Within recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in formal poetry, including ‘new’ or ‘original’ forms. One such form is, of course, the ghazal, which in reality can be traced back at least a thousand years, with roots going even deeper. However, the form is indeed new to English, especially in its formal sense. Many writers have claimed to written ghazals, but have in reality written creative free verse in couplets. It wasn’t until the late Agha Shahid Ali introduced the form, as an actual form, to English, did the ghazal begin receiving the respect it deserved from English audiences and poets.
One such poet is Erin A. Thomas. New to the poetry scene (though not to poetry), Thomas has recently self-published two chapbooks of ghazals, titled ‘Uncovering English Ghazal’ and ‘Discovering English Ghazal’. Upon purchasing these books, I was elated to find that not only were there other poets interested in ghazals, but interested in trying to maintain the form in its utmost purity. While a majority of collections, Agha Shahid Ali’s ‘Ravishing Disunities’ being the prime example, have one or two examples by various poets, I know of no other complete collection of traditional ghazals by one individual. Ali’s ‘Call Me Ishmael Tonight’ will be out in March of 2003, but until then, we have Thomas.
For while Thomas indeed has a grasp of the ghazal form, he seems to have little to no grasp of poetry. His rhymes are pure, his rhythm as tight as can be expected in English, but his poems simply seem to lack substance. This lack of depth or substance seems to stem from two sources: Thomas’s misunderstanding of ghazalic disparateness and Thomas’s misunderstanding or severe lack, of imagery, and indeed, modern poetry.
Upon opening ‘Discovering English Ghazal’, we find a brief definition of ghazals. I agree with Thomas’s decision to place such a definition in his book, as the form still is misunderstood by so many poets. However, I disagree with the definition itself, specifically that a ghazal should be like ‘a pearl necklace’. While the idea of a necklace is appropriate (various objects strung together by a common thread) the idea of pearls, as opposed to jewels or beads, is what snags me. Pearls are similar, if not nearly identical. Jewels and beads are radically different from each other. Every ghazal essay, especially those by Ali, stresses the disparateness between stanzas. Each stanza should stand alone, and be completely separate from the poem save the rhyme and refrain. So while each of Thomas’s stanzas could, theoretically, stand alone as separate couplets, most of the time, they are simply too similar to each other to qualify as ghazals. While this technically is not a major flaw in the poetry, it does lead to some monotonous images, and therefor, monotonous poems. Indeed, one of the major tasks of ghazals is to keep the rhyme and refrain fresh, the variance between stanzas, and more importantly, their images, being the obvious way to keep the poem from dragging down.
In ‘Uncovering English Ghazals’, Thomas talks about an epiphany on disparateness between couplets. ‘Each ghazal binds to a theme, and in fact, each couplet within Hafiz’s ghazals seems to look at the same thing. It is just that rather than flowing couplet to couplet along the same lines of insight and reflection, each couplet offers a dramatically different perspective of what the ghazal as a whole is focused on. In a way, it is like looking through the eye of a dragonfly, each couplet is a facet in the eye, but the attention of each facet is focused on something in particular.’ This, while a nice idea, leads to some extremely boring poetry if used improperly. I have heard of this theory as the ‘room theory’ as well, in which the ghazal focuses on a table in the center of the room, but each stanza is written from a different wall or window in the room. For example, in ‘Defeated’, Thomas writes about affliction, and indeed an injured soul or spirit, using a dead baby as a metaphor for the experience. However, he keeps returning to the baby, to the point that he kills the thing four times before the poem is ended. The metaphor, while a solid one, becomes mute and almost obnoxious by the end, to the point that the reader is more interested in HOW the baby dies, and not the fact that it is dead. And this in poem no longer than a sonnet. When the couplets are disparate, Thomas’s ghazals do indeed excite and inspire. ‘Thoroughfare’, from ‘Uncovering English Ghazal’, is one such example.
Where fragrant lilies beautify the way,
Decaying corpses putrefy the way.
Brilliant sages point the way to heaven,
Yet we in bloodshed rubefy the way.
The way of peace was plain when life began,
Then darkness fell to mystify the way.
