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“In That Thicket of Bitter Roots”: The Ghazal in America

ISSUE:  Fall 2004
The challenge to contemporary poetry would seem to be a pair of unhappy alternatives: either to contrive new schemes of empirically meaningful repetition that reflect and—more importantly—transmit the color of contemporary experience; or to recover schemes that have reflected the experience of the past. To do the first would be to imply that contemporary experience has a pattern, a point that most post-Christian thinkers would deny. To do the second would be to suggest that the past can be recaptured, to suggest that the intolerable fractures and dislocations of modern history have not really occurred at all, or, what is worse, to suggest that they may have occurred but that poetry should act as if they have not… . [W]e yield now to the one demand, now to the other, producing at times a formless and artistically incoherent reflection—accurate in its way—of some civil or social or psychological reality, and at times a shapely and coherent work of art which is necessarily an inexact report on the state of affairs, not to mention the state of language and meaning and coherence, in our time. —Paul Fussell

Contemporary metrical verse surprises many learned readers simply by existing. For all the reasons that Fussell summarizes and for a great number more, much of the liveliest recent scholarship concludes that literary and cultural history dooms this poetry to failure, irrelevance, or political and aesthetic conservatism. “[T]he pentameter is a dead form,” Antony Easthope notes, “and its continued use … is in the strict sense reactionary.”2 Many other commentators agree, calling contemporary “neo-formalism” “a dangerous nostalgia,” “the new conservatism in American poetry,” and a Reaganite “return to old values.” Despite these admonishments, poets continue to write metrical verse; during the last two decades especially, a wide variety of American poets have turned to these forms.3 Oddly, the insults remain more widely known than the poems they attack. 

Such criticisms are rooted in an antagonistic, unnuanced understanding of literary history. The most vital contemporary metrical verse shows a voracious curiosity, an openness to seemingly incompatible techniques and procedures. While reportedly fated to pursue the second of Fussell’s “pair of unhappy alternatives,” it develops possibilities outside the two options and the familiar set of oppositions that underlie them: the choice between “new schemes” that “transmit” “the intolerable fractures and dislocations of modern history” and older verse forms that seek merely to “recapture” a more coherent past.

Refusing this false dilemma, these poets follow artists working in other mediums.

The postmodern novel, for example, has often been characterized by its interest in historical modes and techniques, including the romance, the picaresque, and the early English novel’s mixture of genres. As Milan Kundera has noted, this fiction “rehabilitat[es]” earlier “novelistic principles.” Its aim is not “a return to this or that retro style”; instead, it seeks “to give the novel its entire historical experience for a grounding.”4

To understand contemporary metrical verse, we need to focus less on poetic movements than on the movement of poetic forms. Instead of promoting or dismissing certain schools, we should inspect the particular forms that contemporary poets favor and those they neglect. The contemporary era features no obligatory verse form, no structure that any respectable poet “must” write. A poet instead enjoys a wide variety of available poetic forms. When composing, he or she must claim one: choose it from a host of possibilities. These choices reveal both the poets’ ambitions and their limits, the new possibilities they discover and the traditions they find unimaginable. Faced with this situation, literary criticism too easily assigns stable values to poetic forms. Instead, we need the patience to trace the forms’ shifting movements, as their political and aesthetic uses accommodate new imperatives and contexts. We must attend to the complications that make poetic forms fascinating.

In 1968 the ghazal, as an idea if not a poetic form, entered American poetry. The year 1969 marked the centennial anniversary of the death of Mirza Ghalib, a Persian and Urdu poet and one of the form’s masters. In anticipation of the anniversary, Aijaz Ahmad, a Pakistani literary and cultural critic living in New York, solicited several well-known American poets to work on a pamphlet of translations for the centennial. Because none of the poets knew Urdu, the text’s original language, Ahmad supplied them with literal translations, from which they crafted their collaborative versions. Ahmad’s queries encountered a much more enthusiastic response than he anticipated. His project expanded from a pamphlet into a handsome 174-page book, Ghazals of Ghalib, published by Columbia University Press. Several of the translations also appeared in major American and Indian literary periodicals. The book’s contributors included four future Pulitzer Prize winners who already enjoyed a certain stature in the literary community: W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, and Mark Strand.5

Moving from translation to original composition, Rich started “Ghazals (Homage to Ghalib)” in July 1968, only a few months after Martin Luther King’s assassination and less than thirty days after Robert Kennedy’s death. Inspired by what the historian James T. Patterson calls “the most turbulent year in the postwar history of the United States,” she finished the ghazal sequence that would be the first published by an American poet, then began another, “Blue Ghazals.”6

The first ghazals published by an American writer, Rich’s sequences offer the occasion to consider how a verse form moves from one literary tradition to another: why it attracts poets and how its conventions change in order to address new literary and cultural challenges.

Of course the most familiar terms to describe Western appropriations of Eastern literary and cultural forms are “exoticism” and “orientalism.” Though American ignorance and presumptiveness certainly contribute to the ghazal’s sudden popularity, they do not comprise the entire story or even its most compelling part. Rich’s cagey, anguished poems searchingly investigate America’s difficult racial politics, seeking to forge a cross-cultural poetry of witness, a poetry of reconciliation and cross-racial identification. Her poems and the ghazals that follow them highlight the intricate, tenuous, and, at times, intense relationship between “politics” in its most common meaning and poetic form. The verse form both expresses the poet’s political loyalties and complicates them, adding new resonance and unforeseen entanglements. By doing so, the ghazals suggest the difficulties that arise when poets seek to translate their political commitments into their handling of verse form.

