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NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompt 12: What's Old is New

Sarah and Jeff Boyle

Difficulty: 2/5

After yesterday's excursion inside your dictionary, we're leaving the contemporary and heading way back to one of the oldest forms of poetry: the ghazal. It originates in ancient Arabia, before Islam. Generally speaking, a ghazal is a series of five or more couplets each ending with a single refrain, which can be a single word or a short phrase. What makes the ghazal different from the couplets you may be used to is each couplet should be a complete thought able to stand alone while also relating to the other couplets in the poem. As Suzanne Gardinier once explained to us, the couplets in a ghazal should be like pearls in a necklace: each individually beautiful but strung together into one perfect object. For more details on the form, read this.

A good start is to think of a word or phrase that can be applied to many different contexts. If you're going to repeat something, give yourself the best chance you can to look at it from all different angles. It's one of those ideas that's hard to describe, but makes more sense when you look at it. For an example of a contemporary master of the form, here's one from Suzanne Gardinier, who wrote a whole book full of ghazals:


The capital streets made cattle chutes
for the four horsemen of the coronation

Roses and crepe Commandos Consent
All arranged in the night for the coronation

The checkpoint faces wreathed in sable
and scarf masks for gas At the coronation

The children imitating the republic are
more beautiful than the republic at the coronation

The horses dressed The riders missing
A pageant of absence A coronation

As if it were not ours but his
Watching the screen of the coronation

At the edge a stenographer Listening for the monologue
gun salute's answer at the coronation

(From Today: 101 Ghazals by Suzanne Gardinier. Reprinted here with permission of the poet.)

As you can see, this ghazal turns around the word "coronation," building different scenes of that coronation as it goes. To write your own, pick your refrain. Build couplets around that refrain. Then order and reorder them until they are pearls perfectly strong on a necklace. See where you can go with your refrain. And have fun with it!

Bonus Level Up, Difficulty Level 3/5: Sign your ghazal. Traditionally, ghazal writers incorporated their names into the final couplet as a way of signing their names. Can you think of a way to include your first or last name into your last couplet? If you've got a name that's also an thing (Leif, Daisy) or a job (Mason, Smith) you've got it much easier than the rest of us.

Have you registered for the Poem-A-Thon yet? Sign up to write poems and raise money for the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council today! We just ordered some pretty sweet one-inch buttons that are yours for free if you play along with us. And don't forget to send us your poems for publication on this here blog: