Ghazal Poetry: How to Write a Ghazal & Playlist!

How to Write a Ghazal Moon Over Ocean Picture
Ghazal poetry is poetry of longing. Traditionally, the ghazal tended to focus on unattainable love, often illicit, or sometimes on metaphysical questions. But, today, the ghazal has broadened to touch many types of longing and loss, as in the friendship poem “Mortal Ghazal,” by Luisa A. Igloria.

As we compiled our Ghazal Playlist to kick off our new poetry theme, we took this wider view of the ghazal into account. The playlist includes traditional ghazals (the ghazal is often sung in cultures where the poetry form first arose—imagine Rumi’s poetry to music!), unrequited-love songs, and songs of loss and longing. You’ll find a few childhood songs among them—for, children have longings too, but their longings often focus on objects of affection: a horse, a bear, an apricot tree.

Poetry Prompt

The ghazal is a form poem that uses the art of rhyme and repetition. To begin, you could simply write poems of longing. But, if you are feeling brave, you can try one or more techniques from our instructions on…

How to Write a Ghazal

1. Number your poem stanzas from 1-5, to make sure you meet the minimum of 5 stanzas. You could go as high as 15. But maybe start out slowly.

2. Each stanza will include two lines (a couplet)

3. Each couplet should be able to stand alone, as if it were its own poem. In some ways, this is good news, because you don’t have to be responsible for creating a narrative.

4. Every line is traditionally the same length (English writers are forgiven this task)

5. In the first line of the last couplet, the extroverted poet gets to insert him or herself. Fun, if you are the type! Call yourself by first name and see how it feels to live in a poem. Here’s a sample from an Agha Shahid Ali poem (bold added for teaching purposes):

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee–
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

The trickiest parts of the ghazal:

1. The first couplet ends with the same word (bold added for teaching purposes):

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

2. The first couplet introduces a rhyme *inside* the lines, right before the final word. For example, check out this opening stanza from Agha Shahid Ali’s “Call Me Ishmael Tonight” (bold and italics added for teaching purposes):

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

Notice that this is the poem’s first couplet, so each line ends with the same word—tonight. The rhyme falls right before the end word: spell rhymes with expel.

3. The end word will now repeat at the end of every *second* line of the rest of the couplets. Here is another sample from Ali’s poem:

My rivals for your love– you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

Note that tonight is at the end of the second line. See the rhyming word right before it? Farewell rhymes with spell and expel, the rhyme first introduced at the beginning of the poem.

4. If the poet chooses to insert his or her name, it is often accompanied by a “turn” (a shift in thought), sometimes humorous or odd. If you prefer to keep your name out of the matter, you could still add a “turn,” perhaps at the juncture of an image you closely identify with.

Okay, putting it all together, here’s a sample ghazal poem from Patricia Smith (bold and italic added for teaching purposes)…

Hip-Hop Ghazal

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.

As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.

Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping ‘tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.

Engines grinding, rotating, smokin’, gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.

Gotta love us girls, just struttin’ down Manhattan streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.

Crying ’bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.

— Patricia Smith, author of Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah

Photo by Kevin Dooley, Creative Commons, via Flickr.


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  1. says


    A cast of hawks routs a dule of doves.
    Morning’s song issues too cruel to doves.

    Your window, now it’s streaked so red.
    You flinch at feathers from fool doves.

    How must Love read your mourning eyes?
    Don’t speak of it. In that blood pool doves.

    The nest when emptied must be refilled.
    Let night reset. In no dreams duel doves.

    Come away from the glass; this time, be blind.
    Spare not a kiss lest your grief school doves.

    • L. L. Barkat says

      yeah. Me too. It was not obvious to me what the form was doing. And reading other explanations? Egads. Quite incomprehensible. So. Had to explain it myself 😉

  2. says

    This is surely an interesting site. The central idea follows the themes and styles of Hindi and Urdu languages writing…especially when it comes to expressing feelings of love, emotions and passion; the only difference is that attempts are to be made to do something similar in English! I like it!

      • says

        Well… not exactly easy since every language has it’s own complexity. And also since each language characteristic has sweetness dissolved itself, I can say one thing for sure, that ghazals written in Hindi/ Urdu have a special bend towards love and romance. In fact the Hindi film industry feeds on the beauty of these, with songs included in most films produced in what is known as “Bollywood” in India!

