On September 1, 2012, Amrita Das joined the VU Faculty of Arts as a doctoral or PhD-student. She will be conducting research on The American Ghazal: The Immigration of an Arabic Poetic Form (1960-2010). Amrita did her Masters in English Language and Culture from the VU, before that she had been working for nine years in the field of corporate communication and feature writing. Her project has been selected by the NWO for its Mozaiek grant.
The ghazal is one of the oldest forms of poetry. Having originated in pre-Islamic Arabia in the 7th century, it gradually spread to Farsi, Hebrew, Hindi, Pashto, Turkish, and Urdu. It has been the most popular poetic form in the Arabic world and India for centuries. See and hear an example: Richard Burton reading James Elroy Fleckers’s poem “Yasmin” (A Ghazal):
Mirza Ghalib (photo), Faiz, Rumi and Hafez are some well-known ghazal poets from the East. Since 1960, however, the ghazal has become an accepted poetic form in the United States with Aijaz Ahmad, Adrienne Rich and Agha Shahid Ali contributing greatly to its spread. This project seeks to answer the question – what does the ghazal’s American success mean poetically, politically, and culturally?
Why this, why now?
Why study the ghazal – why should we examine its American journey? In the ghazal we have the opportunity to study a cultural form that has displayed the tenacity to survive – both through time and travel, it has a unique structure – it combines disjointed, autonomous couplets with a precise and clear construct. It has a literary history that is rich, varied, and deeply embedded in universal themes – those of love, isolation, loneliness and exile. While the world went through a period of Americanization and America shared a tricky relationship with the Middle East, with a rhetoric packed with war and violence, here was a flow that went against the tide, it moved from the East to the West and it offered a different mode of expression. Living in an age of globalization, it is significant not only to study the mobility of people and material goods, but also why cultural forms move around. It is remarkable that an originally Arabic cultural form has gained a foothold in the principal Western nation at a time when there was a growing tension between these parts of the world. Why do Americans write the ghazal? What does this say about them? These are some of the questions that need to be explored to understand the dynamics of poetry and culture in a rapidly changing world.
Going Global in an Interdisciplinary Fashion
The project offers a rare opportunity to apply an interdisciplinary approach to a particular poetic form. People, money, technology, images, and ideas have flowed across national boundaries, some of these movements have been documented, poetics too – the sonnet would be one example, but not the ghazal, so this project contributes to the transnational turn within humanities and social sciences – it will seek to combine transnational studies, comparative literature, literary history, and integration within the context of the ghazal. One of the reasons sociological and anthropological questions appear in this study is because of the irony of this relationship, that between America and the Middle East, but within all this politics – there is also the matter of poetics. What will happen to the ghazal in the hands of American poets? Will it change? Will it become something else? What is this something else? Already there are noticeable features of egalitarianism, mainstream American female poets write the ghazal e.g. Adrienne Rich, this was not part of the earlier tradition, women writers were more a part of an underground movement of ghazal writing. What other changes will America bring in? The project will document these changes and analyze what it implies for this ancient poetic form.
Mirza Ghalib’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi sung by Pakistani artist Abida Parveen (in Urdu):
For the same poem but with a different rendition by India artist Jagjit Singh: