Poetry Sunday: “Ghazal for the Girl in the Photo,” by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
I met Hashmi in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College, and we ran into each other sometimes on flights from California to attend residencies in North Carolina. I’d read and admired the poems in Baker of Tarifa and have been wanting to feature Hashmi’s work for some time. The recent publication of Ghazal Cosmopolitan caught my interest, as the ghazal is one of those forms that many poets, myself included, love to experiment with but not always with memorable results.
Ghazal Cosmopolitan collects essays on the “Culture and Craft” of the ghazal and the older form that gave rise to it, the qasida, and tells the story of Hashmi’s relationship to the form. She first heard ghazals in songs she heard as a child, then studied the form in college before trying her own hand at it in graduate school. The ghazal’s history is as rich and complex as the many languages it’s been written in—Persian and Urdu, to name two—and Hashmi’s writing—clear, evocative and from the “sophisticated polyglot” perspective she praises in other writers of the ghazal—does it justice.
Hashmi describes Ghazal Cosmopolitan as “part ode to Urdu, the first language to give me a lyric appetite, and part manual for the craft of the ghazal”, and aside from presenting the clearest working description of the elements of the ghazal I’ve seen, these essays gave me a deeper appreciation of reasons why the form does not always succeed in English. The biggest revelation for me was Hashmi’s pollen image. “If ever there was a language that hangs like pollen, it is Urdu—and a poetic form that allows for those floating, protean, seemingly disharmonious or paradoxical ideas to engage with one another, it is the ghazal [p. 19]” she says in one essay. I love the idea of a language that can “hang ready to pollinate new time with old time [p. 20]” and how that pollen image visually captures what Hashmi calls “the two distinguishing features of the ghazal, intensity and disunity [p. 31].”

The essays helped me to understand something I’d heard before but had not fully appreciated: the ghazal emerged from polarities in Middle Eastern language and culture and is designed to hold those polarities in suspension without reconciling them. This resistance to resolution or even to logical or sequential narrative is one of the things that poses a challenge to Western practitioners of the form. “The ghazal, in its structure as well as its sensibility, not only allows the contraries to cohabit but in the best compositions, it makes a demand to frame polarity in the same space [p. 40],” Hashmi says, and this makes the ghazal uniquely suitable for carrying a complex and cosmopolitan voice:

Cosmopolitanism is . . . ‘being free from local, provincial, or national ideas, prejudices or attachments; at home all over the world;’ it is necessarily an active appreciation of disparate entities, in fact, a rejection of all strictures; it is an ownership as well as a divestment. It celebrates pluralism as fiercely as it forges an autonomous voice. [Id.]

If any of this sounds familiar, readers, it may be because what this form makes possible—tremendous artistic freedom and range—sounds an awful lot like what I have praised the sonnet for in these columns. So-called “freedom in chains” in received forms can allow writers to scale greater heights and take more dramatic falls in the same way that wearing a safety harness allows mountain climbers to do these things.
From these essays, I learned that the ghazal dates back to the 13th century and is a form that has traveled widely across continents and cultures and continues to flourish today, in both the Eastern and Western worlds. Part of its success like that of the sonnet, is attributable to the remarkable elasticity of the form. Ghazal Cosmopolitan taught me that the elasticity is in the form’s DNA and is related to its ability to hold opposites in suspension. Hashmi also makes the point that Urdu is “a language engineered by the Sufi spirit to unify highbrow culture with lowbrow culture [p. 23],” and in that way is similar to modern English. Both languages share “a rich lexicon as well as a network of idioms and metaphors yielded by a literary heritage . . . built on cultural exchange,” qualities generally found in “languages that have had imperial privilege.” So, like the sonnet and many other received forms, the ghazal carries its weight of political baggage.

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