Given American literary culture’s general hostility to metrical technique, the ghazal presented an unlikely form to attract interest. Established at least one full century before the sonnet, the ghazal’s structure might be called archaic, elaborate, and unyielding. Andrew McCord’s translation of Ghalib’s “Ghazal” demonstrates some of the form’s many prescriptions. The poem begins:

Should you not look after me another day?
Why did you go alone? I leave in only another day.

If your gravestone is not erased first my head will be.
Genuflecting at your door, in any case, it’s me another day.

Yesterday you came and now you say, “Shall I go today?”
Okay. It’s not forever, but it was for, surely, another day.

As this passage illustrates, the ghazal’s end-stopped couplets share a strict monorhyme. Its first couplet uses only one end word or end phrase (in this case, “day”). Every subsequent couplet’s final line repeats at its end that word or phrase, called the “radif.” In addition, the ghazal features an internal rhyme placed immediately before the “radif,” called the “qafia.” This translation uses “me,” which rhymes with “only,” “me,” and “surely.” Finally, the writer mentions his or her name or pseudonym in the final couplet. Thus, the translation concludes:

Only a fool asks me, “Ghalib why are you alive?”
My fate is to long for the day I will not be another day.

Rich’s ghazals, like her translations, adhere to none of the conventions I just outlined.8 They do, however, keep the ghazal’s traditional argumentative structure, what the translator K. C. Kanda calls “the fragmentary thought-structure of the ghazal.” “The different couplets of the ghazal,” Kanda explains, “are not bound by the unity and consistency of thought. Each couplet is a self-sufficient unit, detachable and quotable, generally containing the complete expression of an idea.”9 In an interview, Rich invokes this idea, explaining how Ghalib’s ghazals provided techniques for expressing the particular “fragmentation” and “confusion” she experienced at the time: “I certainly had to find an equivalent for the kinds of fragmentation I was feeling, and confusion. One thing that was very helpful to me was working on the translations from the Urdu poet Mirzah Ghalib, which led me to write original ghazals. There, I found a structure which allowed for a highly associative field of images. And once I saw how that worked, I felt instinctively, this is exactly what I need, there is no traditional Western order that I have found that will contain all these materials.” These comments expand Rich’s note on her ghazals: “My ghazals are personal and public, American and twentieth-century; but they owe much to the presence of Ghalib in my mind: a poet self-educated and profoundly learned, who owned no property and borrowed his books, writing in an age of political and cultural break-up” (Rich, Collected Early Poems, 426).

As these telling comments suggest, two affinities drew Rich to the ghazal. First, it offered the qualities that her poetry already embraced. Like many other American poets in the late 1960s, Rich developed a disjunctive, elliptical poetics, renouncing what she called her early work’s “perfection of order,” in which “control, technical mastery and intellectual clarity were the real goals.”10 Though put to compelling uses, this idea was rather ordinary; a great number of American poets of Rich’s generation expressed similar determinations. By doing so, Rich translated the time’s sociopolitical and literary-historical contours into stylistic and formal terms. The intensification of the Vietnam War, the challenges offered by feminism and the civil rights movements, and New Criticism’s waning influence, all informed her decision to employ the more associative, fragmentary mode that constituted the period’s major poetic style. Thus, the ghazal offered “an equivalent” both to the experience of contemporary American history and to the verse techniques that American poets favored.

Second, the ghazal’s origin outside the “West” also recommended the form to Rich. Though she described her ghazals as “American and twentieth-century,” she saw the form as possessing a “structure” significantly different from any “traditional Western order,” a counterlogic to Western rationalism. Of course Rich does not associate the ghazal with what one might call a “traditional Eastern order” such as the Mughal Court, where Ghalib, the royal poet, “corrected” apprentices’ efforts.11 Instead, the highly structured form expresses “fragmentation” and “confusion,” not aristocratic hierarchies. Her similarly partial reading of Ghalib’s biography deepened what she saw as the form’s anti-imperialist resonance. In her brief portrait, Ghalib’s life parallels her own, as each poet writes in “an age of political and cultural break-up.” “Thousands of my friends are dead,” Ghalib lamented after the Indian revolt of 1857, fought around his home in Delhi. “If I live, there is none to share my sorrow, and if I die there will be none to mourn me” (Russell and Islam, Ghalib, 161). The ghazal form acts as a gesture of affinity, likening Ghalib’s desperation to the turmoil Rich experienced in 1968, amidst the year’s riots, assassinations, and war. To do so, it elides the significant differences that separate the two poets and recasts Ghalib as a rather ethereal “presence” in Rich’s “mind.”

In Rich’s most interesting ghazals, her efforts to construct a cross-cultural poetry of witness confront this strategy’s painful limits, its thwarted hopes arising from the age’s troubled contradictions. In these poems, a more contemporary, more threatening “presence” also haunts the poet. Two of her ghazals address Amiri Baraka, or as Rich somewhat anachronistically calls him, LeRoi Jones, a figure whose life and art mark the boundaries of her liberal poetics. The twelfth poem in “Ghazals (Homage to Ghalib)” is the less anguished of the two:

A dead mosquito, flattened against a door;
his image could survive our comings and our goings.

LeRoi! Eldridge! listen to us, we are ghosts
condemned to haunt the cities where you want to be at home.

The white children turn black on the negative.
The summer clouds blacken inside the camera-skull.

