The Poetic Form of the Ghazal: Learn How to Write One of Your Own

The Poetic Form of the Ghazal: Learn How to Write One of Your Own
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The ghazal consists of at least five, but often more than fifteeen, two-line stanzas. Each stanza should be independent, but should tie together with the whole. The first two lines end with the same refrain. This refrain is repeated at the end of each stanza. The final stanza is a signature, where the author can use his name to seal the poem. The lines should be of similar length and rhythm. Themes are traditionally melancholy, introspective, loving, longing and thoughtful.

Ghazal History

The ghazal’s roots go back to the seventh century. Rumi and Hafiz are two of the most popular ghazal-writers from the 13th and 14th centuries. The style spread to Northern India in the 18th century, where Ghalib was recognized as the master of the form. German poet Goethe and Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca experimented with ghazals.

Indian musicians Ravi Shankar and Begum Akhtar brought the ghazal to the ears of Americans in the 1960s. Agha Shahid Ali taught the form to American writers. He said each ghazal stanza should be like “a stone from a necklace” and should “shine in that vivid isolation.”

Agha Shahid Ali

Ali was born in New Delhi, India, and grew up in Kashmir. He attended university in Delhi and Kashmir. He earned a PhD at University of Pennsylvania and an MFA at University of Arizona.

As a teacher at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Princeton and Warren Wilson College, Ali exposed his students to the ghazal form in its native tongues and English translations. His own poetry melds traditional forms with free verse and celebrates the flavors of multiple languages.

In 2000, he edited Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English. 107 poets are featured, including Diane Ackerman, WS Merwin and Paul Muldoon. The form has grown in popularity among English writers thanks to the efforts of Ali.

Building Your Own

A major challenge to mastering ghazal formation is the repetition. Following a structure while making a poem feel natural is tricky. Careful selection of the refrain is key. Start by reading Agha Shahid Ali’s Even the Rain:

What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?

But he has bought grief’s lottery, bought even the rain.

“our glosses / wanting in this world” “Can you remember?”

Anyone! “when we thought / the poets taught” even the rain?

After we died–That was it!--God left us in the dark.

And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.

Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.

For mixers, my love, you’d poured–what?–even the rain.

Of this pear-shaped orange’s perfumed twist, I will say:

Extract Vermouth from the bergamot, even the rain.

How did the Enemy love you–with earth? air? and fire?

He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain.

This is God’s site for a new house of executions?

You swear by the Bible, Despot, even the rain?

After the bones–those flowers–this was found in the urn:

The lost river, ashes from the ghat, even the rain.

What was I to prophesy if not the end of the world?

A salt pillar for the lonely lot, even the rain.

How the air raged, desperate, streaming the earth with flames–

to help burn down my house, Fire sought even the rain.

He would raze the mountains, he would level the waves,

he would, to smooth his epic plot, even the rain.

New York belongs at daybreak to only me, just me–

to make this claim Memory’s brought even the rain.

They’ve found the knife that killed you, but whose prints are these?

No one has such small hands, Shahid, not even the rain.

Ali succeeds in creating independent stanzas. He creates a rhythm early in the poem, them breaks it with caesurae and quick-reading lines. While ending each stanza with “even the rain” he still structures his words to sound a little different each time.

Choosing how to begin your ghazal is fundamental. You must spend time finding a rhythm and refrain you want to keep. As Ali said: “Once a poet establishes the scheme… 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.”

As is always necessary, free-write. What do you need to express here? Love or loss? Anxiety or hope? Be more concrete than that. What image to you want to pass on? What story are you telling?

Fill a page of unfiltered, uncensored thought. Look back through and search for repetition. Find a piece with multiple meanings and uses. Ali’s rain symbolizes purity, quenching of thirst, melancholy and cleansing. What do you find that is rich and lasting?

Traditional Style

To best acquire the ancient feel of a ghazal, learn some of the terminology:

Sher: A poem of two lines, not necessarily rhyming. Not to be confused with a couplet, which rhymes AA. Each segment of a ghazal is a sher.

Beher: The meter of the sher. Both the length and the rhythm. All lines in a ghazal must be of the same beher.

Radif: The repeated refrain that ends the first two lines of the first sher and the last line of each other sher.

Kaafiyaa: The rhyming pattern of the words that precede each radif. They need not be the same word, but they should ryhme.

Matla: The first sher in a ghazal. The one where each line ends with the radif.

Takhallus: The name the ghazal poet is known by. “Ghalib” is the takhallus of Mirza Asadullakhan.

Maqta: The last sher of a ghazal, where the poet uses his takhallus.

A true ghazal must have all of these elements. The result, after a great deal of passion and toil, is a beautiful and memorable artwork. Also, it is a deep expression of its cultural roots.

Abhay Avachat wrote a great article from authentic Hindi sources.Read it here.

Modern Variants

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A poetic form can never be untied from its native tongue. Each language has its own meter. Italian has its rolling amphibrachs. English its marching iambs. Japanese has its compressed, detailed syllables. A haiku in any other language is but a pale shadow.

The same is true when taking the ghazal from the middle east. English has its own music and you may find it does not fit as well into a ghazal shape. So feel free to use a rhyme scheme rather than a refrain.

