GUEST BLOG – Ghazals – erotic & spiritual, by Lisa Pasold

Ghazal singer

Ghazal singer

The ghazal is my favourite poetic form—even though it’s less familiar than the sonnet or the haiku.

A sonnet gives us a glimpse of the formalism and beauty of 12th century Italian literature, where that form was invented. Similarly, we study a haiku and discover an enduring Japanese spirit.

English-language writers have come to the ghazal more recently—though the form emerged in 7th century Arabia and became popular in 12th century Persia. Ghazals give us a fresh window into the Middle East. Ghazals spread from Persia through Asia and leapt into Europe when Goethe experimented with the form.

By the misty veil of flowers in the meadow,
my colorful, starry one, I will recognize your beauty
          — Goethe

16thc. dancing Sufi dervishes

16thc. dancing Sufi dervishes

I love ghazals because they free us from traditional demands of European narrative. The ghazal is constructed as pearls on a necklace, each line or pearl with equal weight, the narrative arc less important than the poem’s overall concept. This new way of looking at a poem has attracted some of our best poets, including Adrienne Rich and Robert Pinsky.

Studying the ghazal gives us an opportunity to experience and learn from a deeply mystical Islamic philosophy, Sufism. Within this tradition, the most famous ghazal writer of all time is the 13th century Persian mystic poet Rumi. Think of Shakespeare’s relationship with the sonnet, and you’ll have an idea of Rumi’s mastery of the ghazal:

That moon has returned, whose like the sky never saw even in dreams; he has                     brought a  fire which no water can extinguish.
Behold the body’s tenement, and behold my soul—Love’s cup has intoxicated
                    the one and ruined the other.
          – Rumi

My first experience with the ghazal, though, was very prosaic: how do you pronounce it? Is it pronounced like ‘gazelle’? Or do you pronounce it more like ‘guzzle’?

The word ‘ghazal’ originally means ‘the cry of the gazelle when cornered in the hunt and about to die’ (a mournful sound—but also a very Elizabeth-style erotic reference!) And the form originated in the 7th century as a poetic expression of both erotic illicit love and spiritual devotion. So pronouncing it ‘gazelle’ seems more poetic.

But in fact, the word ‘ghazal’ is more accurately pronounced ‘guzzle’ in English. This isn’t a bad reference: to guzzle is to drink greedily, and the ghazal is traditionally about consuming love—both the all-consuming love for God, but also the more earthly idea of consuming love, the kind of passion that is guzzled!

Bones in their wings Crozier Canadian poet Lorna Crozier writes: “It is a form for lovers and lunatics.” I guess Crozier considers herself both, because she has written an entire book of ghazals—the gorgeous Bones In Their Wings, a collection I have reread every year since it was published in 2003.

The ghazal definitely has an appeal that sweeps through time and cultures: Persian-American poet Agha Shahid Ali points out that ghazals have been written in Arabic, Farsi, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Pashto, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu, and English.

Why ask for the moon? The moon’s in your cup, a beggar, a tramp,
         for whom wine’s enough.
          — English-Iranian poet Mimi Khalvati (After Hafez)

I think the ghazal appeals to us today because it depends on both the secular and the spiritual—mingling erotic imagery with religious vision.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
          – Rumi

I’m looking forward to discussing these ideas with you. So, this summer, meet me in Toronto. Let’s listen to traditional sung ghazals, read ghazals, and delve into the mystical transcendence of the body and soul. Let’s explore the reason why Rumi remains America’s best-selling poet!

For more information and to register, click here. Ecstatic Lyricism: Reading the Ghazal.

Exploring the Ghazal –

Call Me Ishmael Tonight” – one of my favourite ghazals from Persian-American poet Agha Shahid Ali

Across much of the globe, ghazals continue as a musical phenomenon. To give you a taste of the sung ghazal, here is the undisputed Indian queen of the traditional form, Begum Akhtar

The ghazal intrigues young writers. In this link, drop into Toronto poet Sheniz JanMohamed’s introductory workshop on ghazals.

And this wonderfully opinionated blogger from New York loves the ghazal. He discusses the tricky question of Persian/English translation.


lisa-pasold-in-hoodie (1)Lisa Pasold



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