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Ghazal, by Patricia Smith, and a Short Course on Ghazals

February 1, 2010 by Reader's Connection

Blood Dazzler: PoemsA four-time champion in the National Poetry Slam, Patricia Smith has also been featured on HBO´s “Def Poetry Jam,” and has performed three one-woman plays.


She will appear at the Lilly Auditorium in IUPUI´s University Library on Thursday, February 25th at 7:30 p.m. (Remember, 2012 readers, that this is an old post)


Blood Dazzler (©2008) is a sequence of poems that tracks the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, who is herself the chilling speaker in some of the poems.


“Ghazal” is used with the permission of Coffee House Press.



There were early indications that this was no mere rain
when the B-boys stopped their ballin´ to shout Yo! You hear rain?

But air just danced wrong around them. Doomed brick and wood shivered
a little. Children saw no reason not to go near rain–

storms had roared through their little lives, cleansing and slamming shut
whole seasons, putting on a lushness show. Should they fear rain?

Never. They tilted faces up, giggled and swooned beneath
the battering wet, felt denims slog with weight, with sheer rain.

To punctuate their flailing dance, gusts swirled and grew heavy
with stone. Sparks slapped tree sides, chaos roared its loud and clear rain.

Everyone else tried hard to vanish the sight of dripping
nomads rowing cardboard boxes. No, this was not mere rain.

Knowing it wouldn’t end, mothers pulled whole lives to rooftops
and wailed for light, wept a blue note we won’t know. A tear? Rain?

Still they are there, gasping for new sky, while the B-boys search
the soggy wreckage for game. They curse the disappeared rain.




 If the poem’s title confuses you, or its weird rhyming scheme has you baffled–if you’re anywhere near as ignorant as I am about ghazals, in other words, read on.

The ghazal (pronounced ghuzzle, not gah-zaal, so among my other ignorances I’m always mispronouning the word) is a traditional Arabic form of poetry, and whenever you write one, you’re supposed to give it the generic label, “Ghazal.”  Lots of Western poets don’t do this, any more than they call every sonnet “Sonnet,” but Smith has stuck to the rule.


Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English

 She also adheres fairly strictly to the rhyme-scheme rules, as laid out by the late Agha Shahid Ali, in his introduction to Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, The opening couplet (called matla) sets up a scheme (of rhyme–called qafia; and refrain–called radif) by having it occur in both lines–the rhyme IMMEDIATELY preceding the refrain–and then this scheme occurs only in the second line of each succeeding couplet. That is, once a poet establishes the scheme–with total freedom, I might add–she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master. A ghazal has five couplets at least; there is no maximum limit. Theoretically, a ghazal could go on forever (in practice, poets have usually not gone beyond twelve couplets.)



Rhyme's Reason



If this isn’t clear, read John Hollander’s ghazal from his book Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse. You’ll see that his qafia-rhyme is set up in the first couplet with the rhyme-words “prime” and “chime,” and that his refrain, or radif, is “at the end.” Watching him pull qafia-words out of his hat is a riot. 

Copies of the Third Edition (©2001) of Rhyme’s Reason can be purchased from the Yale University Press, and with their permission we are using the poem.





For couplets, the ghazal is prime: at the end
Of each one’s a refrain like a chime: “at the end.”

But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,
It’s this second line only will rhyme at the end.

On a string of such strange, unpronouncable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

All our writing is silent, the dance of the hand,
So that what it comes down to’s all mine, at the end.

Dust and ashes? How dainty and dry! We decay
To our messy primordial slime at the end.

Two frail arms of your delicate form I pursue,
Inaccessible, vibrant, sublime at the end.

You gathered all manner of flowers all day,
But your hands were most fragrant of thyme, at the end.

There are so many sounds! A poem having one rhyme?
–A good life with a sad, minor crime at the end.

Each couplet’s a different ascent: no great peak,
But a low hill quite easy to climb at the end.

Two-armed bandits: start out with a great wad of green
Thoughts, but you’re left with a dime at the end.

Each assertion’s a knot which must shorten, alas,
This long-worded rope of which I’m at the end.

Now Qafia Radif has grown weary, like life,
At the game he’s been wasting his time at. THE END.


redwindow_thumb Most of Hollander’s couplets might strike you as oddly independent of each other, like lobsters clacking away in a trap, and that’s because he’s following another rule of ghazals, as described by Ali: The ghazal is made up of couplets, each autonomous, thematically and emotionally complete in itself. One couplet may be comic, another tragic, another romantic, another religious, another political . . . a couplet may be quoted by itself without in any way violating a context . . . One should at any time be able to pluck a couplet like a stone from a necklace, and it should continue to shine in that vivid isolation, though it would have a different lustre among and with the other stones.

Patricia Smith’s Katrina-related ghazal is a particular kind of ghazal, a continuous one called a qata. The arrangements of her couplets are determined by the story she’s telling–which is perhaps unavoidable in book like Blood Dazzler in which all the poems are part of a story. She also refrains understandably from closing with a traditional “signature couplet” (Hollander uses a pseudonym based on the ghazal’s components, qadia and radif).

Blood Dazzler: PoemsI’ve allowed this to turn into Ghazals 101, so I do need to steer you back to Smith, who will be at IUPUI on Thursday, February 25th. There’s only one ghazal in her book, if you’re not sure you like the form. National Book Award-winning poet Mark Doty has said of Blood Dazzler : This riveting sequence gives voice to a wild raw whirlwind that ruined a city and brought on, in turn, a storm of neglect and murderous indifference. With her radiant powers of empathy, her fiercely acute ear for the musical possibilities of American speech, and her undiluted rage, Patricia Smith makes in Katrina’s wake a sorrowful, unflinching and glorious book.


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