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The Ghazal: A Poem of Longing

Angela Kim

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Suzanne Gardinier
(Dona Ann McAdams)
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You've heard of haikus, sonnets, and limericks -- all are poetry. But what about ghazals? At first glance, the poem looks almost like a sonnet because it's written in couplets. But that's where the similarities end. The ghazal is a form of poetry rooted in the Middle East and India. Sometimes they are even sung.

Suzanne Gardinier has come to love the ghazal. She's a writer and professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and has written a book of 101 original ghazals. She will be reading some of her poems today at the annual Sarah Lawrence Poetry Festival.

The first thing you need to know about writing a ghazal is how to say it:

When I'm working with my students on this form, we practice that sound at the beginning of ghazal -- because often they'll say "gah-zal" or "gha-zahl."

It's a form that originated in Arabic and Persian and moved into Urdu. And is still very much a living tradition in those languages. And it's written in couplets. There's a repeated refrain at the end of each couplet called a radif.

One way to describe the form is that each couplet is meant to be like a pearl on a necklace so it radiates by itself and it's beautiful with the other pearls at the same time.

The word "longing" tends to be at the center of any discussion of what the ghazal is, from its earliest roots. Sometimes it's personal longing -- one person longing for another. Sometimes it's someone longing for justice in the country they live in. Sometimes it's a longing for God.

Usually the conventional subject of a sonnet would be love, death, and the "changing of the seasons," as people say. But as an American working on the ghazal form, there was something different and interesting to me about the subject matter conventionally associated with the ghazal -- with that longing that drew me to it.

One of the interesting paradoxes of the form to me is that, while each couplet has to be different, there's a way that something has to hold them together. And really, it's that meditation on the mystery of love of what is, and what's the nature of experiencing it.

And which, of course, you can't nail that -- you can't make one couplet and say "OK, I got it." All you can do is circle around and around asking the questions.

Ghazal # 9 from "Today: 101 Ghazals"
by Suzanne Gardinier

I've lost my shoes Have you seen them
The winged ones that used to carry me

I've heard that when people die they remember
their mothers and call in the night Carry me

When my son used to say I can do it myself
He was whispering Could you carry me

When the quick rain soaks the shoulders of my shirt
it's saying Just for now Carry me

There's a tenderness around your eyes
Have enough tears said Carry me

All day in this new dream I walk on gravel
And the words you didn't whisper carry me

When my mother arrives at the end of something
It's to faint in my arms and say Carry me

I've known how to walk since before I was born
It's useless to try to carry me

What the dazzle of light says as it touches
the wave swelling Cresting Breaking Carry me

What the secrets say as they line the edges
of my eyes Your eyes Carry me

What the shoeless stammerer doesn't say
as she doesn't step into your arms Carry me

  • Music Bridge:
    Here Toucheth Blues
    Artist: Ben Reynolds
    CD: Two Wings (Strange Attractors Audio House)


  • Comment | Refresh

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    By Susana Short

    From chicago, IL, 06/11/2008

    This is the first time I have heard of and heard a ghazal. I love its repetitive phrase and its subject(longing) with both of which I have an aesthetic affinity.

    I, however, also agree with Hassam Ahmed of Washington DC that an Urdu ghazal poet would have given us an added dimension to the segment. Suzanne Gardinier's American 'adoption' is enriching. A native's rendition (or input, at least, since I understand this is about Gardinier's poetry) would have been illuminating, to say the least.

    Still, Gardinier's poetry is understated and moving, native speaker or no native speaker involved.

    By Vinay Keerthy

    From Irvine, CA, 05/06/2008

    Was delighted to hear the piece on "Ghazals"! As always Weekend America does well in bringing interesting stories. A few corrections to the story though, "ghazal" is NOT pronounced as "hasal" but rather as "guzzle". Interested readers might find some basic information about it here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghazal.

    By Hammad Ahmed

    From Washington, DC, 04/30/2008

    As a Pakistani, I'm a bit surprised that this piece did not include a single voice from a native Urdu speaker. The ghazal is very important to the political and cultural history of South Asia. While Ms. Gardinier's poetry honors that tradition, an unaccustomed listener might come away with the wrong impression of the form. By focusing only on the aesthetics of the ghazal, and not its historical significance, we may be allowing it to go the way of the Haiku: more important than its place in Japanese history is the fact that it's short and quirky, appropriate for elementary schoolers to write and recite.

    And since the pronunciation of the word "ghazal" was explicitly discussed, I was surprised to hear that neither Desiree nor Ms. Gardinier pronounced the word in a way an Urdu speaker would. It's always wonderful to hear South Asian culture on American Public Radio, I just wish our voices were more often part of the discussion.

    By Jane Gregg

    From Seattle, WA, 04/29/2008

    I decided to try to transcribe the two that spoke tto me. Don't know if they are what the others here are looking for, but here they are just in case. Put your fingers to my lips, will you, before I say something past forgiving Tell me where your hands have been, tell me what you�ve done that�s past forgiving I know someone who�s free, but not here, past touch, past memory, past forgiving The guards in lines try to take off their flesh and put on steel, past death, past forgiving Your voice, a clear stream over gravel, laced with trembling, a hesitation between orchards, past forgiving Your ankles pale on the couch, the day fading Did you mean to show me what�s past forgiving? The way your hips used to tell me the truth, that is not the truth and is, past forgiving Those the guards touch strapped in ice and plastic The faces on street posters, past forgiving The emperor�s loyal ones, cheering, is this how our children will learn what�s past forgiving? A woman with a photograph, her mother�s face, which of them is past forgiving? Who�s here? Your trespasser, the blinder of witnesses, past purity, past famine, past forgiving, past forgiving. How have I grown so accustomed to moorings? Now your voice carries me, from the slip to the sea Dizzy, untied, beneath and above Again tonight, carry me The slip to the sea

    By Jane Gregg

    From Seattle, WA, 04/29/2008

    I too loved this story and the ghazal that was read. I am surprised to not find it here...cany chance we will find it?

    Thank you!

    By Charlotte Evensen

    From downey, CA, 04/28/2008

    I paused for a moment, listened and the inhaled. These ghazals were a moment crystalline and too brief. Thank you for highlighting them.

    By Jimin Han

    From Cross River, NY, 04/27/2008

    Not only is Suzanne's poetry amazing, she's an awesome teacher as well. Generous and dedicated.

    By Sharyn Warner

    From Portland, OR, 04/26/2008

    Suzanne, I stopped gardening to listen to your wonderful Ghazal....and am wanting to have a copy of what you recited today, it fits my life like a glove right now. Please let us know where to find it...I am not a poetry lover, but I am now a Ghazal Lover. Thank you. Sharyn.

    By William Hill

    From Canton, OH, 04/26/2008

    Wonderful...I feel so lucky to have caught this segment of the show. Her poems are a gift, opened a new window on my day. Thank you.

    By Holly James

    From Chicago, IL, 04/26/2008

    I second that emotion. Please tell us where to find, or please post a printed version of Suzanne's ghazal as aired this afternoon. It was captivating.

    By Verna Simon

    From Rochester, MN, 04/26/2008

    I wanted to comment on these ghazals. Suzanne Gardinier has a beautiful written voice. I loved that last ghazal that she read, but it's not posted on your website or on hers! Please don't tease us! Where can I find a copy of that last ghazal?? Thank you for such wonderful stories.

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