Every mistake that can be made, we are prepared to make;
anything less would fall short of the reality we’re dreaming.

Someone has always been desperate, now it’s our turn—
we who were free to weep for Othello and laugh at Caliban.

I have learned to smell a
a mile away:
they carry illustrated catalogues of all that there is to lose.

(Rich, Collected Early Poems)

Written in July 1968, amidst the legal wrangling that soon convinced Eldridge Cleaver to flee to Cuba and Algiers, the poem presciently casts Cleaver as an exile-in-the-making. Strikingly, the ghazal depicts “LeRoi” as equally unavailable in “the cities where you want to be at home” or, more precisely, where the speaker wants him to want to be at home. “Someone has always been desperate, now it’s our turn,” the poem insists, as whites experience an urban “desperation” previously limited to blacks and other racial minorities. Rich’s “fragmentary thought-structure” leaves unspecified the exact causes for this white guilt. Following her reading of the ghazal tradition, the poem is more suggestive than declarative; it evokes a certain mood felt in American cities during the aftermath of King’s assassination and the riots that ensued. Yet the poem fears violence less than its own inconsequence. The insistent apostrophe, “LeRoi! Eldridge! listen to us,” admits that these leading figures in the Black Panther Party and the Black Arts movement do not care about what Rich wants to tell them.

A poem in Rich’s second ghazal sequence, “The Blue Ghazals,” returns to Baraka and the cultural and artistic contradictions he embodies. Dated two months later and bearing the dedication “For LeRoi Jones,” the poem recounts the disturbing experience of reading the work of this poet who, despite the dedication, no longer called himself “LeRoi Jones”:

Late at night I went walking through your difficult wood,
half-sleepy, half-alert in that thicket of bitter roots.

Who doesn’t speak to me, who speaks to me more and more,
but from a face turned off, turned away, a light shut out.

Most of the old lecturers are inaudible or dead.
Prince of the night there are explosions in the hall.

The blackboard scribbled over with dead languages
is falling and killing our children.

Terribly far away I saw your mouth in the wild light:
It seemed to me you were shouting instructions to us all.

(Rich, Collected Early Poems)

Addressed to “a face turned off, turned away, a light shut out,” this ghazal reverses the opening of one of Baraka’s most widely known poems, “I Substitute for the Dead Lecturer”: “They have turned, and say that I am dying.”12As Rich’s lines sadly acknowledge, especially in his more recent work Baraka forcefully turns from white readers such as herself, regardless of their seemingly radical political commitments. Rich, a white, Jewish, lesbian feminist, could not help but find “difficult” and “bitter” these famously misogynistic and anti-Semitic lines from the poem that gave the Black Arts movement its name:

Look at the Liberal
Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat
… … … … … … … … … … . .
puke himself into eternity … rrrrrrrr
… Another bad poem cracking
steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth

—or these lines from The Dead Lecturer, which Cleaver claimed he “lived”:

Rape the white girls. Rape
their fathers. Cut the mothers’ throats
Black dada nihilismus, choke my friends… .

“[I]t seemed to me you were shouting instructions to us all,” Rich hopefully writes. Baraka, though, stands as a stark, irrefutable assertion of difference. In his own work, he implores “Black People,” not “friends” such as Rich, to “Speak This Poem / … LOUD” (Baraka, Black Magic, 117). Ironically, the more he turns from Rich, the more his “presence” haunts her. Baraka “doesn’t speak to me, who speaks to me more and more,” Rich writes, implying that Baraka’s refusal to address a white readership only inspires a more intense engagement, a richer and more searching dialogue.

The ghazal form helps Rich to maneuver within this “thicket of bitter roots,” the “difficult woods” where less oblique claims of solidarity tempt furious reassertions of difference. The form establishes what I will call a “triangulation of otherness.” Rich wants poetic form to present an “equivalent” to the time’s disorders. The ghazal complicates this task and makes it possible. Rich uses the ghazal to approach Baraka indirectly, invoking the authority of a poet and a form outside what she considers “traditional Western order.” The verse form claims a connection with Ghalib, the putative object of veneration, in order to shorten Rich’s distance to Baraka, the two poems’ obsession. Employing a cagey, furtive strategy, they address Baraka through Ghalib.

Rich’s verse form, then, seeks to accomplish two seemingly irreconcilable tasks. First, it attempts to reposition Rich in an international context, alleviating the nearly murderous hostility that the Black Nationalist Movement directs at her as a white, lesbian Jew. In this respect, she uses the ghazal to mitigate the more immediate pressures of contemporary American literary and political culture. She employs it as a motif, a non-Western gesture, not a prosody whose requirements she must fulfill. At the same time, though, Rich wants the verse form to record the very pressures that assault her. Jumping between threatening images, the ghazal’s fragmentary argumentative structure evokes the age’s skittish anxieties.

The next ghazal sequence written by an American poet brings into relief Rich’s basic strategy. A slighter work than Rich’s sequences and governed by a very different sexual politics, Jim Harrison’s Outlyer and Ghazals (1971) also employs this “triangulation of otherness.” Like Rich, Harrison uses what his author’s note calls this “antique form” in order to express “whatever aspect of our life now that seemed to want to enter my field of vision.”15 In a ghazal that precedes the sequence, the speaker calls himself “[a]n enemy of civilization.” Extending this motif, ghazal 24 fantasizes about a rebellious death:

If I were to be murdered here as an Enemy of the State you would
have to bury me under that woodpile for want of a shovel

(Harrison, Outlyer and Ghazals)

As in Rich’s poems, the ghazal form marks the speaker as somehow outside what she calls “traditional Western order.” Yet the sequence shows this potential “Enemy of the State” to pale, literally and figuratively, in comparison to the real “enemy of civilization”: Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Power movement he represents.