When through harsh places arid spans the way,
How hard it is to ratify the way!
Rivers flow the way of least resistance-
Plainness will always signify the way.
A vagrant walks the way with dignity,
Yet speaks no words to dignify the way.
Crying skies are not the way of sorrow,
They only serve to pacify the way.
If to the empty center leads the way,
There is no need to simplify the way.
The wind demonstrates the way of roaming,
But does not try to justify the way.
Who taught the fowl the way to warmer skies?
How is it that they verify the way?
Compassion is the way within us all,
But we must act to reify the way.
Death cannot endorse the way of living;
It also cannot mortify the way.
This dream is the way of dancing shadows;
Trusting this farce will falsify the way.
Who can hear the way the stars are calling?
They wait for us to stellify the way.
Each time Zahhar collapsed upon the way;
Has been a mean to clarify the way.
Woefully, most of Thomas’s ghazals are not of this caliber. Not only do they focus on one theme or one image to a point of excess, but they also seem to lack a potency that can only come from imagery. Thomas is wary in his use of imagery, to the point that he sacrifices his poems by its exclusion. He admits that to him, modern poetry is ‘a tossed salad of verbal images’. However, he does claim a belief in ‘visuals’, which ‘solidify the abstract and focus channels of interpretation where [he] would like them to go’. He against imagery for imagery sake, but is in favor of imagery if it aids the poem. Thus, a majority of his poems are completely void of images, but instead contain ‘visuals’, or ‘real life visual experiences that are used within the context of a memory or feeling in relation.’ However, a majority of his ‘visuals’ are so cliched or drab that they simply add nothing to the poem. And, when Thomas can’t find a ‘visual’ or ‘image’ to suit his purposes, he goes without, much to the detriment of the poem, and the reader. The old adage ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ applies to a majority of Thomas’s work, to the point that the bulk of his poems come across as not poems, but sermons and dissertations, where ideas are spouted but immediately leave with no tangible weight to bear them into the mind. Thomas needs imagery, and while he seems fully against modern poetry, he needs to understand that he participates in that tradition, whether he wants to or not. Until the time machine is invented, his poems will always be read by a modern audience in a modern context, and therefor, anything devoid of images or imagery will be seen as trite. Shakespeare was successfully able to wield imagery, and very few editors would consider him or his poetry ‘modern.’ Thus, even without the aid of modern poets, Thomas should be able to understand and use imagery. Until he is, we will be forced to rely on ‘visuals’, which seem to be in short supply.
At the beginning of ‘Discovering English Ghazal’, Thomas relates an incident in which an English professor insults his free verse, and instruct
s him to write villanelles. He insists that villanelles would be no problem, and upon researching them, as well as terzanelles, discovers ghazals, on which little to nothing had been published. This is in 2001. ‘Ravishing Disunities’ does take some liberties in what it accepts as ghazals, but a majority of the book contains complete, well-written, well-structured traditional English ghazals, abiding by all the rules of the form. ‘Ravishing Disunities’ was published in 2000. I suggest, if he has not already, that Thomas read this work, as well as the upcoming ‘Call Me Ishmael Tonight’, and learn what imagery and disparity add to the ghazal. I have a feeling that, in response to his teacher, Thomas may have followed all the rules of the form for a villanelle, but that’s all he did. Very few people can name more than half a dozen successful villanelles written in English, and even then rules are dropped all over the place (Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ as an example). Most villanelles, including a majority of the ones published, merely participate in the form. They are simply formal exercises with a few bright spots along the way, but are not truly successful poetry. In much the same way, Thomas merely participates in ghazals most of the time. There are a handful of good, possibly even great, poems in these two collections, enough to create a prize-winning collection, maybe. But definitely not enough for a chapbook manuscript, let alone two. So, to see what can be done with the ghazal form, to see a series of ghazal exercises, I encourage you to read Thomas’s ‘Discovering English Ghazal’ and ‘Uncovering English Ghazal’. He does indeed have a mastery of the form. If you want to read something that transcends mere form, wait for Agha Shahid Ali’s collection to come out and hope for the best.