“Ghazal is obsessive (did I say that yet?). Ghazal is obsessive”: on the ghazal, pt. 5

October 9, 2018 § Leave a comment


Ghazal wants loss. Ghazal loves a wasteland where the sun has, not quite, set. Ghazal resists adjectives, similes. Ghazal is this, is that. Ghazal demands allusions because ghazal is history, lineage, the remembered face. Ghazal craves the Anglo-Saxon. Ghazal says — repeat after me: love, dark, light, shadows, hands, mouth, lips, seed, tears, scars, flower, seasons, words. Ghazal withholds. Ghazal, a — rebel, an iconoclast, clings with all its might to the Newtonian universe. Ghazal talks to itself. Ghazal has faith in the simple. Ghazal speaks or doesn’t. Ghazal adores a trinity. Ghazal is obsessive (did I say that yet?). Ghazal is obsessive.

–Catherine Owen, from Shall: ghazals, p.18*

*lucky find during one of my trips to Edmonton this summer in The Edmonton Bookstore (one of the best used poetry selections, with a particular focus on Canadian poetry, that I’ve ever seen; one of my favourite poets).

  1. “Two crows on a globe of light / If I could dip my pen in their wings.”
  2. Decayed plant matter to peat to lignite to sub-bitumous coal to bitumous coal to anthracite, condensed over millions of years.
  3. Liquorice, licorice, sweet root.
  4. Snowfall on Desolation. Night sky over Lightning Creek.

“desire that remains desire”: on the ghazal pt.5

March 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

Poetry: desire that remains desire. Love?
The poet: a cinder never quite burned out.
–John Thompson, Ghazal XIV, Stilt Jack

This can’t be more than a footnote to my earlier posts on the ghazal as I’m overrun just now. But Im reading on my endless bus trips to and from campus, and enjoying immensely (the book, not the bus, where I think I’m beginning to show signs of Bus Traumatic Stress Disorder), the poet Peter Sanger’s Sea Run: Notes on John Thompson’s Stilt Jack. (Xavier Press, 1986). It’s a meticulous line by line commentary on Thompson’s Stilt Jack, and has also confirmed some of the haphazard thoughts I’ve had about the ghazal–most specifically, that as a form it isn’t as random as initial impressions suggest. I include one example here of Sanger’s notes on the above couplet from “Ghazal XIV.”

“This couplet quotes from Jackson Mathew’s translation of Sections XXX and V of Char’s ‘Partage Formel’. Thompson uses Mathew’s translations in his thesis: (a) A poem is the realization of love — desire that remains desire; (b) The poet, a magician of insecurity, can have only adopted satisfactions. A cinder never quite burned out. Thompson intended these quotations as a tribute to Char and expected readers to uncover their source. Any question of propriety becomes more complex when one considers, as Thompson probably knew, that Char’s source in quotation (b) above was probably a passage in A Defence of Poetry where Shelley describes Dante, whose very words are instinct with spirit; each is as a spark, a burning atom of indistinguishable thought; and many yet lie covered in the ashes of their birth, and pregnant with the lightning which has yet found no conducter.” p.21

It’s one of my favourite couplets from Stilt Jack, and the commentary works as a kind of archaeological excavation, revealing layers of complexity and allusion, line under line.

‘Every existence speaks a language of its own’: on the ghazal pt. 4

February 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

8/4/68 for Aijaz Ahmad

If these are letters, they will have to be misread.
If scribblings on a wall, they must tangle with all the others.

Fuck reds    Black power    Angel loves Rosita
–and a transistor radio answers in Spanish: Night must fall.

Prisoners, soldiers, crouching as always, writing,
explaining the unforgivable to a wife, a mother, a lover.

Those faces are blurred and some have turned away
to which I used to address myself so hotly.

How is it, Ghalib, that your grief, resurrected in pieces,
has found its way to this room from your dark home in Delhi?

When they read this poem of mine, they are translators.
Every existence speaks a language of its own.

