The ghazal  (pronounced something like “guzzle”) is a traditional verse form associated mainly with the Islamic world. There is a long tradition of ghazals in Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Uzbek, Pushtu and no doubt other languages. The terminology on this page is, I think, mainly Urdu with some Arabic. 

Some have claimed the sonnet to be the oldest verse form still in common use, but that only goes back to the 13th century. The ghazal goes back to the 7th.

I’ve been looking out for some years for a definition of the ghazal that I could both understand and trust. Recently I found a book Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, by Agha Shahid Ali (who in his ghazals signs himself simply Shahid, so that is what I shall call him). This book is a collection of ghazals written by various American poets, with introduction and postscript by Shahid that define the form. (It has to be said that by no means all the examples in the book conform fully to this definition.)

It’s time we had an example to talk about:

I’d resolved not to write one until at ease,
but I know now the form’s possibilities.

Thanks to Shahid, I construct my ghazals
unfazed by their incomprehensibilities.

Now I know my radif from my qafia,
my long-held ambition I’ll fulfil at ease.

It’s a flexible way of expressing yourself;
It’s not like some military drill. At ease!

I’m comfortable when writing Arabic verse;
at the same time I feel strangely ill at ease.

To praise coiffeurs’ Urdu abilities
Would be just a Scouse pun, or Cilla tease!

A form devised long before Shakespeare’s time;
Ghazals could have been written by Will at ease.

In centuries to come there will be more ghazals,
A form with which folk will be still at ease.

Vole, what a blessing and boon the ghazal
for exhibiting verbal agilities.

A regular meter, or beher, is required throughout the poem. This doesn’t need to be one of the classical Arab verse meters, because you probably won’t be able to find out what they are, and they don’t seem to work all that well in English anyway. (See my attempt at rajaz meter, for example). The meter should however be more regular than it is in my example above. Sorry.

The ghazal is written in couplets, typically between about 5 and 12 of them. Each couplet should be capable of standing alone, as a mini-poem, or sher, in its own right. There should be no enjambment between them i.e. no sentences running on from one stanza into the next.

Each stanza should ideally have an element of contrast between the ideas expressed in its two lines.

Every stanza must end with the same refrain, or radif. This can be one or more syllables, one or more words. In this example, the radif is “at ease”.

Immediately before the radif, every time it is used, must come the rhyme, or qafia (kaafiyaa).  Here the qafia is “ill”.

The poem must begin with a special couplet in which both lines end with the radif. This couplet is known as the matla.

The remaining couplets all have the radif at the end of the second line, and the first line is unconstrained, except by the meter.

It is possible - though optional, and in fact Shahid doesn’t even mention the possibility - to have one more stanza (but only one) in which both lines end in the radif. Such a “second matla” is known as a matla-e-saini or husn-e-matla. The sixth couplet in the example is one of these.

The final stanza is the makhta (maqta), or signature couplet, which the poet addresses to himself, using his pseudonym, or takhallus - in this case, Vole.

The meaning of that sixth sher may also need explaining to non-Brits. Cilla Black is a well-known TV personality - formerly a singer - who comes from Liverpool, where they speak a dialect known as Scouse. “Urdu” is the Liverpudlian pronunication of “hair-do”. At least, that’s the way it sounds to my ignorant southern ears.

I have the impression that all traditional Arab verse forms, like the ghazal, used a single rhyme throughout the poem. Another such is the qasida, which I may attempt some time, if I’m ever feeling sufficiently unhinged. In this context, the relative freedom of the rubai was truly revolutionary.

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© Bob Newman 2012. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 07/05/2012