined. If we account for all the countries and cultures that have memory of ghazal in another language, ignoring this inheritance is like imagining that English language without the backdrop of European history, religious practices, politics, literature and languages.

Is an Arbaic, Urdu, Persian, Turkish, Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi ghazal translatable into English, or is it so deeply rooted in a culture that is so alien to the Western culture and audiences that every translation is bound to fail as a poem in its own right in English? Can any English ghazal appear as true to the form to readers and poets with a bilingual imagination, familiar with excellent ghazals in another language? The difficulty in writing ghazals in English for someone like me is how to recreate her tension in a way that can appeal to a reader from the West as well as from the East simultaneously (though often due to different reasons). When the Muslim poets express their desire for wine, praise the goblet or a tavern, they break religious or regional laws. Lines can cost lives, breaking the constraints can bring shackles and prison cells. The audience in such cases derives a guilty pleasure in hearing echoes of protest within a poem outwardly addressed to a distant, lost, unresponsive or unattainable beloved. The presentation of sensual desires through seemingly platonic or Victorian lines, and the pronouncement of doubt in another (God, king, beloved) appeals as extraordinary literary feats only when insurmountable barriers exist and words carry throbbing of an anguished art. A lament, a near-blasphemy presented in such style that the listener is forced to marvel at the music and the meaning and scream in pleasure: Wow (wah!). Poetry in the west is often a leisurely activity of Lord Byrons, Emily Dickinsons, and New Englanders but when saying anything or everything is permitted, how can you find the tension, tacit protest, that sustains the paradoxical, wistful writing of a ghazal?

I personally feel that Anglicized ghazal is in an early stage of development and a Hafez or a Ghalib will arrive in English when the language and the world is ready for him (or her). I began writing ghazals in English after my friend and mentor Thomas Lux urged me to to. He tested my sensibility for the form by first giving me so-called ghazals of an American poet. After seeing my disgust, he introduced me to the Shahid's ghazals. My personal quest for the lines that are of inevitable, inexhaustible beauty continues. The biggest challenge is how to write lines that a bilingual imagination like mine does not corrupt with ideas untranslatable for listeners arriving with only one shared language. I believe Shahid managed to bring the sensibility of the East to ghazal in English. Years ago, I acknowledged the form has a formidable future in English, when I listened with astonishment, pleasure and joy to Heather McHugh recite "Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun" with a gusto that would make any Urdu or Farsi poet proud:

Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person? 

I blame the soup: I'm a primordially

stirred person.

Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings. 

The apparatus of his selves made an ab-
surd person.

The sound I make is sympathy's: sad dogs are tied afar. 

But howling I become an ever more un-
heard person.

McHugh, you'll be the death of me -- each self and second studied!
Addressing you like this, I'm halfway to the
third person.

 (PS: The poems quoted by Heather and Shahid are quoted here are the intellectual property of the poets or their representatives, and are quoted here with a deep reverence for their excellent command of the form).