‘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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