— from Adrienne Rich, “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib” in Leaflets: Poems, 1965-1968

The most powerful ghazals I’ve read, including those by Ghalib, despite the generally true observation that the couplets in a ghazal tend to be somewhat random or lacking in unity, do hold together in quite powerful ways, creating an emotional or political tenor akin to an electrical field. Thompson is listening to the radio late at night and catalogues his random thoughts; Ghalib describes the sounds of his own grief.

The poem I’ve recorded above is from a sequence by Adrienne Rich called “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib,”  written in July and August of 1968, on the heels of May ’68 and the student uprising at the Sorbonne which inspired the mass worker strike across France; the Prague Spring is on (the Soviet Union will invade Czechoslovakia on the 20th of August with over 200,000 troops to put down the revolution 16 days after this poem was written); there are student sit-ins and protests across North America; the Vietnam war continues.

Rich inscribes the date for each ghazal, indicating how the ghazal functions for her like a transcription of a given day, a given time, as urgent and compelling and as necessary as the news of the day (“what is found there”). The ghazals in her sequence document moments of this revolutionary summer — “the clouds are electric in this university;” the heat; the graffiti, with poetry as analogue, in fact, graffiti as poetry (graffiti in May ’68 at the Sorbonne: “Nous somme tous les juifs allemands,” “Il faut baiser au moins une fois par nuit pour être un bon révolutionnaire,” “Fuck each other or they’lI fuck you”); private moments between lovers.

The power of these ghazals lies in their status as field notes where an urgent political graffito can exist on the same plane as a radio bulletin announcing a war very far away and a private moment transcribed — a single line — in which lovers lie back to back in the heat of a summer night. This is how we live.

The ghazal is ephemeral and points to the essence of lyric poetry as trace: “These words are vapour-trails of a plane that has vanished;/by the time I write them out, they are whispering something else.”

“When you read these lines, think of me/and of what I have not written here.”


stray notes on the ghazal (pt. 3)

January 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

1. The ghazal, as it has taken root in North America (the free verse ghazal, the ‘bastard’ ghazal, the ‘anti-ghazal’) privileges randomness, the disunity and illogicality of the couplets, as a release from thematic unity. Formal adherence to the radif might create, if done well, necessary tension — a pull against the random. 

2. Pound’s ideogrammic method is at work: Iron rust. Rose. Cherry. Flamingo. Both within and across couplets.

3. And Eliot’s objective correlative: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate a sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

4. Lists take precedence:

“Crazy squash, burnt tomatoes, char of poems, sour milk,
a candle gone down: is this my table?”  (Stilt Jack VII)

5. Andy Weaver describes the importance of the gap between couplets. This is crucial. A musical and conceptual interval or gauge, which must be finely judged by the poet, and for which there can be no rules.

6. Weaver also describes his experience of writing ghazals as analogous to carpentry. Couplets like driftwood he collects and then fits together. Perhaps gathering works here too. What is found in the world is gathered and held in couplets like baskets.

7. Webb uses internal rhyme and initial/terminal homonyms and homophones as ghostly echo of the qafia and radif. Here/hear. Leaves/leaves. Time/time.

8. What is truly desired is language. Language registers absence.
The beloved is a woman, is a man, is a body of language.

9. The ghazal as field notes, as transcription: each couplet the trace of a single moment.

10. These moments are plotted on an emotional plane. Paradigmatic axis (individual couplets); syntagmatic axis (their cumulative effect; a kind of jagged, dreamlike syntax).

11. The bass note is grief.

‘my loves are dying’: on the ghazal pt. 2

December 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

My loves are dying. Or is it that my love
is dying, day by day, brief life, brief candle,

a flame, flambeau, torch, alive, singing
somewhere in the shadow: Here, this way, here.

Hear the atoms ambling, the genes a-tick
in grandfather’s clock, in the old bones of beach.

Sun on the Sunday water in November.
Dead leaves on wet ground. The ferry leaves on time.

Time in your flight — O — a wristwatch strapped
to my heart, ticking erratically, winding down.

