One of the great pleasures of writing is to experiment with new forms and ideas. A few weeks ago I began investigating the “ghazal,” a poetic form that dates back to 6th century pre-Islamic Arabic verse. The idea for this was brought to our writer’s group by Elaine Soto, a gifted artist and writer whose current work concentrates on the Black Madonna. (You can see her wonderful paintings at http://www.elainesoto.com/.)
Elaine learned the following exercise in a poetry workshop she had taken at a writer’s conference the day before our second-to-last meeting:
1. Choose 10 images cut from magazines, personal photos, etc. Attach one image each to a separate sheet of paper. Number each page 1-10.
2. Now write a line for each image.
3. Now match the lines in this order: 8+2; 5+3; 1+9; 10+4; 7+6. Each of these “doubles” forms a couplet, giving you five couplets. If you like, title each couplet.
4. Go back over the lines. If you need a transition or any extra word(s), feel free to add them.
5. Now place the lines together and you have a version of the ghazal.
According to Wikipedia, a true ghazal has a definite form, meter, and refrain. Similar to writing a sonnet or any other structured poem, there are some real rules involved. So consider this version and exercise a very loose experiment and/or writing prompt that you can always re-work to follow the more usual order found in many how-to poetry books. What may surprise you, however, is that your ghazal will more than likely contain the essence of the original intention: “A ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of pain.”
Because I can never follow recipes or any kind of instruction without changing something, I decided to set up my images in 10 sets of 2. I took the theme of “doorways” as my starting point, giving me 10 pictures of doorways matched to 10 random images of all kinds of things: rivers, marketplaces, old churches. Next I wrote 2-3 lines per page of images. I then completed the exercise in the order stated above, but I repeated it with my extra lines so that I could have more “verses” within the same ghazal. Confused? So was I! But it was interesting how the lines fit together (or didn’t in some cases) and how I enjoyed the randomness of the piece as well as the overwhelming feeling of the surreal. Poetry to me doesn’t always have to “make sense,” at least not right away or on the surface. Often the peculiarity of a line or image is the very impetus a reader needs to make his or her own leap toward personal understanding and meaning.
So here goes:
Every Breath is a Doorway
The ancients believed the birds carried souls to heaven in their beaks.
My thoughts are never-ending portraits of the past, sepia colored and curling at the edges.
In spring, even the shadows are sacred.
I wear dark glasses to keep the past at bay.
The river is a scarf of green.
In the winter we light lamps, shell peas, share stories of what may not have ever happened.
The light like your smile becomes my touchstone.
Even kings and gilded carriages break down into the dust of decay.
Arches that lead to courtyards and courtyards that lead to only more questions.
A book is a rock I cling to.
A bird alone in winter wind, trusting nothing but life itself.
The thing we fear the most is the sun itself, shining into all the dark corners of our lives.
The church remembered from childhood was shaded by apple trees and superstition.
The sort of glasses I had longed for as a child; dark and mysterious, the kind that hid my tears.
I would never forget the scarves hanging in the marketplace, a reminder of when we had money and throats left to wrap the silk around.
The peas in their blue bowl; no one shells peas anymore, there isn’t the time or the patience.
“She could never grow up so vain,” you said, “as to wear a dead bird upon her head.”
In a house where it is always safe and you know you will always belong.
My dreams are riddled by the dead; the dead and their dark graves forever piling up.
They are columns of stone, carved and set in place by hands no different from my own.
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, and no good thing ever arrived.
Stones from the river are carved into houses, castles, dreams of the very poor.
Flowers cling to an adobe wall.
A flight of stairs to a room no one enters any more.
In winter I look for lighted windows and pretend they are lit for me.
Midnight and still the prince drives by.
I can still hear the children playing, long after they are grown.
“You could always depend on reading,” she said.
Unlike her family, a book could never let her down.
I am a tree at the end of the world.
Tip of the day: Try writing a ghazal. Think “fun and experimentation” rather than “tried and true.” That said, if you enjoy the exercise, do consider taking it to another level and writing a more customary and ordered piece following established ghazal guidelines.