    • says

      It *is* hard, and I haven’t tried yet, but I’m thinking I would approach it like I approach a sestina and put the non-negotiables in place first (then play with them and switch them out if need be).

      So that the beginning of my ghazal, if I were to write one might look something like this…

      1. …. inane soliloquy
      …. urbane soliloquy

      2. ….
      ….insane soliloquy

      3. ….
      ….quite plain soliloquy

      4. ….
      ….to rain soliloquy

      5. …. L.L…..
      ….complain soliloquy

      • says

        Wow… very cool. Our approaches are very similar! I have literally pages of lists that I started last week… paired words that would go at the ends of lines… :) After that… stuck stuck stuck! But not giving up. Letting it roll around inside my head some more :) After reading the post here am focused on longing… what do I long for… trying to use that to motivate and inspire…

        • L. L. Barkat says

          Great minds 😉

          Why do you suppose you are stuck? Is the presence of the words too confining? What if you wrote the longing poem the way you wanted to, then dropped it into one of your lists and began to fiddle?

  3. says

    I am trying to write about the type of letting go that has to happen as children grow (because it is juxtapositioned against longing)… maybe that’s what’s hard. Maybe my topic is too close…. BUT I like what you say… that’s an interesting idea… I may just give it a whirl because I think it’s a good topic – one I need to work out – writing poetry helps me do that. 😉

    Then again, maybe I’ll just write about chocolate! 😀 I almost always long for chocolate!

    • says

      Donna, thank you for your generous comment. I was exhausted after writing that one. For me, one of the harder aspects of it was containing the thought in a couplet, as I’m used to using a lot of enjambment. I think it’s important to challenge ourselves to write to form; the result if not so important, it’s what you can learn through use of the language in the form that I appreciate. I’m going to try to write another.

      You have a start with “I almost always long for chocolate!” Would love to hear more about that. You could make it very sensual or funny or a combination. You could also use “long for” for the rhyme or just “for”.

      • says

        Can’t wait to see your next one, Maureen! Yes, the challenge of form is a very good thing!

        Good idea … for chocolate … more chocolate … adore chocolate… it rolls right off the tongue (for now) 😉 I will have to give it a try! thanks!

  4. says

    Okay…. Here we go! Dedicated to all those out there who have endured (are enduring) the trials of raising kids! I was going for sentimental, but then something shifted and… well… poetry is like that!

    At least you will get EGGS if you’ve raised chickens!

    …and you can be a star at the county fair
    with first place, blue ribbon, highly praised chickens!

    Have you ever seen a farmer losing sleep at night
    waiting up for a new driver, teen crazed chicken?

    …or sobbing deep rivers of guilty mother’s tears
    After cooking and enjoying a delicious braised chicken?

    Yeah, my mother said there’d be days like this!
    (Last night I dreamed of chocolate glazed chicken!)

    • says

      I guess I broke a rule by dropping the ‘s’ half way through…. at least is symmetrical… three of each plural and singular chick….

      • says

        Breaking rules is perfectly fine. And in sestina writing, it is pretty standard to break the rules in ways like you did, so why not in the ghazal? (If it becomes standard to break rules in certain ways, does that establish a new set of rules? :) )

        I *love* this ghazal! It is perfectly fun and showcases your gift of humor.

        • says

          Thank you! I’m going to send a copy of this to my mother! She’ll get a kick out of it! And yes, I think “rule bending” must be the new rule that I must get used to 😉 (mind you I have trouble even driving against the arrows in empty parking lots!)

  5. says

    Like a Bird ~ A Light Ghazal

    A moth drinks tears of a sleeping bird.
    A woman wails like a weeping bird.

    A child delights in a beeping bird.
    A cat consumes a creeping bird.

    A dancer takes lessons from a leaping bird.
    A cuckoo pretends it’s a time-keeping bird.

    A foul nest’s cleaned by a sweeping bird.
    An egg, cracked, reveals a peeping bird.

    A scarecrow flaps at a reaping bird.
    A garden’s unseeded by a depleting bird.

    A plea is made by a beseeching bird:
    Just end this poem, you bleeping bird.


    It’s freeing to just be silly. And to be able to use near-rhymes.

