Ghazal Cosmopolitan: The Culture & Craft of the Ghazal by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Jacar Press, 2017; 112 pp.
Reviewed by Chloe Martinez
I like to think of the English-language ghazal as a sort of gateway poetic form. Here, I tell students, you too can write a formal poem. First write two lines: a couplet. End both lines with the same word. Now write another couplet with that same word at the end of just the second line. Then do it again, and again. How much can you say, and how long can you keep the game going, with that same word at the end of each couplet?
Of course, this is a vastly simplified and decontextualized version of the ghazal, but it contains the core challenge of the form: to keep spinning something new out of the same old thread. Once you’ve hooked your students (or yourself) on that challenge, you can dive deeper into the ghazal’s more stringent requirements, its complex history, and the great body of literature in many languages that the form has produced. Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s Ghazal Cosmopolitan is a terrific resource for that undertaking.
Part personal meditation, part history, part literary analysis, part anthology, this book gives us back the layers of context that are often missing from ghazals in English. Along the way, Hashmi traces the ghazal’s movement from Arabic, Persian and Urdu to German, Spanish and English; unpacks some of the intricacies of the form, giving us a nuanced template for its adaptation into English; and performs insightful readings of some wonderful English-language ghazals. Bonuses include a recipe for “Mughal Summer Sherbet”; a tour of bazaars from Peshawar to Istanbul; and a section exploring the qasida, a form that can be called the “parent form” to the ghazal, and one that similarly originates in pre-modern Arabia.
Finally, we get to read some of Hashmi’s own beautiful ghazals (and qasidas). In them we see the classic ghazal themes of longing and loss made personal, political and modern:
The jailed mystic carves a bowl of stone, the poet writes on a cup of Styrofoam
By day, prison-guards taunt, by night, are haunted by words prayed at the window
You left behind a shuttered palace for a name carved in wood grain
Desire’s forest is treacherous Zeest; let wisdom ripen in a glade by the window
Like Agha Shahid Ali before her, Hashmi accomplishes the admirable double task of complicating the ghazal and simplifying it—giving English-language readers a taste of what this ancient form has meant in other times and places, but also making it relevant and accessible here and now.
Chloe Martinez lives with her husband and two daughters in Claremont, CA, where she teaches on the religions of South Asia at Claremont McKenna College. She is working on a scholarly monograph and seeking a publisher for her first poetry collection. A graduate of Boston University’s Creative Writing MA and the MFA for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her poems have appeared in The Normal School, The Collagist, Crab Orchard Reviewand elsewhere, and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.