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Journal, Day Three

By Patricia Smith

Once you’ve discovered the word “ghazal,” heavily throating that surprising h and liking the way the z sets your tongue abuzz, there’s no way to staunch your curiosity about just what such a delightful word could lead to. Introduced to poetry by getting up on stage and flinging it into the open air—usually minus any conscious semblance of formal cadence and form (free, free, free!) but constantly reminded of the story the poem was telling—I was understandably intrigued by a poetic device which seems to be heavily structured while demanding very little in the way of a narrative thread.

I crave chaos.

My own work seems mired in narrative, a result of an inherited penchant for storytelling and the presence of my mother’s flat Alabama drone—which has been a resident in my left ear ever since I can remember—firmly insisting that nothing has worth unless and until it “makes sense.” (Yes, this is the parent who still begs me to abandon the flighty pursuit of creative writing for a much more predictable and grounded position—at the post office. She never fails to remind me that they are “always hiring.”)

The penchant for storytelling, and some sense of order in the tale, comes from my father.
A grizzled little guy with a marquee gold tooth, Otis Douglas Smith was what happened to the country when it hit the city. Part of the Great Migration of blacks from the South to northern cities in the early 1950s, he found himself not in the Mecca of financial and racial equality he’d imagined, but in a roach-infested tenement apartment on Chicago’s West Side. There he crafted a life along side the bag boys, day laborers, housekeepers, and cooks who dreamed the city’s wide, unreachable dream.

Many of those urban refugees struggled to fit, but my father never really adopted the no-nonsense-now rhythm of the city. There was too much of the storyteller in him, too much unleashed southern song. From the earliest days I can recall, my place was on his lap, touching a hand to his stubbled cheek and listening to his growled narrative, mysterious whispers, and wide-open laughter. He turned people we knew into characters and, through his stories, moved the boundaries of our tiny part of Chicago farther and farther apart. There were tales everywhere, and my own personal griot knew just how to infuse them with life.

Because of him, I grew to think of the world in terms of the stories it could tell. From my father’s moonlit tales of steaming Delta magic to the sweet slow songs of Smokey Robinson, I became addicted to unfolding drama, winding narrative threads, the beauty of simple words. But these tales were always grounded in the real, with one step neatly following the other. There was a beginning, a middle, a decisive end, and yes, a moral. When I began writing poetry, I wrote it the same way—although I was careful not to make the morals too evident or heavy-handed. Before I knew it, that style had become my “signature.”

How I envied the innovators, the Language poets, the lyricists, the visionaries who so often veered from the narrative line to find themselves in sticky, yet exciting territory. I loved the ability of those who had given themselves permission to play with words, to celebrate their jazz, to set the discordant words beside each other and watch the birth of something new. Try as I might, I couldn’t pull away from the “common sense” of my poetry, its righteous and relentless march forward. I couldn’t make it misbehave.

Then I encountered the glorious ghazal, the perfect combination of structure and giddiness. In fact, my introductory readings into the form revealed it to be an unbridled wordplay that basically doesn’t know where it’s going until it gets there—and even then, it’s not sure. And the ghazal’s fans and practitioners don’t pretend to have the answers. In her introduction to The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz translator Elizabeth Gray admits, “The poems do not seem to go anywhere: there is . . . no ultimate resolution or answer. The couplets seem unrelated to one another. And everything seems ambiguous . . .”

Indeed. Consider this opening duo of couplets from Robert Hastings’ “Ghazal” :

Trying to fly in the meantime
Ready to dry in the meantime

flocks of turds have fun with words
Wanting to rely in the meantime

What fun. Imagine being the person responsible for introducing the phrase “flocks of turds” to the American lexicon. My mind, scrambling furiously to find the poem’s order and moral, blew a fuse in the process. At that point, I just decided to read these lines out loud and delight in what they brought to the air.

In his book Ravishing Disunities, an anthology of contemporary poets working in the form, Agha Shahid Ali seems to be smiling mischievously throughout the book’s intro: “The thirst for unity haunts the ‘Westerner’ . . . So . . . Is there no unity? The answer: Well, no.” Then he insists that we take this unserious form seriously because of its underlying cultural relevance and because it is—well, incredibly old. (In fact, ghazal groupies are in a perpetual tiff because the sonnet—that lush and lyrical masterpiece infused with Shakespeare’s spirit and blessed by his hands—touts itself as both ancient and revered. However, the ghazal beat the sonnet to market by six centuries at least.)

Finally, I didn’t have to line my metaphors into neat little rows. I didn’t have to worry about the narrative arc of my poem. I didn’t need to hurtle toward a moral. All I had to do was worry about that tight little radif ( “in the meantime”) and its qafia (“fly,” “dry,” “rely”). That was all the structure I needed. And with the entire English language open to me (after all, the ghazal’s couplets didn’t have to connect thematically or otherwise), I was ready to go.

Not so fast. I had no idea how deeply the idea of “order” had been ingrained, how insistent my mother’s voice was in my ear. Like it or not, I was headed for the post office.

I sat down to write ghazals “about things”—about the gentle rain that trumpeted Hurricane Katrina; about past sexual partners; about the hips of black women. Once I’d chosen a topic, I envisioned a story. Once I envisioned a story, I decided the way that story should be told. Once I’d made that decision, I was doomed.

All that preparation clashed with the ghazal’s touted resistance to preparation. I agonized over just the “right” words, and struggled to draw a thick narrative line right now the middle of each poem. The qafias were torture, because I wouldn’t just let them be what they were. There wasn’t a flock of turds in sight.

When I read the resultant pieces to my husband, usually an extremely tolerant and thoughtful man, he gave me the noncommittal hum and then declared, “I don’t like them. It sounds like you’re trying too hard.”

I knew exactly what he meant. I was trying too hard not to try too hard.

Instead of giving up, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I want my voice out of its girdle. Eventually I will write a ghazal that takes me nowhere at all. And damn it, I’m going to enjoy the trip.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, December 20th, 2006 by Patricia Smith.