    And for those who might not know, there really is a moth that drinks tears of sleeping birds. It lives in Madagascar.

    • says

      LOL! I love it! So much fun… and the image of a sweeping bird just cracked me up! I’m still giggling at all of these birds you’ve brought to mind!

      • says

        now Maureen broke the rules too, by putting rhymes in both lines of every couplet instead of just both lines of the first couplet.

        And rhymes, when pushed to the limit, have such comic possibility. How I love this! :)

    • says

      Maureen, you mentioned that rhyming doesn’t come easily to you. Did this one come easier than the first? You are rhyming all over the place! Until LL mentioned it I didn’t notice the rule bending at first because it just rolled so easily off the tongue!

  6. says

    Donna, I didn’t even think about the rule-breaking while I was writing this. I just forgot about the form and where the rhymes are supposed to be, or not. I was up late last night, thinking of how I might read aloud a ghazal to a child in a way that would appeal as a poem and help the child understand the form, and this was what came out. (I used to do this kind of thing with my son when he was a wee lad.) I also wanted to make a connection between the subject and the object (dancer…leaping, etc.), and that lent to the rhyming in both lines.

    I realized, too, rhymes can come in many places: as end rhymes, as near rhymes, as double-rhymes, as multi-syllable rhymes, as two-word rhymes. That’s why depleting and beseeching work here.

    There’s a poem on my blog, what I call a contemporary ghazal. It breaks all the rules. It’s called “Fault the Light” (Aug 23, 2011).

    The ghazal up top is the closest I’ve ever come to the form.

    I’m a rule-breaker at heart.

  7. says

    I have to say this was hard, but fun :) I tried to keep the count the same, but don’t like how one line looks longer (yep, I like the visual effect too). Here is my rough-draft attempt. Please let me know if I’m on the right track. Thanks!

    On Recapturing Childhood Creativity

    The child who’s lost her hold as age deludes her skeptic girl
    Fate knows, and her dreams for you behold optimistic, girl

    Where, pray tell, have you misplaced your wildly budding mind’s eye?
    Where dreams no longer blossom and betray eccentric, girl

    Never ordinary at play any given young day
    Reaps older, though rounded spirit -the altruistic girl

    The blaze of Life’s to-do lists lets Time’s miser furl its fists
    Bares a soul who’s lost her magic –a veiled artistic girl

    And I, Marcella, need just stop and look beyond the glare
    It’s always been in your child’s eyes to be prolific, girl!

      • says

        Thanks, Donna! I feel that placing my name in this poem gives it more strength. Strength in the sense that if my name wasn’t placed there, it would seem like just another poem about lost childhood creativity (like an empty feel –although this could be used to convey that longing, I didn’t as it would lose strength), but by putting my name there, it became specifically mine/about me, and which allows a reader to have a peek into my soul. It also makes it more genuine –coming from the heart. :)

        • says

          Yes, exactly… it does that! I want to try to write one with my own name, too. You have inspired me. :) I think another thing about using your name is that, for me, it helps to give voice…not only to the poem, but to the poet and this poem is a lot about lost and re-emerging voice. Maybe that is what you meant by strength… I see both. It takes a certain kind of courage to put your name inside a poem that comes from such a deep place in the heart.

  8. says

    One Night Stand

    A pencil of lines I drew quick to confound you.
    None was broken; love’s arrows found you.

    One night’s sweet magic the fates foretold.
    Behind closed doors, strong arms bound you.

    New stars and moon your heart soon desired,
    so in sky’s brightest lights I re-gowned you.

    Then morning came; in deep silence we parted.
    Not one thought more had I to astound you.

    Straight was the line you walked, no circle
    made. Love, never again will I bed down you.


  1. […] Though ghazal poetry can be quite poignant, it can also contain a humorous twist, usually in the last stanza. Why not make your whole poem do the twist, and ask a “big question” throughout, about an unusual subject. You could take either a poignant or a humorous approach. (Need a reminder for how to write a ghazal? Go here.) […]

  2. […] The ghazal—did you study this kind of poetry in your college literature classes? If your classes were anything like mine, chances are you’d never heard of a ghazal until Tweetspeak announced its October theme. Chances are, also, that when you first heard the word “ghazal,” your response was similar to mine—“gesundheit!” […]

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