‘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

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