Exercise Three: The Ghazal

The ghazal is a form that allows you to be a little more adventurous with your ideas because it is a string of independent thoughts. It is composed of a series of couplets (between five and fifteen) and the first couplet establishes the only rhyme pattern for the poem. There is no set meter, but we can use the iambic pentameter for illustration purposes:
A - / - / - / - / - /
A - / - / - / - / - / (refrain)
B - / - / - / - / - /
A - / - / - / - / - / (refrain)
C - / - / - / - / - /
A - / - / - / - / - / (refrain)
D - / - / - / - / - /
A - / - / - / - / - / (refrain)
The refrain adds musicality to your poem and it also helps you to drive home your point. The unrhymed first lines of all of the following couplets gives you freedom in composition. Remember - this form is also not bound by a metrical pattern (though using one will keep you more focused), so you can even fudge a little on the meter.

Take a look at how Peter Cole uses the form in "The Ghazal of What Hurt":
Pain froze you, for years—and fear—leaving scars.
But now, as though miraculously, it seems, here you are

walking easily across the ground, and into town
as though you were floating on air, which in part you are,

or riding a wave of what feels like the world's good will—
though helped along by something foreign and older than you are

and yet much younger too, inside you, and so palpable
an X-ray, you're sure, would show it, within the body you are,

not all that far beneath the skin, and even in
some bones. Making you wonder: Are you what you are—

with all that isn't actually you having flowed
through and settled in you, and made you what you are?

The pain was never replaced, nor was it quite erased.
It's memory now—so you know just how lucky you are.

You didn't always. Were you then? And where's the fear?
Inside your words, like an engine? The car you are?!

Face it, friend, you most exist when you're driven
away, or on—by forms and forces greater than you are.
The encouragement you can get from Peter Cole's poem is the fact that he even fudges the refrain to work for him. A form can help to keep you grounded and focused, but, ultimately, the poem will decide what it needs. Sometimes that means you have to break the form a bit.

The real lesson of working in a form is mastering it just enough so that you know how to break the rules.

Step One
We are going to start your ghazal with a question. This will allow you to develop an answer to the question in the following couplets. Take a look at this example question from Agha Shahid Ali's ghazal "Even the Rain":
What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief's lottery, bought even the rain.
Whatever your question is, be sure that it ends with a word that has lots of rhyming possibilities. For example:
After we were done, what was left for us to do?
Except to walk away, to say goodbye to you
Ending on the "you" gives me a refrain that will allow for all sorts of possibilities to talk about the one I am leaving and, if I want, to even address the reader at some point. It's a solid word for a refrain. Be sure that your second line has a nice word you can use for the refrain.

Step Two
Now, you can move on to your next couplet. Remember that you must use the final word in the refrain. working off of the example from Step One, here's another couplet:
To watch us pull apart, dissipate at our edges
And lose the solid elements of me and of you
I usually warn against writing about relationships, particularly breakups, but when you are working with a form you want to use subject matter that is easy to play with, something that gives you lots of options to try out. What can I say? There's a reason why the music industry is basically built on the breakup - we all have a thousand things to say about that bastard who left us.

If you want, you can keep on constructing couplets. Remember that there's no set number, but most ghazals have between five and fifteen. For this exercise, we only need to create three. However, if the muse is just pushing you to write a few more before you get to the last step, by all means, listen to her!

Step Three
Finally, we are going to take Peter Cole's example and work at making a point in the final stanza. Here's an example, working off of what I did in Step One and Step Two:
But maybe that's too much, maybe there is more
Room for me to grow in the spaces left by you.
How's that for a bitter breakup poem! As you can see, the form is completely versatile and lots of fun to use. Keep playing with it and maybe work outside of the whole breakup thing. Here's a terrific example of mixing up the form bit and definitely moving away from the breakup thing:
"Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun" by Heather McHugh

A book is a suicide postponed.
Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?
I blame the soup: I'm a primordially
stirred person.

Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.
The apparatus of his selves made an ab-
surd person.

The sound I make is sympathy's: sad dogs are tied afar.
But howling I become an ever more un-
heard person.

I need a hundred more of you to make a likelihood.
The mirror's not convincing-- that at-best in-
ferred person.

As time's revealing gets revolting, I start looking out.
Look in and what you see is one unholy
blurred person.

The only cure for birth one doesn't love to contemplate.
Better to be an unsung song, an unoc-
curred person.

McHugh, you'll be the death of me -- each self and second studied!
Addressing you like this, I'm halfway to the
third person.
Finally, take a look at Galway Kinnell's complete transformation of the form in "Sheffield Ghazal 4: Driving West":
A tractor-trailer carrying two dozen crushed automobiles overtakes a tractor-trailer carrying a dozen new.
Oil is a form of waiting.
The internal combustion engine converts the stasis of millennia into motion.
Cars howl on rain-wetted roads.
Airplanes rise through the downpour and throw us through the blue sky.
The idea of the airplane subverts earthly life.
Computers can deliver nuclear explosions to precisely anywhere on earth.
A lightning bolt is made entirely of error.
Erratic Mercurys and errant Cavaliers roam the highways.
A girl puts her head on a boy's shoulder; they are driving west.
The windshield wipers wipe, homesickness one way, wanderlust the other, back and forth.
This happened to your father and to you, Galway -- sick to stay, longing to come up against the ends of the earth, and climb over.