Did you know that the first full week in March is International Celebrate Your Name Week? Neither did I until recently, but all celebrations are especially welcome now that we’re a year into the pandemic. Names are often thick with layered experience, like a house painted over again and again: they’re both intimate and public, sources of joy and frustration, tied to past joys or present griefs. They can change throughout our lives, lead to discrimination, or remind us of where we come from. All these layers lend themselves well to contemplation through poetry, and the ghazal is a verse form that specifically incorporates the poet’s name.
Ghazals (pronounced like the English word “guzzle”) is a centuries old verse form that made its way from Arabic to Persian and on into languages around the world by the present day. Ghazals are made up of self-contained couplets, with each couplet presenting a grammatically and syntactically complete statement. Ghazals also utilize a repeated word throughout: this repeated word is used at the end of both lines of the first couplet and the second line of every following couplet. Ghazals often incorporate the poet’s name into the final couplet, bringing the self into the poem in a direct way. Finally, ghazals typically contain at least five couplets, but they can continue on for as long as you like. Traditionally, ghazals have several additional rules that poets follow, but for ghazals written in English today, these are the general parameters.
Angel Nafis describes the ghazal’s act of repeating a word as “a way to consider a word […] and implode it,” the act of repeatedly encoutering a word leading to a destabilizing or a re-working of that word. The inclusion of the poet’s own name at the end makes the poet at once subject and object, speaker and listener within the same poem—they might question, affirm, reflect, lament. The sampling of contemporary ghazals in English below helps to illustrate how poets make use of this form:
- Agha Shahid Ali’s “Not Even the Rain”
- Claudia Castro Luna’s “Vindication”
- Safia Elhillo’s “how to say”
- Patricia Smith’s “Hip-Hop Ghazal”
- Browse through more ghazals at the Academy of American Poets or the Poetry Foundation
Now, try writing a ghazal that celebrates your name. That celebration can honestly incorporate struggles and frustrations attached to your name, be full of joy for the worlds your name contains, acknowledge indifference, or do all of the above. Think of each couplet as a fresh approach to your name. What repeated word can help you pay attention to your name? Is it a language, as in Safia Elhillo’s “how to say” or a part of the body, as in Patricia Smith’s “Hip-Hop Ghazal”? You might try generating a list of possible repeated words and try a few out before settling in. Whatever approach you take, I hope this exercise helps you to explore the unique experiences you have with your own name.