A Ghazal in the Persian and Turkish Traditions of the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Century
Presented at Ruby Joust, Barony of Caer Mear, 2019, for the Poeta Atlantiae competition.
- Original Poem: “See Our Radiant King and Queen”
- History and Form of the Ghazal
- Period Exemplar
- Analysis of “See Our Radiant King and Queen”
See our radiant king and queen: hail them!
If Atlantia be true and strong, we shall not fail them.
My beloved comes to my bed of perfumed pillows
to recline and rest; my tresses protect and veil them.
The broken-hearted rise within the darkness.
Blossom, rage of the righteous: sustain and prevail them.
When drumbeats gather the people to places of power,
Rulers hide in their halls. A reckoning trails them.
The perfumes of my beloved flow with the pepper and pine
Of protection and power. Breathe, O heart, and inhale them.
Now those who toil with craft, cunning, and courage
Seek the righteous heights of service and scale them.
Gleaming oars that strive in sanguine waves
Steady ships and the well-loved warriors who sail them.
Singing of home and heartache, the ocean blankets
The bodies of the bold in a final darkness that jails them.
What is the duty of poets? To illuminate and exalt
Truths with radiant words. We write to unveil them.
My goal for “See Our Radiant King and Queen” was to examine the different facets of power, protection, and duty through a series of observations and proclamations using a poetic form that was new to me. Because one of the time periods and locations I study is the Ottoman Empire between 1450 and 1600, I decided on the ghazal. This was a popular poetic form in both Persia and Turkey before, during, and after my chosen time.
History and Form of the Ghazal
The ghazal, pronounced “guzzle,” originated from the Arabic qasîdah beginning in the 7th century (Jalajel). Adopted and adapted by Persian poets, by the 16th century the ghazal had spread throughout the Islamic world, including to Spain, Turkey, and India (“Ghazal”; Jalajel; Pritchett 119). It was the primary verse form of the Persian mystic Rumi (1207-1273). It was also popular with other well-known poets of this region, including the Persian poet Hafez (1315-1390) and the Azerbaijani Turkish poet Füzuli (1494 – 1556) (“About the Odes/Ghazals”; Jalajel; Pritchett 119).
The ghazal is composed of “syntactically and grammatically complete couplets” that are united by their complex rhyme scheme and meter (“Ghazal,” qtd.; “About the Odes/Ghazals”). Ghazals are short, usually between seven and fifteen couplets in length, though Arabic forms are longer (Pritchett 119; Jalajel). These couplets, called sher in Persian and bayt in Arabic, are each a distinct miniature poem, similar to haiku (Jalajel; Pritchett 119 and 132).
The rhyme scheme of the couplets is aa, ba, ca, da, and so forth (Pritchett 119). Each rhyming line ends with a refrain word or phrase (called the radif) that is preceded by the rhyming word (called the qafia). The radif is technically optional, but it was commonly employed by the 14th century (“Ghazal”; Jalajel; Pritchett 119). The first couplet of the poem is the only couplet where both lines end in the qafia and the radif.
In adapting the ghazal, Persian poets imposed two further structural requirements. First, ghazals use traditional meters and line-length (“Ghazal”; Pritchett 119). There is not one specific meter for ghazals; rather, they “follow one of the twenty-one traditional ghazal meters” (“About the Odes/Ghazals”). Second, the last sher of the ghazal includes the poet’s pen-name or takhalluș (“Ghazal”; Jalajel; Pritchett 119). This addition was in use by the 12th century (Jalajel).
Theme and/or tone are critical for ghazals. Traditionally, Arabic ghazals focused on “loss and romantic love” (“Ghazal”). In Persian ghazals and their descendants, themes of longing and romantic love continued, but the unifying concept could also be religious, devotional, erotic, or even abstract observations (“Ghazal”; Jalajel). In fact, all these themes could be mixed within the same poem.