— Phyllis Webb, from Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti-Ghazals

In the few spare weeks I have this December I have been intermittently studying the ghazal as form, with the idea of writing some. While this ghazal by Webb is a free-verse version (a contradiction in terms, it has been argued), the formal version of a ghazal goes like this:

  • the opening couplet (the matla) introduces the rhyme & refrain in both lines
  • the rhyme is called the qafia, the refrain, the radif
  • each subsequent couplet must carry the rhyme and refrain in the second line
  • the final couplet (the makhta) is known as the signature couplet: in addition to carrying the rhyme and refrain in the second line, it also includes some reference to the poet herself, in the first, second, or third person; often the poet’s name is invoked
  • there are usually between 5 and 12 couplets

But of course these are simply the formal properties [1]. In addition to form, the predominant and traditional mood of the ghazal is one of grief due to unrequited love; it is intense, amorous, and elegiac. If I understand the form a little now, it seems to share some similarities with the sonnet in its earliest form, where the beloved becomes at times a path into the poet’s own self-expression and exploration of self, solitude, poetry, through stringent form.  Agha Shahid Ali in his introduction to the ghazal in Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English observes that “the ghazal is not an occasion for angst, it is an occasion for genuine grief.”[2]

The irony of Ravishing Disunities (one acknowledged by Ali) is that while many of the poems collected there attempt to follow the formal properties of a ghazal, few capture the mood or the traditional concerns of the ghazal as practiced by a poet like Ghalib. Consider, for example, Paul Muldoon’s clever “The Little Black Book” which begins:

It was Aisling who first soft-talked my penis-tip between her legs
while teasing open that velcro strip between her legs

It’s a virtuoso performance he sustains over fifteen couplets. The opening matla sets up the rhyme (“tip”) and refrain (“between her legs”), and the reader can’t help but wonder how he’s going to pull it off. You might make the case that he captures a certain post-coital tristesse in the poem, an echo of the grief of earlier ghazals. And full points for describing (in the signature makhta) his penis as a fluttering erratum-slip between the legs of Una, who keeps her own little black book.

But Phyllis Webb’s “My loves are dying” from Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals, although not employing the formal properties of the ghazal, beyond the use of fragmented couplets, has something of Ghalib in it that I have not yet found in Ravishing Disunities (I am still reading…):

My loves are dying. Or is it that my love
is dying, day by day, brief life, brief candle,

a flame, flambeau, torch, alive, singing
somewhere in the shadow: Here, this way, here.

Hear the atoms ambling, the genes a-tick
in grandfather’s clock, in the old bones of beach.

Sun on the Sunday water in November.
Dead leaves on wet ground. The ferry leaves on time.

Time in your flight — O — a wristwatch strapped
to my heart, ticking erratically, winding down.

I like the enjambment between couplets 1 and 2. I like the way she picks up “here” at the end of line couplet 2 and repeats it at the beginning of couplet 3 as “hear.” She does this again with “time” in couplets 4 and 5, as if an echo of the incremental motion of the wristwatch strapped to her heart, in fact, of her heart, “ticking erratically, winding down.” “Dead leaves” are echoed in “the ferry leaves”, “sun” in “Sunday.” There is wit too, in the genes ticking “in grandfather’s clock” — another signature feature of the ghazal; the complex, cerebral conceits in Ghalib reminiscent of Donne. The combination of images and allusions (brief candle, November leaves, a ferry’s departure, wet ground, the ticking wristwatch, her heart beat) suggest an overwhelming elegiac mood. The descending couplets chart various kinds of loss. So while I am studying the more formal properties, there is much to learn here — how did she do this? I envy her this poem.

[1] And there are more: for example, each couplet, Ali notes, can be treated as a miniature Petrarchan sonnet of octave and sestet. The first line of each couplet sets up some problem or trouble; the second line offers amplification or resolution. Yet there need be no logical or thematic connections between the couplets of a particular ghazal. As such, there can be no enjambment from one couplet to the next. Each couplet might be thought of as a tiny poem, a single instant or moment, a flash of insight or experience. There is an expectation of cerebral display, of wit, in addition to the display of some  depth of emotion. There must be a constant rhythm in each line. And so on.