At the post office I was given the official FBI
Eldridge Cleaver poster—”guess he ain’t around here”

Drawing on an old racial myth, this Black Power the poem presents asserts a political and a sexual strength; in both respects, the white speaker fails to measure up:

How could she cheat on me with that African? Let’s refer
back to the lore of the locker room & shabby albino secrets.

O the shame of another’s wife especially a friend’s.
Even a peek is criminal. That greener grass is brown.

This ghazal reworks familiar myths about black male sexuality. As the speaker admits, he remains as tamely “criminal” as “a peek,” especially when compared to the much more threatening and sexualized revolutionary. “I’ll never be a cocksman,” ghazal 37 meekly discloses, an inadequacy that the next poem translates into political terms: “I’m not going to shoot anybody / for any revolution” (ibid., 47–48). Amidst these otherwise unremarkable disclosures, the poem presents the ghazal as a similarly half-hearted rebellion, a hedge akin to the speaker’s sexual and political postures. While Rich’s ghazals move her closer to Baraka, a fellow poet-activist, Harrison’s poems belittle their own claims of rebellious criminality.

Harrison’s self-critique highlights the oddity of Rich’s strategic indirection. If Baraka, not Ghalib, is Rich’s true subject, why pick a form he never uses? Why not instead employ the blues form that deeply influenced Baraka’s poetry? Why write ghazals to the author of Blues People?

In a remarkable essay, “The Blues as Poetry,” Hayden Carruth, the poet, former editor of Poetry magazine, and the friend to whom Rich dedicated Leaflets, turns this set of questions into a larger complaint about American poetry and literary culture. Carruth’s subject is the blues form, the three-line stanza in which the second line “worries” the first, repeating it with slight variations, and the third line rhymes with the first two.16 Ma Rainey’s “Countin’ the Blues” offers a vivid example:

Layin’ in my bed with my face turned to the wall
Lord, layin’ in the bed with my face turned to the wall
Tryin’ to count these blues, so I could sing them all

Carruth praises the blues stanza’s potential as a verse form, not a musical structure. To his chagrin, though, American poets favor other verse forms. “Many will remember,” Carruth notes, writing in 1985, “when, fifteen or so years back, the classical Persian ghazal seized the imagination of American poets like Adrienne Rich and Jim Harrison and others. Fine work was done, at least in part because some foundation or other offered fellowships for translations from the ghazals of Mirza Ghalib. But how could these poets resort to a kind of poetry so remote and alien, and not give at least equal attention to the only major kind of poetry invented in our own country and our own time? The blues are not only expressive, they are ours” (Carruth, “Blues as Poetry,” 298). Carruth employs a rhetoric of possession. American poets own the blues; “they are ours.” His comments continue American criticism’s long tradition of framing questions of poetic form in nationalistic terms. According to Carruth, a culture’s possession of a form entails certain obligations. American poets should concentrate on the forms “invented in our own country and our own time,” not a “remote and alien” form such as the ghazal.

Ironically, Carruth’s logic suggests why white American poets gravitated to the ghazal, not the blues. The rhetoric of possession also guides the blues’ critical reception. Yet the key terms are racial, not, as Carruth wishes, nationalistic. “The song and the people is the same” (his italics), Baraka wrote, defining the blues as the “racial memory.”18 By “people,” of course, he meant black, not American.

As Baraka’s comments suggest, especially in the 1960s the blues signified blackness at its most undiluted and authentic. The period’s burgeoning blues scholarship echoes the Black Aesthetic’s insistence on “the blues as an expression of ‘differentness,’” “an expression of the separateness of the two racial groups.”19 Stephen Henderson, author of Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (1973), fine-tunes this formulation: “Surely some structures are more distinctly Black, more recognizably Black, than others. Thus the three-line blues form is more distinctly Black than a sonnet by Claude McKay, for example. The ballad, because it is a form (in the Anglo-American tradition) which was early appropriated by Blacks—on both folk and formal levels—is also more definitely ‘Black’ than the sonnet. But the blues, an invention of Black people, is ‘Blacker’ than both.”20 Framed by this rhetoric of possession, a white writer’s use of “black” forms constitutes larceny, not homage; it invites comparisons to the music industry’s many exploitations of black musicians, not mutually beneficial cross-racial commerce. Keenly aware of this history, the Black Aesthetic asserted that black culture’s survival depended on resisting these appropriations. Arguing the opposite point as Carruth, Ron Wellburn employs a similar rhetoric of possession, asking that the Black Aesthetic movement be judged on “the extent to which we are able to control our culture, and specifically our music, from theft and exploitation by aliens” (Gayle, Black Aesthetic, 132–33).

Given this context, the blues remained a too “distinctively black” art form for Rich to appropriate without defeating the strategy her ghazals develop. A blues verse would reinvoke the very differences that distinguish her from Baraka. Any mistake would offer an easy occasion for ridicule; a misstep would be read as a sign of cultural ignorance, a confirmation that, as Samuel Charters asserts, “[n]o one could listen to the blues without realizing that there are two Americas.”21

Almost immediately Rich’s example proved influential. After her sequences’ publication, American poets started to write ghazals, with many writers specifically crediting her work as their inspiration. In addition to Harrison’s Outlyer and Ghazals, Rich’s influence can be seen in John Thompson’s book-length sequence Stilt Jack (1978) and Denise Levertov’s “Broken Ghazals.”22 Many of the ghazals that followed Rich’s show little knowledge of the form beyond her adaptations. Usually consisting of at least five unrhymed, metrically irregular couplets, they would be impossible to identify as “ghazals” if their titles did not identify them as such.

