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Literature Glossary

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All good things come in pairs, and the ghazal is no exception. This poetic form consists of anywhere from five to fifteen couplets, each of which has nothing to do with the other couplets.

So why are they all in the same poem, you ask? Good question. The couplets are all united formally in that they follow a strict pattern of rhyme and rhythm. The first line of the first couplet sets up an internal rhyme, followed by a refrain. In the second line of the subsequent couplets, that rhyme and refrain are picked up again. (The first line of the subsequent couplets can do whatever it pleases.)

As with all poetic forms, it's easier to understand the ghazal in practice than in theory, so take a look at the first three couplets of Agha Shahid Ali's "Ghazal":

I'll do what I must if I'm bold in real time.
A refugee, I'll be paroled in real time.

Cool evidence clawed off like shirts of hell-fore?
A former existence untold in real time …

The one you would choose: Were you led then by him?
What longing, O
Yaar, is controlled in real time?

See what we mean? The internal rhyme that gets repeated is set up with the word bold (and its rhyming partner paroled). And the refrain, "in real time," gets repeated at the end of the second line of all the couplets, including the first. Ali was kind of an expert at the ghazal, since he introduced this form to the good ol' US of A. So when in doubt, read one of his and you'll catch the gist.

There's also a tradition in ghazals of having the poet give a sort of sign-off in the last couplet, where he's supposed to include his name in some way, as Agha Shahid Ali does in another ghazal of his, "Tonight." Take a look at his final three couplets:

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.

And there it is, folks, Shahid's little shout out to himself.

Ghazals, by the way, are old. They come from ancient Arabia, and were popular with famous Persian poets like Rumi and Hafiz. Often, ghazals are about unrequited or forbidden love, longing, and Big Questions like, what on earth am I doing here all alone?

Writing ghazals, that's what. Duh.