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

To lay out the elements of the form, Hashmi refers to the book generally credited with popularizing the ghazal in this country, Agha Shahid Ali’s Ravishing Disunities, published in the 1990s. American poets such as Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich had previously experimented with the form, but Ali rejected these efforts as “inauthentic” [p. 50] and was the first to explain and insist upon the traditional, technical requirements of ghazals rendered in English. Briefly summarized, these are:

  1. A minimum of 5 autonomous couplets, with no enjambment between them.
  2. The first couplet establishes the rhyme scheme and the refrain immediately following it for the entire ghazal. In this stanza, the rhyme and refrain occur in both lines of the couplet, but in successive couplets, they occur only in the second line.
  3. Each couplet has a stand-alone, epigrammatic quality.
  4. A turn or volta occurs between the two lines of each couplet.
  5. Lines must be of the same length and are usually in the same meter.
  6. The ghazal climaxes when the refrain appears in each couplet, with as many climaxes as there are couplets.
  7. In the last couplet, the poet invokes his or her name in the first, second, or third person. [pp. 27-28].

Over the centuries, tradition has glossed the form with other qualities and quirks, such as the habit of directly addressing another poet or writer of ghazals in one’s own poem and the tendency of ghazals to express loss and longing, something Hashmi describes as “the almost inexpressible; the unending pursuit of the beloved.” It’s important to note that “beloved” can mean much more than the traditional object of romantic desire. It can, for example, “be directed [to] a person, or to God, or a revolution or other unattainable ideal [p. 29].” I appreciated Hashmi’s use of Lorca’s duende to help explain the nuances of this yearning:

Duende  . . . is a playful energy and [operates] on actively agitating the prevailing order. There is freshness and life in the way it provokes and produces chaos out of order, thereby creating the effect of surprise, and through surprise, a new perspective. . . . Duende, Lorca says, is a power, not a work, it is a struggle, not a thought. . . . he calls duende the marrow of forms. . . . True art’s ultimate test. . . . is whether the audience experiences the force of duende or not. Is the audience rapt, transported, entranced, impassioned or only mildly affected; moved to the point of outburst, or indifferent? [pp. 51-52]

In her book, Hashmi analyzes Shahid’s requirements with respect to contemporary ghazals by Ali, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Marylin Hacker, and others, and includes examples of where departures from the form can serve the poem’s best interests. Let’s do that with today’s poem, “Ghazal for the Girl in the Photo.” Because it consists of 5 couplets with no enjambment—each line is in fact a complete sentence, even though end punctuation is eschewed—element 1 is satisfied. With regard to element 2, the first couplet establishes the rhyme scheme, with the words “swiped by” echoed in “wiped by,” “typed by,” “hype is,” “type of,” and “pipes your” in the second lines of succeeding couplets. The first couplet also establishes the refrain in the words “a stranger,” represented afterwards as “a stranger,” “is stranger,” “of stranger,” and “no stranger.” Element 3 is met because each couplet can stand, and make meaning, alone. Hashmi views her ghazal as departing from this requirement, but it strikes me that the couplets here could be rearranged without wrecking the poem. As a thought experiment, try shuffling the stanzas any way you like and see if you agree with me that no one sequence is paramount.
Is there, as element 4 prescribes, a turn between the first and second line of each couplet? Hashmi notes that in any couplet in a ghazal, the two lines function like the octet and sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet, and she calls the volta “the hinge that joins the contraries [p. 48].” In the first couplet of today’s poem, we find a turn from direct address (to “you”)  to a declarative sentence in which “missile” is the subject, and the focus of the poem’s camera widens, or turns from the girl’s face, to include all of “Kabul.” In the second couplet, line 1 describes a gorgeous garden and line 2 a bleak refugee camp. The third stanza turns from the personal and intimate (the girl’s eyes, her father) to a larger, more abstract “History” and its hegemonies or “hype.” The turn in the stanza 4 is subtler. Both lines use the injunctive mood, telling readers to “pity” something in the first line, “the empire,” and in the second, the more geographically specific “first world.” The last couplet involves a literal turn, the speaker’s return to her homeland. In line 1, Hashmi enjoins herself to return to Pakistan, and in line 2 she turns the idea of “stranger” on its head by reminding us that “Zeest” herself is “no stranger” to “this land.”
Element 5’s requirement that lines be of the same length can be eyeballed to confirm that the lines of “Ghazal for the Girl in the Photo” are all remarkably long and of about the same length, ranging from 20 to 24 syllables with 9 or 10 beats per line. The poem as a whole does not show an arc or development to a single climax, and instead we find what element 5 calls a series of climaxes each time we encounter the refrain.  Finally, the last couplet makes the time-honored gesture of referring to the poet by name, here “Zeest” invoked in direct address.
For me, “Ghazal for the Girl in the Photo” succeeds admirably in the execution of a subtle and complex form, and reading it inspires me to try my own hand—this time with more deliberation—at writing ghazals. Ghazal Cosmopolitan would make a great handbook for a workshop on the ghazal, especially one that culminates in an enthusiastic group reading of all work generated. The book teaches that ghazals evolved from an oral tradition, where audience participation was crucial. “A ghazal is nothing if not performative,” Hashmi says, a “collaboration” with listeners, and I would dearly love to hear her reading today’s poem in a room full of people evoking duende when they join her in the refrain of “a stranger” each time it is read aloud.]]>

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