During the last decade, the ghazal underwent a remarkable transformation that reversed the direction of metrical forms’ typical development. During this period, metrical structures tended to allow greater permissiveness and flexibility. As we have seen, poets wrote “free-verse sestinas” or works in this form that used rhyme or anagram substitutions, not the traditional word repetition. In contrast, the ghazal, which started in America as a largely free-verse structure, recently tends to incorporate more of its traditional rhyme and stanzaic features.

The main figure behind this movement has been Agha Shahid Ali, a poet, translator, anthologist, and essayist, who has mounted a campaign for “the Persian model” as “the real thing.”23 Ali has composed many poems in this form, written several widely noticed essays on “the ghazal in America,” and edited an anthology, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (2000).24 A self-professed “triple exile” from New Delhi, Ali moved to Kashmir as a child, then to the United States in 1976. After Ali’s death in December 2001, his literary trust oversaw the publication of Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals (2003), a book that solidified Ali’s identification with the form. His gradual attraction to the ghazal form expresses the complicated politics of exile inflected in formal poetic terms.

Ali did not start publishing ghazals until he had lived in America for more than a decade, even though he enjoyed an enviably rich early introduction to this verse tradition. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, an Urdu poet and one of the form’s masters, visited Ali’s family in Kashmir; his parents and grandmother recited Faiz’s verse to him; and he heard ghazals sung in performance.25 Ali’s first four volumes of poetry respectfully mention “ghazals weary with ancient images,” yet they employ other forms, mainly free verse.26

Published in 1997, Ali’s “Ghazal I” provides a vivid example of how his prosodic choices dramatize his tangled literary and cultural loyalties. Dedicated “for Edward W. Said,” the poem employs a dauntingly elaborate version of the ghazal:

In Jerusalem a dead phone’s dialed by exiles.
You learn your strange fate: you were exiled by exiles.

You open the heart to list unborn galaxies.
Don’t shut that folder when Earth is filed by exiles.

Before Night passes over the wheat of Egypt,
let stones be leavened, the bread torn wild by exiles.

Crucified Mansoor was alone with the Alone:
God’s loneliness—just His—compiled by exiles.

By the Hudson lies Kashmir, brought from Palestine—
It shawls the piano, Bach beguiled by exiles.

Tell me who’s tonight the Physician of Sick Pearls?
Only you as you sit, Desert Child, by exiles.

Match Majnoon (he kneels to pray on a wine-stained rug)
or prayer will be nothing, distempered mild by exiles.

“Even things that are true can be proved.” Even they?
Swear not by Art but, O Oscar Wilde, by exiles.

Don’t weep, we’ll drown out the Calls to Prayer, O Saqi—
I’ll raise my glass before wine is defiled by exiles.

Was—after the last sky—this the fashion of fire:
Autumn’s mist pressed to ashes styled by exiles?

If my enemy’s alone and his arms are empty,
give him my heart silk-wrapped like a child by exiles.

Will you, Belovèd Stranger, ever witness Shahid—
two destinies at last reconciled by exiles?

Ali’s prosody implicitly criticizes Rich’s. In his many essays on the subject, Ali describes how American ignorance of the ghazal tradition constitutes “an insult to a very significant element of my culture” (Ali, Rebel’s Silhouette, xiii) and how “[m]any American poets (the list is surprisingly long) have either misunderstood or ignored the form, and those who have followed them have accepted their examples to represent the real thing” (Ali, Ravishing DisUnities, 2). Employing the rhetoric of cultural possession, Ali often quotes his own poetry to illustrate “the real thing,” the “authentic” ghazal, and its requisite formal features. In “Ghazal I,” Ali’s prosody accomplishes similar pedagogical functions, strictly defining the form. The first couplet fixes the ghazal’s pattern. Ending both lines, “by exiles” establishes this as the poem’s “radif,” the phrase that ends every subsequent couplet’s final line. “[D]ialed” and “exiled” introduce the root-rhyme for the “qafia,” the rhyme that every word immediately preceding “by exiles” continues. Following the ghazal’s traditional pattern, the next three couplets rhyme “dialed” and “exiled” with “filed,” “wild,” and “compiled.”

As if these severe restrictions were inadequate, Ali adds another, one that the ghazal form does not demand. “Ghazal I” rhymes the “radif,” “by exiles,” and the “qafia,” the root-rhyme of “dialed” and “exiled”:

In Jerusalem a dead phone’s dialed by exiles.
You learn your strange fate: you were exiled by exiles.

“[E]xiled by exiles” forms the poem’s key phrase, as all of its rhymes arise from the double rhyme.