AA-BA-CA and so on. No, it’s not a true ghazal. But it is your English ghazal.

In this case, find a rhyme in your free-writing that fits your voice and is fruitful. Beware barren words that rhyme with very little. (I once wrote a limerick about oranges…)

Or, choose your words and let the poem follow. You’re crafting a piece of art here, not necessarily writing a diary. Pick up the building blocks and tools you like. Make something.

You may use near rhyme. You’ll be farther from a true ghazal, but you will have more the play with. Your repetition will be disguised and therefore more natural.

Consider words with the same end but different prefixes. I toyed with prove, improve, preapprove, disprove, etc. An online rhyming dictionary can help you find exact and near rhymes.

Heather McHugh, in her Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun from Ravishing Disunities, chooses to rhyme the second-to-last word before “person”.

Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?

I blame the soup: I’m a primordially

stirred person.

Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.

The apparatus of his selves made an ab-

surd person.

The sound I make is sympathy’s: sad dogs are tied afar.

But howling I become an ever more un-

heard person.

I need a hundred more of you to make a likelihood.

The mirror’s not convincing– that at-best in-

ferred person.

As time’s revealing gets revolting, I start looking out.

Look in and what you see is one unholy

blurred person.

The only cure for birth one doesn’t love to contemplate.

Better to be an unsung song, an unoc-

curred person.

McHugh, you’ll be the death of me – each self and second studied!

Addressing you like this, I’m halfway to the

third person.

Fleshing it Out

The toughest part should be the beginning. After you’ve found a refrain or rhyme to be slave to, go from image to image. Each two line segment should be independent yet thematically linked. Tell a story in two line bits.

I like the metaphor of snapshots. Each stanza is one image, a blink in time, one flash of sensory input. You don’t have space for much. You don’t want so much pressed into two lines that you lose the music. Shrink and edit. You only can write about a moment.

Free-write each segment. Get to what’s important and strong. Let a common symbol show throughout the poem.

Be sure that at least one stanza chops against the grain. If you have dancing iambic lines, break things up with trochees and spondees. Shock your long lyrical lines with busted phrases, short statement and interior punctuation.

Make one stanza wander in an unexpected direction.


The ghazal invites you to leave the reader a piece of yourself. You may use first, second or third person. Don’t be shy. Talk to yourself and the audience. Give them your moral, your conclusion or your unanswered question.

Read through your draft. Is your rhythm established? Is it sufficiently varied and broken? Does each stanza have its own life? If not, move some words around or replace them until the overall mood is better.

My Experience

I planned to write my own ghazal as part of this process. I was not intimidated by the challenge. It sounded like my sort of thing.

My first thoughts were to write something about/for my wife. Play with the prove/improve/approve series of words, I was going to write about my desire to improve myself and be worth the approval of a woman like my wife, if I ever met one. I’d conclude with a statement on how I’d won her love, but was always trying to re-earn it.

It was clunky and forced, always sounding like I was trying to build something that didn’t want to be built. Like I was building a teddy bear out of bricks.

So I chose to write something for my son’s upcoming fourth birthday. Something playful and rhyming works better for a child. After much serious and ridiculous thinking, I chose to work with near rhyme based on one of my favorite things about Nikolas: he calls me “Babe”. He heard my wife call me that often enough that he decided it must be my name.

So my key rhyming word for the ghazal is a word with almost no rhymes at all. What rhymes with babe?

I gathered a list of my favorite Nikolas details:

- He calls me Babe.

- He loves dinosaurs and sharks. I think he’s made up a dinosaur or shark name, only to find the name in one of his books.

- He’s learning to read at an early age with dinosaur books, just like I did.

- Even at one year old, he could recognize a delicious piece of roasted or smoked meat at a distance.

- He grew great waves of blond hair as a baby. Shame, it turned brown as soon as we cut it.

- His mother is Czech and he is bilingual.

- In response to my own pen-name, he declared that he was “Zero-Eight the Poet”, although he pronounced it “po-yet”. I think he got the number from one of his socks or t-shirts.

The toughest part was delivering each story in only two lines. My first two lines sounded natural in iambic pentameter, so I tried to stick to ten syllable lines. Putting a reader in proper context and delivering the image in twenty syllables is a nightmare.

It limps badly. Compared with a lovely, true, Arabic-inspired ghazal, this is a TV jingle. But you can learn more from others' failure than their success. Good luck with yours. Here’s mine:

Ghazal for Nikolas' Fourth Birthday

by Eighty Six

He doesn’t call me Dad or even Dave.

He listens to his mom and calls me Babe.

“Babe,” he says to me. “Can we watch something?”

Only dinosaurs or sharks. Nothing tame.

Did he invent tuojiangosaurus?

Can shark-fin poachers be taught to feel shame?

Not quite four, he eats books, English and Czech

When he thinks no one looks, page after page.

He spots golden-brown, grins at roasted meat

Like a boy rubs two sticks inside a cave.

Platinum to his shoulders, library girls

Envied his hair. Once first cut, it turned beige.

Will he be my friend, will I lose my cool

When he’s in his teens and thinks I’m lame?

To his daddy Eighty Six, he delares:

“Zero-Eight the Poyet is my pen-name.”