Ghazal poetry



As winter nears  

Gazing at the moon

On the Beautiful Ghazal: 

   What is a ghazal?


My days were beckoning waves in the setting sun shining gold as the sea;

this bitter ache for homeland is a tale as immeasurably old as the sea.


The tongue of my fathers was forbidden honey to a child’s salt-cracked lips,

but young then, I would rove with a careless heart, wild and bold as the sea.


I carried their lives with me in histories as omens from the throats of birds, 

their faces lost ghosts fading in the mind as memory grows cold as the sea.


Let me find my land, reach it there just over the horizon, across only one more border,

my ancestry; the tales of my family of such beauty to behold as the sea.


Past paths become foreign to worn feet, the taste of beloved fruit strange;

in its incessant merciless currents, time is as impossible to hold as the sea.


Its sweet echo the raw ruby of my heart, my feet have now lost the way home;

my life, this river, is now only tears retold as the sea.



©Susan Zegarsky 

First published in Quail Bell Magazine December 2, 2022

As winter nears

I see your face bright as golden sun shining clear on this earth

until you slipped away like falling sands of days that disappear on this earth.


Weight of sorrow rests hard on my heart, black mountain on my back;

such grief is how we learn the worth of kindness here on this earth.


Night falls, your voice floats over dreams on blue-violet autumn wind

ebbing into stillness in starlight while thieving djinn appear on this earth.


Ochre, garnet, chestnut, plum, of seasons autumn blooms most ebullient;

my comfort in her fleeting glory betrays how bitterly I fear on this earth.    


Forest elk wander in silver moonlight, red fox and owl hunt the last prey

to stave off winter hunger knowing death creeps always near on this earth.


My lone home, sanctuary, is here in the sea of autumn, in her gilded intensity,

her liminal moments as the veils between worlds are most sheer on this earth.


I love the things you loved, always, because it was you, you

who loved them when you were still here on this earth.




©Susan Zegarsky  

Gazing at the moon

I hear my children laughing in the garden, gazing at the moon,

though the years have faded away and only I remain here gazing at the moon.


I glimpse them in vague dreams of summer, small ghosts,

wisps of my soul lost but always near, gazing at the moon.


A sadder ghost, a tired man, prays for me at twilight

and for the world he lost to war, in fear, gazing at the moon.


Then she among so many shades stands beside me

until it's only her lilting song I hear gazing at the moon.


If I were ever to look at them, look away from the moon’s bright face,

my loves may cease to appear, gazing at the moon.


Counting the stars, I will begin life over again, no ghosts.

I will never cry another tear gazing at the moon.


But new tears fall, I’ve lied to myself. Some thoughts

grow mad and some grow clear gazing at the moon.


Though August lingers softly, your summer

is already gone, old dear gazing at the moon.


August lingers softly here gazing at the moon.




©Susan Zegarsky  

On the Beautiful Ghazal: What is a ghazal?

The Form

The ghazal غَزَل is an ancient form of Arabic poetry about transcendent love and beauty, or about divine love of god, ishq-e-haqiqi عشق حقیقی , that explores the pain of separation and loss. Originally ghazals were meant to be performed in song.

Ghazal is pronounced gha-zel, with an Arabic gh غ . One meaning of the word ghazal is a graceful young doe, the origin of gazelle in English. Another is to flirt and flatter in spinning a tale, sometimes translated simply as flirting conversation with a woman. Another meaning is the wail of a wounded deer, which ties in with the ghazal’s theme of love and loss.

The plural of ghazal could be ghazaliat or ghazal-haa or other variations, but in English the plural is most often seen as ghazals.

There are intricate rules for classical Persian and Arabic ghazals. A ghazal consists of 5-15 couplets called sher شعر in Persian (or bayt in Arabic بيت‎ meaning the house, or metrical unit of a line). The sher rhyme internally with a word, the qaafiya قافیہ , which comes directly before the ending to each line, the radif. The first sher or couplet in a ghazal is the matla’ مطلع which introduces its rhyming pattern and theme. Both lines of the matla’ couplet must contain the qaafiya قافیہ and radif ردیف‎ .

The lines end in rhyme in this way: AR BR CR DR ER FR and so on, with R being the radif ردیف . The radif is a word or phrase that repeats like a refrain, the same end to every line. The qaafiya قافیہ  , each word rhyming with each other, ABCDEF ..., comes right before the radif in each line. 

In the Persian ghazal, each sher, or couplet, should be independent, like a small, separate poem, while they all follow the theme of the ghazal toward the ending. Usually there should be an odd number of sher. 

The last couplet, the maqta’ مقطع‎ is the most personal and is the poet’s signature to the ghazal. The poet often creatively includes his takhallus تخلّص or pen name in the maqta’ to show off his skill as a poet.

The History

The ghazal originated in 7th century Persian courts, coming from the older pre-Islamic Arabic quasida قصيدة during the Umayyad Khalifate (661-750). The quasida were epic poems, which could run into 100 couplets, performed as court songs. The ghazal became beloved because of its themes and was spread widely by Sufi mystics.

Ghazals are most often written in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. It’s the most popular Urdu form of poetry and one of the most popular forms in South Asia and the Middle East. Because of its beauty, love for the ghazal has spread across the world. Goethe introduced the form to Germany in the 18th century and Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca experimented with the ghazal in his writing. The ghazal became known in the US when Agha Shahid Ali introduced it there in the 1960s.

Familiar and popular classical ghazal writers are the Persian poets Rumi (1207-1273) Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī جلال‌الدین محمد رومی‎ and Hafiz (1315-1390) Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī خواجه شمس‌‌الدین محمد حافظ شیرازی‎ and the father of classical Persian literature Rudaki (858-941) Abū 'Abd Allāh Ja'far ibn Muḥammad al-Rūdhakī ابوعبدالله جعفر بن محمد رودکی ‎

Layla and Majnun

The most famous qasida, Layla and Majnun لیلی و مجنون‎ (or مجنون ليلى‎ Majnun Layla in Arabic) was an ancient Arab tale passed down orally in many versions but made popular by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi نظامی گنجوی‎ Jamal ad-Dīn Abū Muḥammad Ilyās ibn-Yūsuf ibn-Zakkī (1141-1209).

Layla and Majnun tells of a Bedouin boy named Qais who fell in love with his best friend during their childhood, the beautiful Layla, and spent his days writing love poems to her, becoming a poet as he grew to be a man. Though they had grown up together and Layla loved only Qais, her father refused his permission for her to marry a poor poet and instead secretly married her to a rich man in another land to enrich his own empire. Heartbroken, Qais wandered the desert searching for Layla, still writing love poems to her, singing them. People began to call him Majnun, meaning crazy or madman مجنون  

Far away, Layla never loved her husband and pined away for Qais, dreaming that he would come for her. She listened at her window every evening for the sound of Qais singing his ghazals. When Qais never came, Layla died of a broken heart thinking he'd forgotten her. 

But Qais never stopped searching for his childhood love, his dear Layla. Crossing desert after desert on foot, Majnun finally found his Layla already in her grave, far too late for them to be reunited and escape together. Qais himself died of grief lying on Layla's grave; he never stopping singing the poems he’d written in his wanderings to her until the end. The best friends were together at last, immortalized in the ghazal’s eternal, beloved theme of true love and loss.

excerpt from On the Beautiful Ghazal by Susan Zegarsky

©Susan Zegarsky

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