This prosodic flourish pays homage to the poem’s addressee and dedicatee, Edward Said. “[T]he most poignant of exile’s fates,” Said observed in a phrase that the poem borrows, “is to be exiled by exiles, and to be condemned, seemingly without respite, to continue to be exiled by exiles… . Exile begets exile.”28 The ghazal’s prosody embodies this idea. This rhyme of “exiled” and “by exiles” acts as a generative device; with each occurrence, “[e]xile begets exile.” Organizing the poem, this “strange fate” dominates it, as each couplet reminds the reader of exile’s relentless progress, encompassing “wild” and “mild,” “beguiled” and “defiled,” the English aesthete “Oscar Wilde” and a “Desert child.” The further the monorhyme moves from its original phrase, the more it suggests exile’s omnipresence. Just as the poem imagines exiles spreading throughout the “Earth” to “unborn galaxies,” the twelve rhymes of “exiled,” coupled with the twelve repetitions of “by exiles,” radiate this phrase through the poem.

While Ali’s handling of the ghazal form marks the wide dispersions that exile performs, it also exerts a counterforce to these same forces. Employing the full length that the canonical form allows, the twelve stanzas gather a community of exiles, based on the values of forgiveness and mutual trust. “Swear not by Art but, O Oscar Wilde, by exiles,” the poem counsels:

If my enemy’s alone and his arms are empty,
give him my heart silk-wrapped like a child by exiles.

Will you, Belovèd Stranger, ever witness Shahid—
two destinies at last reconciled by exiles?

Earlier in his poetic career, Ali satirized the conventional imagery of classical Kashmiri ghazals, “[t]he inevitable moth and bulbul.”29 “Ghazal I” instead employs Ali’s favorite pun, which another of his conclusions more directly presents:

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means—
Listen: It means “The Belovèd” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

This pun complicates the question that the final couplet poses. The final couplet of “Ghazal I” can be read as a cry of anguish, a lamentation over the seemingly endless nature of exile. In this sense, the answer to the rhetorical question it poses is no. In another sense, the final couplet presents an idealized model for reconciliation. With its knotty grammar and syntax, the final lines suggest that “to witness” is to “reconcile”; exile need not be endless because a possible solution exists. If the different exiles can witness each others’ “destinies,” the cycle of “[e]xile beget[ting] exile” might stop. Through their mutually sustaining acts of witness, Said, a Palestinian American, and Ali, an exile from New Delhi and Kashmir, provide an alternative model to the violence that ravages their homelands.

The pun further personalizes this grand hope. As in many canonical ghazals, the nature of the relationship between the speaker and addressee remains ambiguous, leaving unresolved basic questions such as whether the speaker is a disciple addressing God or a poet beseeching his beloved, and, if so, whether the beloved is male or female.31 “Ghazal I” pursues another option: that the poet addresses himself or, to be more precise, the “destinies” that exile imposes on him. As with the poem’s rhyme scheme, Ali accepts a basic requirement of the ghazal—the inclusion of a pen name in the final stanza—and adds another level of difficulty. The penultimate line of “Ghazal I” mentions three variations of Ali’s name: an adjective, “Belovèd”; a verb, “witness”; and a noun, “Shahid.” By doing so, Ali uses the ghazal form both to suggest that exile’s “destinies” remain irreconcilable and to reconcile them.

“Where rhyme seems to reflect grand harmonies,” Debra Fried notes, “pun indicates grand confusions.”32 Though many exceptions challenge this generalization, it neatly describes the final couplet. The puns present language as a Babel of conflicting meanings, where the same sounds signify radically different ideas. Like his name, the poet exists among and between these various meanings and the cultures they represent. At the same time, though, the final couplet harmonizes these meanings to make grammatical, syntactical, and prosodic sense; together, they elegantly solve the problems the verse form presents. The poem’s last rhyme completes this process, transforming “exiled” into “reconciled.”

In short, “Ghazal I” uses the ghazal form to express exile’s contradictions, the particular hopes and despairs that a secular Muslim exile experiences, kneeling on “a wine-stained rug” to pray. Like Rich, Ali writes a transnational poetry of witness, but he reconfigures the triangulation of difference that she employs. As we have seen, Rich invokes Ghalib to shorten the distance between herself and Baraka. Ali’s stricter prosody distinguishes his poetry from the “so-called ghazals” that American poets such as Rich and Harrison write (Ali, Ravishing DisUnities, 11). Exceeding the form’s canonical requirements, “Ghazal I” sharpens the contrast between it and the American versions.

Ali contrasts his efforts with Rich’s in order to shorten the distance between himself and fellow exiles, to construct a poetry of exile, a community based in a shared experience. This “strange fate” overrides geopolitical differences, allowing Ali to place “Kashmir” “[b]y the Hudson,” “brought from Palestine.” While Rich contends with Baraka’s violently anti-Semitic and homophobic declarations, Ali uses the ghazal form to smooth over other uncomfortable facts. The form’s long, rich history in several languages, including Urdu, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, elides the significant differences between the forms of exile that he and Said experience. This context also promotes Said as a man of peace, hope, and forgiveness, not a fiery opponent of the Oslo peace agreement once photographed hurling a stone at an Israeli guardhouse.33

Like Rich, Ali immediately influenced the ghazal’s development, most obviously in the anthology of ghazals that he edited. Like several of the other included poems, John Haag’s “Ghazal” directly addresses Ali, playfully chiding him:

Oh Shahid, you’ve treated me cruelly—such mad
intractable forms, when I write, cause fevers
(Ali, Ravishing DisUnities)

Many of the other poems similarly cast the ghazal as a “mad / intractable form,” a relentless producer of language. With “language” as its radif, Daniel Hall’s “Souvenir” uses “language” to generate language, forbidding only the unadorned phrase. One couplet offers a group ars poetica:

Plain speech? There’s no such thing! I can’t tell you
how much the overwrought can undergird in my language

This punningly “overwrought” verse turns the ghazal into a postmodern word game, a means to flaunt and inspect language’s mysteries.

