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History:

The Ghazal, also spelled ghazel or gasal, Turkish gazel, and pronounced “guzzle” in some languages and “gu-ZAHL” in others, though in both with a guttural “g” almost like the “ch” in “Bach.”, is a genre of lyric poetry developed in Persia in the late 7thcentury AD from the nadib, which itself was the prelude, often amorous, to the Arabic verse form qasida, the ode. It spread to Northern India in the 18thcentury. As a word, it’s basic meaning of it’s root is “spinning” and in Arabic the word can be used to denote the general subject matter of erotic poetry and love poetry. Both meanings can be traced back to the earliest Islamic period. Eventually, the ghazal specialized  as a specific love poem ruled by certain structural parameters, themes and stylistic conventions. Rumi, Hafiz, Ghalib, Lorca and Goeth are some well known masters of the form throughout poetic history. It’s wide spread use in the US is commonly attributed to Agha Shahid Ali who in the 1990s began to insist on the original structural and stylistic contstraints of the ghazal, as it had been from the 20s thought of as simply a way to describe a series of disconnected couplets, and wasn’t fully known in its classic form.

If you want a deep and thorough history of the ghazal I strongly encourage you to check out the ENCYCLOPÆDIA IRANICA.

Structure:

From the Encyclopaedia Iranica: “As a formal genre the Persian ḡazal is governed by a combination of rules, all of which are to be strictly observed, though no one is exclusive to this type of poem. The rhyming scheme is based on monorhyme with internal rhyme in the opening line, called maṭlaʿ-e moraṣṣaʿ, as in a qaṣīda (aa ba ca, etc.), but ḡazals are much shorter poems. The length may vary between five and fifteen bayts (couplets), or rarely, a few more (Blochmann, p. 86; cf. Elwell-Sutton, pp. 245-46).

Another feature is the radīf, consisting of an independent word, a phrase or a personal suffix added repeatedly to each rhyme. It is optional, but it occurs very frequently in the gāzal, because it gives a semantic coherence of some kind to the lines of the poem, which are often only loosely connected. Actually, the radīf is one of the extra rules (eltezāms) allowed by the theory of Persian rhyme and may therefore be applied to any poem (see, e.g., Šams-al-Dīn Rāzī, Moʿjam, pp. 258-61).

The technical ḡazal is marked in particular by the mention of the poet’s pen-name at the conclusion of the poem, usually in the last distich. Such passages are called maqṭaʿ or maḵlasá. Here the poet introduces a personal reference into the poem speaking either to himself or about himself in the third person. The motive used in a maḵlaṣ could be the identification of the poet with the lover who is speaking in the text, but also the boast of the poet’s literary skill, the latter echoing a convention of panegyrical poetry. ”

  • More than 5 couplets, less than 15 couplets. More than this and technically is a qasida. Commonly between 7 and 12.
  • Each couplet is an independent poem within a poem, and self contained, containing a complete idea. However, all of the couplets are connected thematically or tonally.
  • A refrain (radif) of one to three words appears at the end of both lines of the first couplet, and in every second line of each following couplet.
  • There is an internal rhyme, which precedes each refrain.
  • The last couplet includes a proper name, usually of the poet.
  • (From Wikipedia): In its strictest form, a ghazal must follow five rules:
    1. Matlaa: The first sher (another word for couplet) in a ghazal is called the matlaa. Both lines of the matla must contain the qaafiyaa and radif. The matlaa sets the tone of the ghazal, as well as its rhyming and refrain pattern. .
    1. Radif/Radeef: The refrain word or phrase. Both lines of the matlaa and the second lines of all subsequent shers must end in the same refrain word called the radif.
    1. Qaafiyaa: The rhyming pattern. The radif is immediately preceded by words or phrases with the same end rhyme pattern, called the qaafiyaa.
    1. Maqtaa/Maktaa: The last couplet of the ghazal is called the maqtaa. It is common in ghazals for the poet’s nom de plume, known as takhallus to be featured in the maqtaa. The maqtaa is typically more personal than the other couplets in a ghazal. The creativity with which a poet incorporates homonymous meanings of their takhallus to offer a additional layers of meaning to the couplet is an indicator of their skill.
    1. Bahr/Beher: Each line of a ghazal must follow the same metrical pattern and syllabic (or morae) count.

Sources and Further Reading:

Wikipedia

Poets.org 

Encyclopædia Britannic

ENCYCLOPÆDIA IRANICA.