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Who Is Rumi?       What's a Ghazal?

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Several new members of Kalliope are admirers of the poetry of Rumi, which has given me the impetus to start introducing non-European poetic forms to the workshop. This Primer will be on the Urdu poetic form variously called the "gazel", "gazal", or "ghazal".

Who Is Rumi?

Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi, Turkish poet and mystic, was born in Belh, in Afghanistan, on September 30, 1207 A.D. His six volume Mesnevi, consisting of 25700 couplets, is a major work in Persian-Islamic mysticism, as well as being widely admired as poetry. The date he started writing is unknown, but he started on the second volume of his magnum opus in 1264.

His second major work, Divan-i Sems (sometimes called Divan-i Kebir) is a collection of verses called "gazels" (also translated as "gazals" or "ghazals"). It is regarded by poetry lovers as the height of poetry and music, and by mystics as the mature expression of his consciousness of universal unity (Vahdet-i Vucud).

Mevlana also produced works called Fihi Ma-Fih, Mecalis-i Seba and Mektubat ( or Letters ) which have all been translated into Turkish, and also, in part or in full, into Arabic, English, French and German.

You can find a sample selection of his poems at http://www.armory.com/~thrace/sufi/poems.html

Here are a couple:

On the Deathbed

Go, rest your head on a pillow, leave me alone; leave me ruined,
exhausted from the journey of this night,
writhing in a wave of passion till the dawn.
Either stay and be forgiving,
or, if you like, be cruel and leave.
Flee from me, away from trouble;
take the path of safety, far from this danger.
We have crept into this corner of grief,
turning the water wheel with a flow of tears.
While a tyrant with a heart of flint slays,
and no one says, "Prepare to pay the blood money."
Faith in the king comes easily in lovely times,
but be faithful now and endure, pale lover.
No cure exists for this pain but to die,
So why should I say, "Cure this pain"? In a dream last night I saw
an ancient one in the garden of love,
beckoning with his hand, saying, "Come here."
On this path, Love is the emerald,
the beautiful green that wards off dragonsnough,
I am losing myself. If you are a man of learning,
read something classic,
a history of the human struggle
and don't settle for mediocre verse.

Kulliyat-i-Shams 2039


O lovers, lovers it is time
to set out from the world.
I hear a drum in my soul's ear
coming from the depths of the stars.

Our camel driver is at work;
the caravan is being readied.
He asks that we forgive him
for the disturbance he has caused us,
He asks why we travellers are asleep.

Everywhere the murmur of departure;
the stars, like candles
thrust at us from behind blue veils,
and as if to make the invisible plain,
a wondrous people have come forth.

For a lovely visual touch, see http://www.rassouli.com/rumi.htm -- artworks inspired by Rumi's poetry.

What is a Ghazal?

An important thing to remember when studying the technical aspects of the ghazal form is that they deal with the poem as written in the original language -- and many of the technical elements don't make the transition in translation. The original Urdu, for instance, consists of an odd number of rhymed couplets -- usually 7, 9, or 11 -- in which the first couplet uses a double rhyme and the remaining couplet repeat the second half of the rhyme as a refrain.

This is an example, in Urdu:

ta.ng A chuke hae.n kaSHmakaSH-e-zindagI se ham
THukrA na de.n jahA.n ko kahI.n bedilI se ham

lo Aj hamne toR diyA riSHtA-e-umId
lo ab kabHI gilA na kare.nge kisI se ham

"zindagl" rhymes with "bedill" and "se ham" echoes "se ham"; this rhyming pattern is repeated at the end of every second line, as in "kisl se ham".

Each sher in the ghazal must be of the same meter, or "beher". There are 19 forms of Urdu meter, more simply classified as "short", "medium" and "long". The intricacies are based on the characteristics of the Urdu language and its pattern of vowels and consonants.

It is quite useless to try to pick these patterns out in the poems of Rumi quoted above, however, because those poems have been translated into English.

In order for us to create ghazals in English, therefore, we have a choice of two approaches:

  • Create patterns in English that are as similar to the traditional Urdu patterns as possible: a series of couples in consistent meter, using a rhyming refrain at the end of each second line.
  • Attempt to duplicate the style of musical language, the quality of elevated thought, and the pattern of each couplet being meaningful in itself that are typical of the ghazal.
It is also possible to attempt both.



I recommend that you browse the reference sites above and read a few more ghazal to acquaint yourself with the pattern. Then write your own ghazal.

Guidelines for Critique

Which of the elements of the ghazal does the poem demonstrate?
  • Written in couplets
  • The couplets are all the same length and meter
  • Each couplet could stand as a poem on its own
  • A rhyming pattern unites all the couplets: a double rhyme in both first lines, repeated at the end of every second line
  • The poem sounds musical
  • The poem expresses almost mystical thought or wisdom
  • It sounds like one lover speaking to another

Write On!