Because each sher is a syntactically complete miniature poem, the ghazal is often describe as being “like pearls on a string” (Pritchett 119). Overall, the thematic or tonal unity of the couplets should create “an unuttered but clearly suggested train of thought (or silent verse, as it were) between each verse-unit and the next” (Farzād, qtd. in Pritchett 122). In Ottoman versions, a suggestion of unity was often created through word choice, repetitive imagery, and sentence structure (Pritchett 124). Because this unity is suggested instead of stated, it may be obscure or difficult to ascertain. However, this allows the poet to rearrange, add, and/or exclude interior verses during performance based on the audience’s mood, which makes the ghazal an excellent form for oral presentation (Pritchett 127).
The exemplar I presented in my original documentation was Ghazal 977 by Rumi, selected because a version was available in transliteration and translation. When discussing forms of poetry that originate in other languages, I believe it is critical to show a poem in that language along with a translation for meaning. As most English speakers do not read non-Roman scripts, a transliteration of Ghazal 977 is necessary to make the rhyme scheme visible. I used this transliteration and translation by Ibrahim Gamard.
The structure of this poem is intangible in translation but obvious in the transliteration. The radif (refrain word or phrase) is “mubârak bâd”; “mubârak” means “blessing,” with “bâd” being a preposition or adverb. The translation demonstrates how difficult it is to render ghazals in English, as “mubârak” is translated as both “be blessed” and “blessing” and, due to differences in syntax, cannot end most of the shers. The qafia (rhyme) is –ân, but because of necessary syntax changes, the qafia is entirely lost in translation. Regarding meter, the transcriber notes that the poem uses “Meter 12: XoXX oXoX ooX” called “khafîf sâlim makhbû.” This is presumably one of the twenty-one ghazal meters.
Regarding the question of unity, each sher in Ghazal 977 is united through the continuing theme of Eid, the final Festival of Ramadan, which celebrates the end of a month-long series of daytime fasts. The repetition of “`îd” (Eid, translated as “Festival”), emphasizes the theme: this word is repeated in lines 1, 2, 3, 7, 11, and 13. While two shers do not mention Eid (lines 5-6 and 15-16), they contain indirect references to the festival. In lines 5-6, the speaker marvels at the moon; an audience familiar with Eid knows that it begins at sundown. In lines 15-16, the speaker gently scolds a person named Salahuddin for drinking in private; fluids are not allowed during Ramadan’s daytime fasts, and the celebration after each fast was communal. Furthermore, the repetition of a thematic word is not the only item creating unity in the poem: another is “`âshiq-ân” (lovers), repeated in lines 1, 2, and 8. Other words and concepts whose repetitions are visible in the translation include “soul,” “wine” or “drink/ing,” and “lips” or “kisses.” Overall, the repetition of these words creates an effect of one wandering through a nighttime street festival, observing different scenes.
It is notable that there is not an obvious mention to Rumi’s takhalluș (pen-name) in the translation of the last sher. However, there are two allusions that are tangible within the translation. First, the penultimate sher mentions Salahuddin, who was “Rumi’s closest disciple and companion” (“Ghazal 977”). Second, the final sher is the only one that uses first person. Overall, this allows the poet to remain a distant observer who marvels at and rejoices in the celebrations surrounding him.
Analysis of “See Our Radiant King and Queen”
Based on historical precedent and the analysis of Ghazal 977 by Rumi, my ghazal must include:
- A qafia and radif,
- Between 7 and 15 couplets,
- A selected meter,
- Thematically or tonally connected shers that contain distinct images, and
- An obscure or obvious reference to myself in the last sher.
Writing ghazals in English is not an easy task. Traditional ghazal meters are numerous and do not necessarily suit English, while thematically-connected imagery without development of a subject is unusual in our poetic tradition. Furthermore, depending on the qafia and radif selected, the poet may be locked into ending each sher with the same sentence structure. For this reason, I chose “them” as my radif and a verb ending in an “-ail/-eil” sound as my qafia. This choice required me to include a subject for “them” in each sher, as well as an action happening to the changing “them”.
