Poem notes

Ghazal: To hold me

By Mimi Khalvati

Englishing the Ghazal

Agha Shahid Ali, the late Kashmiri-American poet who did so much to familiarise American poets with the ghazal, asked himself, while translating Faiz, if he ‘could make English behave outside its aesthetic habits’. Faced with the same question, I am particularly challenged by the very aspects of the canonical ghazal which seem to contradict our aesthetic criteria for writing poetry.

The form itself is difficult enough: the monorhyme (qafiya), the refrain (radif) and, most alarmingly, the final ‘signature couplet’ which requires the author to mention him/herself by name or pseudonym. But how to use the form without the stratagems of disguise we expect in contemporary formal poetry? Using strict and fully audible rhyme; gratifying the reader’s expectation instead of subverting it; employing a syntax that invites the audience to ‘join in’ the refrain, much like the ‘hook’ in song lyrics; avoiding, in the absence of enjambment, metrical monotony – these are some of the technical challenges.

But thematically, there is the ‘disunity’ of the ghazal, in which couplets move around on a lateral plane – from the personal to the political, the meditative to the satiric - rather than in a linear, sequential line of logic, with only the rhyme and refrain to act as binding. This is still beyond me. Then there is the perilous question of cliché. Translating an aesthetic in which images are relished less for their quiddity
than for their emblematic power, using a diction that is colloquial but also aphoristic or rhapsodic – how can I do this in English without being corny? More dubious still, how can I, a woman poet, address the Beloved from a submissive, even subservient, position, without irony, and call myself a feminist?

I remember a very old and well-thumbed copy of Hafez an Iranian friend showed me, interleaved with countless post-it notes in varying shades of yellow. These, she explained, marked the many occasions in her life when she had consulted Hafez, as one would the I Ching, on their auspices. Her life and Hafez’s ghazals were forever inextricably linked. Mine, without my mother tongue, forever diminished. I long to english the ghazal and do what I might do if I were writing in my first language.

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