The Ghazal is one of the earliest poetry forms that flourished in 7th century Arabia and grew immensely popular in Indian subcontinent around 17th and 18th century. However, it reached American shores only in 1960’s and continued to flourish under the patronage of poets such as Adrienne Rich, Aga Shahid Ali, Diane Ackerman, John Hollander, W. S. Merwin, William Matthews, Paul Muldoon, Ellen Bryant Voigt. The latest poet to join the list is D Russel Micnhimer with his collection of 52 ghazals titled Lotus Mirage. With only a few American poets employing this oriental form, it becomes pertinent to ask why we should examine American journey of the ghazal at this point of time.
In the second half of the 20th century, the world went through a phase of Americanization. But with Middle East, the story was different. America shares a thorny relationship with the Middle East marked by distrust, hatred and violence. In such a scenario, the ghazal is something that is going against the tide, moving from the East to the West, offering a different and new method of expressing the angst that is malady of modern living. It is remarkable that a cultural form which is originally Arabic should gain a foothold in the principal Western nation. Studying it becomes even more significant at a time when the tension between these parts of the world is escalating. Like a flower blooming midst concrete, the ghazal becomes conquest of beauty and tenderness is unlikely setting.
An extraordinary blend of disjointed, autonomous couplets that have clear-cut and well defined construction the Ghazal has an interesting and inimitable structure. Study of the ghazal offers a unique opportunity to investigate a cultural legacy and literary form that has the tenacity to survive – ravages of both time and distance. It has a history that is rich, varied, and deeply rooted in the themes of love, isolation, loneliness and exile that are common to human existence all over the world.
In this age of globalization, understanding the mobility of cultural forms gives as much insight into this rapidly changing world as the mobility of people and material goods. When American poets decide to write the ghazal, what does it mean? To understand the dynamics of poetry of any age or times is to get a glimpse ongoing social and cultural upheaval that may come to fruition in years to come.
Publication of Adrienne Rich sequences, though they were far from traditional ghazals, influenced numerous American poets. Not only many American poets started writing ghazals but several writers specifically crediting her work as their inspiration. In Harrison’s Outlyer and Ghazals, Rich’s influence is quite apparent. Same is true for John Thompson’s book-length sequence Stilt Jack (1978) and Denise Levertov’s “Broken Ghazals.” More often than not, these poems consisted of five or more unrhymed, metrically irregular couplets and it was impossible to identify them as “ghazals” unless their titles identified them as such.
Many of the poets who followed Rich’s lead showed little knowledge of the form beyond her adaptations. However, with the advent of 21st century, the English ghazal underwent a remarkable transformation. The ghazal, which started in America as a largely free-verse structure, started incorporating more of its traditional rhyme and stanzaic features. Agha Shahid Ali's Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English was the first anthology that tried to restore traditional form of ghazal to English ghazals. Some of the ghazals included in the book were more faithful to the traditional form than others. Poets like Diane Ackerman, John Hollander, W. S. Merwin, William Matthews, Paul Muldoon, Ellen Bryant Voigt contributed with their original ghazals that were closer to traditional form.
D Russel Micnhimer, a poet and rock art (pictographs and petroglyphs) expert recently published a collection of 52 ghazals titled Lotus Mirage (2014). These ghazals stick to traditional form of ghazals as closely as possible in English. While Russel makes no attempt to adapt the Arabic metres, he religiously sticks to other formal restrictions such as ‘radeef’ (end-rhyme), ‘quafiya’ (rhyme proper), autonomy of couplets (sher), ‘takhallus’ (pen name) etc. Equally interesting is the introduction of the book wherein he shares how this book got written.
Russel first heard about the ghazal as poetry form over facebook from an Indian friend and Googled to read about it. He studied the masters and technicalities involved in writing ghazals and with each ghazal he wrote, came closer to the traditional form. Most likely, he read a lot of translations, heard Hindi and Urdu ghazals though he admits that he doesn’t understand these languages as well as read English ghazals available over the net. Two interesting things can be observed from his account. One, his inspiration to write the Ghazal did not come from American tradition of ghazal writing but from the east. Two, his intended readers were not restricted to America; rather, he was writing ghazals predominantly for those readers who were already well versed with the form and had a taste for it. He shared his ghazals over the facebook and was widely read by Indians, Pakistanis, and probably Arabs too and received feedback from both eastern as well as the western readers. Perhaps, that is why his ghazals are radically different from those written by earlier American poets and closer to traditional form.
Dr Ashwini Kumar Vishnu, a bilingual poet, critic, translator with several poetry collections to his credit is of the opinion that with this ‘diwan’ (collection), Russel has joined the celebrated group of poets like Hafiz, August Graf Platen, Ghalib, Faiz, Dushyant Kumar etc.
With Lotus Mirage, a collection of 52 sparkling ghazals, Russel is set to give new direction to the ghazal writing in America. It would be no surprise if it becomes reference guide for writing ghazal in English, in days to come.