The ghazal is composed of a minimum of five couplets—and typically no more than fifteen—that are structurally, thematically, and emotionally autonomous. Each line of the poem must be of the same length, though meter is not imposed in English. The first couplet introduces a scheme, made up of a rhyme followed by a refrain. Subsequent couplets pick up the same scheme in the second line only, repeating the refrain and rhyming the second line with both lines of the first stanza. The final couplet usually includes the poet's signature, referring to the author in the first or third person, and frequently including the poet's own name or a derivation of its meaning.
Traditionally invoking melancholy, love, longing, and metaphysical questions, ghazals are often sung by Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani musicians. The form has roots in seventh-century Arabia, and gained prominence in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century thanks to such Persian poets as Rumi and Hafiz. In the eighteenth-century, the ghazal was used by poets writing in Urdu, a mix of the medieval languages of Northern India, including Persian. Among these poets, Ghalib is the recognized master.
Other languages that adopted the ghazal include Hindi, Pashto, Turkish, and Hebrew. The German poet and philosopher Goethe experimented with the form, as did the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
Indian musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Begum Akhtar popularized the ghazal in the English-speaking world during the 1960s. However, it was the poet Agha Shahid Ali who introduced it, in its classical form, to Americans. Ali compared each ghazal couplet to "a stone from a necklace," which should continue to "shine in that vivid isolation." Ali's ghazal "Even the Rain" is excerpted here:
What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief's lottery, bought even the rain.
"our glosses / wanting in this world" "Can you remember?"
Anyone! "when we thought / the poets taught" even the rain?
After we died—That was it!—God left us in the dark.
And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.
Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you'd poured—what?—even the rain.
To carve a place for the traditional form of the ghazal in American literature, Ali put together the anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English in 2000, for which he collected more than 100 ghazals, some more faithful to the traditional form than others. American poets, including John Hollander, Maxine Kumin, Heather McHugh, and W. S. Merwin, wrote the majority of the poems. McHugh's "Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun" is a good example of the form, as it respects the autonomy of the couplets, the length of lines, as well as the rhyme-refrain scheme established in the opening couplet. Below are the first three couplets:
Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?
I blame the soup: I'm a primordially
Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.
The apparatus of his selves made an ab-
The sound I make is sympathy's: sad dogs are tied afar.
But howling I become an ever more un-
Numerous scholars and poets have attempted to translate ghazals from their original language to English. The task is daunting, as keeping the literal meaning of each poem while respecting the rhyme, refrain, and length of lines is difficult, if not impossible. Aijaz Ahmad's Ghazals of Ghalib; Versions from the Urdu, provides a fascinating look at how various poets, including Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, William Hunt, David Ray, and W.S. Merwin, worked with a literal translation of Ghalib's Urdu ghazals to render their own versions in English. Elizabeth T. Gray's The Green Sea of Heaven, which offers fifty ghazals by Hafiz, provides a reliable literal translation of the Persian master, at the expense of form.
Examples of poems in the Ghazal form:
Even the Rain
by Agha Shahid Ali
Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun
by Heather McHugh
The Ghazal of What Hurt
by Peter Cole