The anthology’s most suggestive poem departs from this model, offering a silence after long speech. Consisting of just one couplet more than the required five, Carole Stone’s “Royal” presents a deceptively quiet drama:

We are one of those long-married couples who do not speak.
Especially after our argument on the train to Brighton, we do not speak.

For the life of me, I can’t read a timetable, while my husband can.
Around us, elderly couples lift pasty faces to sun, and do not speak.

I order Earl Grey with milk and sugar, and creme-filled biscuits.
Reclining on green and white-striped lawn chairs, we still do not speak.

We visit the Royal Palace where King George IV summered.
I wonder if, like exhausted marrieds, kings and queens do not speak.

Among regal objets d’art, were they ever pierced through the heart?
Or suffer emotional pains about which the English do not speak?

I, Carole, an American, understand little of royal restraint.
I am myself a ruined soul, with wild fantasies I do not speak.

“Too volatile, am I?” Heather McHugh’s ghazal demands, “too voluble? Too much a word-person?” (ibid., 113). “Royal” might ask if it remains too restrained, too reticent. It domesticizes the ghazal, presenting a unified scene that forgoes the canonical form’s fragmentary argumentative structure. The poem seeks stability in a form that often inspires near-frenetic movement. It eliminates the qafia and varies as little as possible the radif, never reversing its meaning or even substantially revising it. Instead of culminating with a wildly punning conclusion, “Royal” builds to an anticonfession, a revelation of what the poem will not reveal, the “wild fantasies I do not speak.” Even the pen name could not be plainer: “Carole,” simply the poet’s first name.

“Royal” lacks the large political imperatives that drive Rich’s and Ali’s ghazals. It slyly uses this form to evoke the strangeness an outsider feels: an American traveling in England, a wife negotiating an uncommunicative marriage. Unlike Rich, Stone does not seek to translate her age’s historical fissures into prosodic terms. Her wry, quietly elegant ghazal instead confirms that the form has entered a new stage of its development in America. It need not address subjects too explosive to approach directly, but quotidian moments barely worth mentioning. Hinting at more than it names, “Royal” marks both a trivialization and an opening of the field.

The last few years have clarified this situation’s implications. In 2001, a year after Ali’s anthology, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, Robert Bly published The Night Abraham Called to the Stars. Bly promoted the book as a collection of ghazals, although the vast majority do not feature the radif and none features the qafia. Written in unmetrical tercets, not couplets, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars suffered a rare distinction; its title poem inspired a parody before the book reached publication. R. S. Gwynn’s “Ballade Beginning with a Line by Robert Bly” plays changes on Bly’s declaration, “My heart is a calm potato by day.”34 “My son is a half-eaten crème brûlée,” Gwynn adds:

My daughters are all under copyright.
My wife’s a convertible full of hay
In a small, abandoned nuclear site.

Repeating Bly’s syntax like a bad recipe, Gwynn’s poem gives the impression that it could continue far beyond the twenty-eight lines that the ballade form permits. The ease with which Gywnn mocks Bly’s shamanism as carelessly formulaic underscores the poem’s portrayal of Bly as a rather hapless poet, unaware that his poems are almost instantly dated. “I don’t know what my metaphors are,” the ballade’s refrain cuttingly repeats.35

While Bly’s “ghazals” may best be remembered for the parody they inspired, Ali’s poems continue to exert a remarkable influence on the American poetry scene. In 2001 Ali was too ill to attend the Associated Writing Programs’ annual conference, held in Palm Springs, where he was scheduled to give a reading. Several of Ali’s friends organized a ghazal chain, “Ghazal for Shahid (Missing You in Palm Springs, 2001),” as a “communal tribute.”36 Visitors read two versions of the poem to Ali while he suffered from his illness; the poem continued to expand after his death until its published version contained eighty-three couplets, each composed by a different poet.

While the couplets differ in tone and setting, Rachel Wetzsteon’s contribution eloquently expresses an emotion common to many, as the participants seem both haunted by Ali’s absence and guided by a ghostly presence:

“Without him,” a voice was heard to whisper,
“Palm Springs is a parched and poulticed land.”

In a sense, the principles that Ali advocated for the ghazal no more define it than the rhyme and metrical schemes that Petrarch and Dante employed define the English sonnet. (If they did, a great number of canonical examples would not qualify as sonnets.) As a form moves across languages, some of its elements are not reproducible; Persian and Urdu ghazals employ elaborate meters not available in English. With remarkable speed, though, Ali changed the expectations that American poets and readers bring to the form. Wetzsteon, like the majority of the contributors, adheres to the tricky off-rhyme that opening stanza sets: “promised” and “kissed.” (Tellingly, W. S. Merwin also follows the rhyme and repetition scheme, which his translations in Ghazals of Ghalib discarded.) Other poets include the radif but not the qafia, a technique that Ali used in a ghazal he published in 1998, before his notions of the form grew stricter and he revised the poem accordingly.38 “[W]hen the future arrives, this is how it looks,” the science writer James Gleick has noted. “It comes all mixed up like a junkyard, the old and the new jumbled together.”39 It is a testament to Ali’s relentless, charismatic efforts that many readers, though generally suspicious of formal “rules,” will view this “junkyard” of “the old and the new jumbled together” as a long-established norm and departures from it as deviations, if not cheats.