[2] He also writes, “Perhaps one way to welcome the shackles of the form and be in emotional tune with them is to remember one definition of the word ghazal: It is the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it will die. Thus, to quote Ahmed Ali, the ‘atmosphere of sadness and grief that pervades the ghazal…reflects its origin in this’ and in the form’s ‘dedication to love and the beloved. At the same time, the form permits, in the best Persian and Urdu practice, delineation of all human activity and affairs from the trivial to the most serious.’ Further, although there is no unity in the form ‘as there is in European verse, atmospheric and emotional cohesion and refinement of diction hold the poem together, permitting at the same time terseness, intensity, and depth of feeling, uniqueness of imagery, nobility of language, and a high conception of love’ in its unconnected couplets. For the ‘outstanding mood of the ghazal,’ in Urdu and Persian, has remained ‘melancholic and amorous.'” p.3-4

‘and I the sound of grief’: on the ghazal pt. 1

November 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

No wonder you came looking for me, you
who care for the grieving, and I the sound of grief.

These lines return to me, after weeks of forgetting.  They are perfect, I think — translated by Adrienne Rich from a literal translation of a ghazal by Ghalib. The literal lines are:

(Now that) you ask for me, it is no wonder;
I am helpless/poor/afflicted/ miserable, and you who look after the afflicted.[1]

Compare with W.S. Merwin’s translation (he was working with the same literal translation as Rich):

You look after the wretched
no wonder you came
looking for me.

It falls a little flat. Merwin has worked miracles in free verse with some of his translations of Mandelstam (e.g. “Tristia”: “I have studied the science of goodbyes, the bare-headed laments of night” — hope this is close, I’m quoting from memory as I don’t have access to my books just at the moment). But Rich’s use of a five-beat line, roughly iambic in form, as well as of internal rhyme, play formality off of the formless abyss of unrequited love.

She still isn’t attempting an exact formal translation with traditional refrain/rhyme that speaks back to earlier couplets in the same ghazal. See Agha Shahid Ali’s interesting essay on this form in his Real Ghazals in English — a ghazal without rhyme and refrain, without lines of a similar length and rhythm, is not a ghazal he suggests, like a sestina without the strict pattern of line-endings; a free-verse sestina would be nonsensical; the same can be said of a ghazal.[2]

This particular ghazal opens with the lines, also translated here by Rich: “I’m neither the loosening of song nor the close-drawn tent of music;/I’m the sound, simply, of my own breaking.” As I understand it, the opening couplet of a ghazal would set the pattern in both lines with a rhyme and refrain; subsequent couplets would repeat this pattern in the second line. Rich doesn’t do this here.

No wonder you came looking for me, you
who care for the grieving, and I the sound of grief.

The line break is perfect. The line breaks on “you” — enacting the gulf between speaker and beloved. The repetition of “you” in the first line carries the compulsion of love. The internal rhyme holds the lines together, like a pulse, falling on the strong beats: me//grieving//grief. The speaker, “me,” is aligned by rhyme with the grieving and grief of “you,” and by the placing of the two side by side at the end of the first line: “me, you.”  (In another vernacular: Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme). The phrase “you/who care for the grieving” refers to both those who grieve, encompassing the speaker, and perhaps also to the act of grieving.

“And I the sound of grief” — the speaker’s love is reduced to a sound, like a caion, for the beloved, as if one who, because unattainable, is dead. This gulf between you and me is at the heart of the ghazal form, as is the grief it sounds.

[1] The literal translations, as well as Rich and Merwin’s versions, come from Ghazals of Ghalib: Versions from the Urdu, edited by Aijaz Ahmad. Columbia University Press, 1971. This beautiful book has been placed in deep storage at UBC; you’ll have to request it through ASRS, & hope it’s not lost in the mechanical abyss. Rescue it from its imprisonment!

[2] Although I would not give up Phyllis Webb’s free verse experiments in this ‘form’: “My loves are dying. Or is it that my love/is dying, day by day, brief life, brief candle//a flame, flambeau, torch, alive, singing//somewhere in the shadow: Here, this way, here.” (from Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals).

Postscript: There is much more that could be said on the music of these lines. The catching of ‘care’ and ‘grieving,’ with the hard /k/ repeated in /g/. The anapestic triplets that swallow syllables and race from ‘care’ towards ‘grieving and ‘I’, only to level out into iambs after the medial caesura — also signalling a divide between you and I. The staunching of grieving with the final monosyllabic ‘grief.’

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