‘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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Thomas Wyatt’s heart

March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Alas, and is there no remedy
But have I thus lost it wilfully?
Iwis it was a thing all too dear
To be bestowed and wist not where:
It was mine heart! I pray you heartily
Help me to seek.

Just now I am reading Nicola Shulman’s Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy. I was immediately drawn to Shulman’s insistence that in Wyatt’s time, poetry had uses — it could do things (Wyatt’s poetry a refutation, she argues, of Auden’s “Poetry makes nothing happen.”).  There are two aspects of this claim that converge with my own preoccupations with the uses of poetry: first, the simple idea that a poem can have a particular effect in the world, and second, that the political context, the system, within which a poem is written, will imprint its language and determine its uses.

I want to return to this second point in a later post that considers the political system in relation to a poem’s production and its strategies of resistance to oppressive political structures; Clare Cavanagh’s important book, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russian, Poland, and the West, has much to say on this subject. Cavanagh points out that the very fact that poetry has no immediate material or economic use, and resists any attempts to control or organize it (as socialist realism tried to do), paradoxically increased its value in post-war Poland — the lyric poem came to represent a kind of elusive freedom, a private space which the state sought to annihilate. This makes me think also of John Donne’s insistence, over 300 years earlier, on the lovers’ room as a private space where the state must not intrude (“Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,/Why dost thou thus,/Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?”) — although in Donne’s poetry this private space is often defined in opposition to, and appropriates the language of, the state.

The freedom of the lyric is linked to the metaphorical and polyvalent nature of language in this most compressed form; meaning is elusive; a line can be interpreted in multiple ways. Shulman explores Wyatt’s adept use of the poem as encrypted message. She points out that “Historicist critics…began to realise that Wyatt, like Mandelstam or Akhmatova, was a poet writing under tyranny, who might yield insights into life under the Tudor Stalin” (p.16).  [1]  Wyatt’s poems she suggests can be read as coded responses to the complex web of power at the court of Henry VIII; his ‘lute’ is symbol of the poet’s ability to speak freely: “My lute and strings may not deny/But as I strike they must obey….Blame not my lute”.

But it is her first point I am more interested in for now: that in Wyatt’s time, poetry had social currency; it could do things. Shulman demonstrates the function of a Wyatt poem within the game of courtly love as it was played in the court of Henry VIII, a game designed to channel the sexual frustrations of young men and women in confined quarters. The women needed to preserve their virginity in order to enter into the lists of marriage, which consolidated economic and family ties. The men, as always, had less to lose. Both wanted sex, and couldn’t have it. Courtly love codified and sublimated these heterosexual desires in its games, its masques, its poems, its role-playing; young men could be lovers addressing their Lady; if they couldn’t have sex, they could all at least play the game. (And perhaps, Shulman notes, some played the game as cover for an actual affair, which must have heightened the excitement of the game, and the affair.) Here’s where Wyatt comes in  — poems played a significant role in the game, and Wyatt could write a good poem.

Shulman observes that “an early 16th-century lyric was more than the words that were written in it. It had a life as a material object as well. To us now, a poem means the same whether we read it on a computer screen or in a newspaper or a book of poetry; but to the ladies and gentlemen of the early Tudor court, a poem on a piece of paper was also a material thing, like a flower or a handkerchief, or a jewel” (p.72). This was true also in the imperial court of Heian Japan where poetry served various social functions, including its use by officials as a form of inter-governmental memo [2]; similarly, a poem’s physical appearance and presentation — kind and colour of paper, folded in a particular way, delivered at a particular time, attached to an iris root or sprig of cherry blossom — played as meaningful a role as the words themselves.

But I have promised Thomas Wyatt’s heart:

Help me to seek for I lost it there;
And if that ye have found it, yet that be here,
And seek to convey it secretly
Or else it will plain and then appair.
But rather restore it mannerly
Since that I do ask it thus honestly,
For to lose it it sitteth me too near.
Help me to seek.

Alas, and is there no remedy
But have I thus lost it wilfully?
Iwis it was a thing all too dear
To be bestowed and wist not where:
It was mine heart! I pray you heartily
Help me to seek.

The riddle lies, Shulman tells us, in the knowledge that the heart he seeks was a heart-shaped cloth-covered balloon that would “plain and then appair” — complain and then be damaged — with rough handling; it would have been used in some undocumented game of hide and seek played by the courtly lovers. The poem might have been a clue, instructions on how to play the game. Within that particular social context, the poem comes to life. I like this observation Shulman then makes about the poem as a light bulb of sorts: “When we think of a courtly lyric we must imagine it as a thing with latent energy, that lit up when the right social circuitry was connected” (p.85) — poetry as currency.


[1] I’ve seen estimates for the number of victims under Stalin’s reign range between 20 000 000 and 60 000 000; estimates for the number of victims under Henry VIII, between 54 000 and 72 000. I don’t know what this represents proportionally of the citizens under their control.

[2] In The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, Ivan Morris observes of a new government appointment in the year 962: “…when a certain Imperial Prince who is serving as Minister of Military Affairs wishes to ask the newly appointed Assistant Minister why he is so lax in reporting for duty, he does not dream of sending the curt memorandum that would be normal in a more businesslike form of bureaucracy; instead he indites an elegant poem, replete with word-plays, in which he compares the Assistant Minister and himself to two strands that have been coiled together in a single thread and asks his subordinate why he has stopped ‘reeling the silk.’ There follows a long exchange of increasingly obscure poems, all ringing the changes on the silk-reeling image, in the course of which the two gentlemen appear to have forgotten entirely about the original, rather prosaic, purpose of their correspondence” (p.192).

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