How to Write a Ghazal

I feel like I’ve finally had a breakthrough with the ghazal. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert—it will take writing many ghazals before I would begin to think I was even approaching that level—but I do believe I have the beginnings of a ghazal and a strategy for tackling the form. Ghazal’s don’t seem hard, though that might be deceptive. The form is easy enough to describe, and rather than repeat it here, I’ll point you to two of my favorite descriptions by Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation. The advantage to these is that they both provide good examples. It’s a form that seems easy to understand, yet challenging to wrap your mind around.

One of the facets of the ghazal that intrigues me is that each couplet is a distinct semantic, thematic, even emotional unit. That is to say, unlike most of the poems I tend to write, each couplet stands alone, yet they are linked together primarily by the repetition of a rhyme, followed by a refrain, a word or phrase that is repeated throughout the poem.

What has been the biggest stumbling block has been landing on a word or phrase I might want to repeat at the end of each couplet. It seemed necessary to decide on this, and then to choose a rhyme to preceed it, almost reverse engineering the poem from the outset. What helped me to decide that I had a good refrain was thinking about the rules for the initial couplet.

Once I came upon a phrase I thought I could dwell on for the length of a poem, I knew it could actually be the the beginnings of a ghazal once I could get the first couplet to work. Each line of the first couplet ends with the rhyme and the refrain, and yet I wanted that couplet also to be one complete sentence. That rule of mine isn’t a hard and fast rule for the ghazal, but it didn’t feel right to form the first couplet out of two one-sentence lines. I wanted the initial couplet to feel like one unit, not two separate lines, if that makes sense.

Once I had an idea of how I could write this initial sentence that included two instances of a refrain preceeded by a rhyme, then I had a good sense that I could write several more couplets, since the form relaxes and I just had to end with the rhyme and refrain each time. This allowed me to come up with pairings of rhyme and refrain, which I could then write toward. For this initial draft, I came up with six more pairs and began to look for ways to write towards them in their couplets.

Because each couplet is a distinct semantic and thematic unit, I can rearrange them later. I can discard any rhyme/refrain pairs that don’t work, and I can search for more rhymes that might be interesting with the refrain. I can keep tinkering with this ghazal, revising individual couplete, searching for more possibilities, expanding the thematic reach of the poem by exploring new ideas. I can include some off-rhyme or find ways to reimagine the syntax of the refrain to keep things lively. At some point, I will feel I ought to be done, and one way to know I’ve reached that point will be when I find a way to incorporate my name in a concluding couplet. Of course, I might find that final couplet long before I’ve exhausted my search for other ones to add in the middle of the poem. I might still rearrange and find interesting combinations of theme and of rhyme. It is a poem and a form that I can keep coming back to until I’m ready to move on.

This is one quality that has drawn me to the ghazal. It is not a poem that makes a single statement; it is a poem that ruminates on subjects linked by sound and repetition. By juxtaposing couplets that are distinct units, connections can be found between ideas that are made by association, not logic, so language gets pushed to discover new meaning. This and its formal complexity means the ghazal runs counter to my poetic instincts, making it a challenge that is well worth exploring.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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