Concerning meter, I chose to use pentameter (five stresses). Ghazals are often likened to sonnets, and iambic pentameter is the meter of Shakespeare’s sonnets (“About the Odes/Ghazals”). The line-length allowed by pentameter meant that I could create interesting and cohesive shers by employing different sentence structure and enjambment without the lines getting overly long, which would be detrimental to the short form of the ghazal. However, I did not limit myself to iambic pentameter; because ghazals are only compared to sonnets, not related, I did not want to over-emphasize the comparison.
To provide internal structure, I wanted each sher to focus on a different facet of power, protection, and duty through either a proclamation or an observation. Because the challenge for this event was a proclamation, I knew my opening sher would announce our King and Queen, instructing Atlantians to consider our duties in service: “See our radiant king and queen: hail them! / If Atlantia be true and strong, we shall not fail them.” To resist the inclination of English poets to return to and develop a specific subject, the initial draft of each sher alternated between one of three lenses: narrow/intimate, kingdom, and global/general. I aimed for three shers per lens, with a final sher to conclude. While these focuses were blended within the final poem (especially between kingdom and global), they helped in creating the serial imagery of a ghazal within an appropriate number of shers. Moreover, I created an additional sense of unity by repeating many words, including “darkness” (ll. 5 and 16), “perfume/d” (ll. 3 and 9), “power” (ll. 7 and 10), “protect/ion” (ll. 4 and 10), “righteous” (ll. 6 and 12), and “be-/well-loved” (ll. 3, 9, and 14). Indeed, the poem begins and ends with a repetition of “radiant” (ll. 1 and 18). These repetitions follow the tradition of both Rumi and Ottoman poets.
The final hurdle was mentioning myself in the last sher. There is not an obvious reference in this sher: “What is the duty of poets? To illuminate and exalt / Truths with radiant words. We write to unveil them.” Like Rumi, I used first person, but I used “we,” not “I,” so I could pose this question and responsibility to all the poets of Atlantia (myself included). In addition, I included two highly oblique references to my name, “Elenor de La Rochelle alias Ela”. Through multiple classes with the Atlantian Madrasa Guild, notably with Sheikha Tala al-Zahra, I have selected the Arabic name علاء “Alaa” as a substitute for “Ela.” “Alaa” is derived from the Arabic for “greatness” or “exalted.” Similarly, “Elenor” does not sound too different from Arabic النور “al-Nour,” meaning “the light.” Thus, with a wink at the Arabic language, my last sher notes that poets must “illuminate” (light) and “exalt” truths.
I am highly satisfied with “See Our Radiant King and Queen.” The ghazal was an entirely new poetic form for me, challenging me in meter, structure, and content. I greatly enjoyed being able to play with, arrange, and rearrange the different shers to create different emotional results. In particular, I am pleased with the two allusions to my name in the final sher, as I love multilingual word-play.
In the future, I would like to attempt a more demanding radif that would challenge my sentence structure. I would also like to write shers that play more with both the romantic and devotional love and longing that are common in period ghazals.
“About the Odes/Ghazals.” Daru-al-Masnavi of the Mevlevi Order, dar-al-masnavi.org/about_odes.html.
“Ghazal.” Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/ghazal.
“Ghazal 977: May the `Eid Festival Be Blessed for the Lovers (of God).” Translated by Ibrahim Gamard. Daru-al-Masnavi of the Mevlevi Order, August 2013, dar-al-masnavi.org/gh-0977.html#1.
“Ghazal: Poetic Form.” Poets.org, poets.org/text/ghazal-poetic-form.
Jalajel, David. “A Short History of the Ghazal.” The Ghazal Page, 2007, ghazalpage.net/prose/notes/short_history_of_the_ghazal.html.
Pritchett, Frances W. “Orient Pearls Unstrung: The Quest for Unity in the Ghazal.” Edebiyât, vol. NS 4, (1993), pp. 119-135, columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00fwp/published/orient_pearls_unstrung.pdf.