Examine Your Magnitudes
by Guest Blogger Kelly Grace Thomas
Different forms of poetry are like different cuts of jeans.
Most poems are made from the same material: words. Just like most jeans are made of the same cloth: denim. There are various styles, lengths, and fits depending on the season, brand and location. Jeans come in wide-leg, bootleg, super lowrise, skinny jeans, jeggings, etc. And just like jeans, poems can be cut from the same pattern or wash. We call this: poetic form.
While there are more than fifty poetic forms to date, the majority of contemporary poetry is written in free verse. Free verse is a poetic form that has no consistent pattern, meter or rhyme.
When it comes to form, many poets have a tendency to find their style and stick closely to it. Just like that one pair of jeans that goes with anything, most poets use the form they feel “looks best” on them. For me that was free verse.
As a beginning poet, I hated form. It felt prescribed, claustrophobic. I thought squeezing a poem it into a one-size-fits all anything would rob it of its organic individuality.
But I had heard poets talk about the importance of form, so every now and then I dabbled with pantoums, sonnets, haikus. They all felt like stiff jeans. Then I met a form that was flattering, complex and simple.
Ghazals are one of the fastest ways you can bring a poem, and its language, to a whole new level. They can be used as a revision tool to go deeper or written as a first draft to explore the many different avenues.
Ghazals are a short lyrical poem that have five to fifteen couplets that end with the same word. However each couplet has its own poetic thought, meaning they are “structurally, thematically and emotionally autonomous.”
The poet Agha Shahid Ali introduced Americans to ghazals. He described each ghazal couplet as “a stone from a necklace” which should continue to “shine in that vivid isolation.” Ali’s ghazal “Even the Rain” can be read below.
The rhyme/refrain (or X) of a ghazal is established in the first couplet, at the end of both lines, and then continues to end the second line of each couplet. The closing signature of a ghazal (y) often includes the poet’s name or allusion to it. Confused? The diagram below charts the pattern.
———————— A (x)
———————— B (x)
———————— C (x)
———————— D (x)
———————— F (x)
Ghazals highlight the context and complexity of language. They take the same word and look at it through many different lenses. Each time the word is repeated it takes on a new depth, layered with shifting and evolving commentary. In Ali’s “Even the Rain” the rain becomes a personality that changes place, mood and function. The refrain, rain, acts as a character in the poem, a character that calls us back, to think about how it, and us, has changed or grown.
I recently read “Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country” by Angel Nafis in the Poetry Magazine. I was intrigued by the of amount intricacies Nafis squeezed from one word: bride. I was struck by the way language manipulated and grew to highlight the different worlds, worries and wonders. The word bride became a force that mirrored the speaker’s changing relationship with herself. It acted as an agent challenging and commentating how one can act as bride. The word bride became her past, her place, her self-love. Her poem can be read here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/90977
Ghazals give poets the power to examine their multitudes. Language is a shifting, evolving thing and the repetition in ghazals adds dimensions that might go unexplored.
Use the following prompts to see how writing in ghazals might influence and your work.
Make a list of words that feel evocative, words that summon images or emotions. For example: love, gun, hips, bride, flood. This can be a broad list, or it can be a narrow list of words rooted around a single issue. Next make a list of words that have more than one meaning or interpretation: Light, fall, blue, etc.
Pick one of your words and write a ghazal. Think about how the meaning or interpretation of the repeated word can change over the course of the poem. Each line should act as its own independent line, but also be part of the whole.
Write a list of 20 words you have heard repeated lately. This could be a word from the news, conversations, or even in a book that you’re reading. Pick one of the words and examine it through the context of our social landscape. What role has it played in history before How is it being echoed now? How is your relationship with the word changing?
Make a list of words that have been present throughout your life. Perhaps you have always loved the ocean, dancing, sadness, purple, etc. Maybe you too have a relationship with the rain. Pick one of the words on the list and address it in each couplet form a different age or geographic location For example, you might address the ocean from a speaker the age of two, ten, fifty and so on. You might write, “when I lived in Boston I thought…. now in California I think….” How does the relationship change through each couplet? How does the weight of this word shift?