1 Paul Fussell Jr., Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, rev. ed. (New York: Random House, 1979), 152–53.

2 Antony Easthope, Poetry as Discourse (London: Methuen and Company, 1983), 76.

3 Ira Sadoff, “Neo-Formalism: A Dangerous Nostalgia,” American Poetry Review 19, no. 1 (January–February 1990): 7–13; Diane Wakoski, “The New Conservatism in American Poetry,” American Book Review 8, no. 4 (May–June 1986): 3.
      Anthologies provide the most conspicuous evidence of an increased interest in metrical verse. See Philip Dacey and David Jauss, Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (New York: Harper and Row, 1986); Robert Richman, ed., The Direction of Poetry: An Anthology of Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language since 1975 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988); Annie Finch, ed., A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women (Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1994); and Mark Jarman and David Mason, eds., Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism (Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1996).

4 On this point, see Robert Scholes, The Fabulators (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967); Ralph Cohen, “Do Postmodern Genres Exist?” in Postmodern Genres, ed. Marjorie Perloff (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), 11–27; and Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, trans. Linda Asher (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 74–76.

5 See the introduction to Aijaz Ahmad, ed., Ghazals of Ghalib (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), vii–xxviii.

6 James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 682; Adrienne Rich, Collected Early Poems, 1950–1970 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1993), 337–55, 368–72. See also Rich, “Late Ghazal,” in Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991–1995 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995), 43.

7 Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, “Ghazal,” in Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, ed. Agha Shahid Ali, trans. Andrew McCord (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2000), 62.

8 The one exception is that Rich’s translations rather unavoidably mention the poet’s pen name in the final couplet.

9 K. C. Kanda, Masterpieces of the Urdu Ghazal: From the 17th to the 20th Century (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1994), 3.

10 Adrienne Rich, Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1993), 165.

11 See Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam, eds., Ghalib, 1797–1869: Life and Letters (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), 91–93.

12 Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Three Books by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) (New York: Grove Press, 1975), 59.

13 Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Black Magic: Collected Poetry, 1961–1967 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969), 116.

14 Baraka, Three Books, 63; Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 14.

15 Jim Harrison, Outlyer and Ghazals (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), 26.

16 Hayden Carruth, Selected Essays and Reviews (Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1996), 298.

17 See Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Pantheon, 1998), 211.

18 LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music),” in The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle Jr. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1971), 125, 121.

19 Samuel Charters, The Poetry of the Blues (New York: Oak Publications, 1963), 9.

20 Stephen Henderson, “Saturation: Progress Report on a Theory of Black Poetry,” Black World 24, no. 7 (May 1975): 9–10.

21 Samuel Charters, The Legacy of the Blues (New York: Da Capo, 1977), 22.

22 John Thompson, Stilt Jack (Toronto: Anansi, 1978); Denise Levertov, Oblique Prayers: New Poems with 14 Translations from Jean Joubert (New York: New Directions, 1984), 6–7.

23 Agha Shahid Ali, “The Ghazal in America: May I?” in After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition, ed. Annie Finch (Ashland, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1999), 123.

24 See also Agha Shahid Ali, “Ghazal: The Charms of a Considered Disunity,” in The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, ed. Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 205–9; and Ali, “Ghazal: To Be Teased into DisUnity,” in An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, ed. Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 210–16.

25 See Ali’s description in his introduction to Faiz Akhmed Faiz, The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Poems, trans. Agha Shahid Ali, rev. ed. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), ix–xii.

26 Agha Shahid Ali, In Memory of Begum Akhtar (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1979), 16.

27 Agha Shahid Ali, “Ghazal I,” Triquarterly 100 (Fall 1997): 24–25.

28 Edward Said, “The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile,” Harper’s 269, no. 161 (September 1984): 51.

29 I take this phrase from Braj B. Kachru, Kashmiri Literature, vol. 8, fasc. 4 of A History of Indian Literature, ed. Jan Gonda (Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1981), 78. See also Ali’s “Introducing,” in In Memory of Begum Akhtar, 13.

30 Agha Shahid Ali, Rooms Are Never Finished (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2002), 73.

31 See translator’s introduction to The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Díwán of Háfiz, trans. Elizabeth T. Gray Junior (Ashland, Ore.: White Cloud Press, 1995),quoted in Ghalib, Ravishing DisUnities, 4.

32 Debra Fried, “Rhyme Puns,” in On Puns: The Foundation of Letters, ed. Jonathan Culler (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 83.

33 See Karen W. Arenson, “Columbia Debates a Professor’s ‘Gesture,’” New York Times, October 19, 2000.

34 Robert Bly, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 1.

35 Robert Wallace and Michelle Boisseau, eds., Writing Poems, 6th ed. (New York: Addison, Wesley, Longman, 2003), 259. Gwynn first read Bly’s poem in the February 2000 issue of Poetry.

36 M. L. Williams, untitled essay, Rattapallax 7 (2002): 146. Williams was one of the principal organizers of the ghazal chain; my description of the writing of the poem draws from his account and the accounts of his fellow organizers Yerra Sugarman and Christopher Merrill, both contained in Rattapallax 7 (2002): 129–30 and 149–50, respectively.

37 Rachel Wetzsteon, contribution to “Ghazal for Shahid (Missing You in Palm Springs, 2001) in Rattapallax 7 (2002): 158.

38 Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals includes both versions: “Arabic” (originally collected in The Country Without a Post Office (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998)) and “In Arabic”; see pages 24–25 and 80–81.

39 James Gleick, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 79.


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