Ohio University Press
Experimenting with traditional poetic form is not a new concept. John Keats wrote his poem ‘On the Sonnet’ warning of the dangers of constraining the ‘muse’ to strict form. Imagist poets like Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell adapted the haiku form to English-language verse. Where there are rules, there are rebels.
But the act of experimenting with form is arguably less about rebellion and more about determining what said form is really capable of achieving by exaggerating its conventions. In hindsight it can be said that most poetry is to some degree a reaction against the poetry that came before it, but that the act of ‘reacting against’ is in itself a kind of homage. Poetry that deliberately sets out to experiment with form is the most transparent kind of poetic homage, validating the traditional form for its potential relevance to contemporary culture.
Interestingly, in the first few pages of American-Iranian poet Roger Sedarat’s collection, Ghazal Games, I got the sense that the poet was almost self-conscious in his rebellion. Like the insatiable child who knows he’s doing something naughty, feels kind of bad about it, but powers on indulging his curiosity despite himself. This is partly due to Sedarat’s embracing the convention of humble self-referencing at the end of a ghazal, like this section at the end of ‘Ghazal Game #2: Pin the Tail on the Middle Eastern Donkey’:
Let’s say you hit the target. What’s the point?
It’s not like you really win the donkey.
A live sex act too freaky to recount
Traumatized me, the woman, the donkey…
If Lennon was the Walrus, I’m at best
The camel, maybe even the donkey
The repetition of the second last sound and the last word of each couplet is one of the ghazal’s defining features. Sedarat cleverly manipulates the couplets, using rhyme and unique phrasing, engaging the Western reader who may not be accustomed to the technique, and pleasantly surprising readers who expect the traditional repetition. Sometimes, for instance, instead of repeating the exact word, Sedarat creates identical sounds with alternative words and meanings, such as in ‘The Persian Poet’s Recipe for Qormeh Sabzi’:
Quick! Hide this ghazal deep in your Qur’an.
(Terrorists don’t understand the Qur’an.)
Would you eschew convention? Follow these
Lines to a place where truth, at its core, can
Enjamb ghazal couplets, proclaim an end
To Ramadan, and dine on the Qur’an.
Stew meat, spinach, onion, parsley, tareh,
Fenugreek, black-eyed peas, peppercorn and
Aside from these subtle variations on the ghazal form, Sedarat has literally made games out of some of the poems, encouraging interactive readership – a rare feat for a book of poems. There is a true/false challenge, a match the poet to the couplet, and the reader is even challenged to illustrate (if only mentally) each couplet in the poem ‘Ghazal Game #9: Illustrate the Comic Strip’. This is all more than just for entertainment. The poet is actually demonstrating the numerous narrative values of the classic poetic form.
Thematically, there is no one central topic in Ghazal Games. There are a few subjects which stand out, however. Firstly, a number of the poems are dedicated to protesting Iran’s corrupt elections and the brutal treatment of protesters after the fact. This theme is mentioned on the jacket cover, which accurately suggests that: ‘Perhaps most striking is the use of the ancient ghazal form to challenge the Islamic Republic of Iran’s continual crackdown on protesters.’ The most striking of these is ‘Ghazal for Neda’, which begins:
All Persian poems now rhyme with Neda.
Her name in every poet’s breath, “Neda.”
No one believes the UK murdered you,
We know it’s a state-created myth, Neda.
It’s not what was or what has come to pass:
We die online, in real time, with Neda.
Secondly, several of the poems are distinctly confessional and explore themes of mixed cultures, family and religion. Amongst the most interesting of these is ‘Sonnet Ghazal’, which is about a man’s sexual attraction to his Persian wife. In the poem the speaker simultaneously indirectly apologises for his poem in the lines: ‘I know; this ghazal objectifies her, / Ignoring feminist criticism.’
As a woman and a feminist, I have to disagree – objectification hadn’t entered my mind until I got to those lines. There is a lovely admiration for female sensuality in the poem that actually demonstrates her power over him, and, more importantly perhaps, his willingness to be overpowered by her. Further, as a Persian woman, to read about another Persian woman in a contemporary Western publication outside of the context of whether or not she should be allowed to wear a hejab was a very welcome relief. At last I could read something that humanises the Middle Eastern woman in amongst all the bad politics and frantically opinionated rhetoric.
Finally, there is a running poetics and experimentation discourse through Sedarat’s poems. He demonstrates the appearance of the ghazal form in daily life in poems like ‘Found Ghazal’:
(New York Subway) “If you see something,
(Poet’s talk with his son) “You hungry?” “Yeah.”
“What do you want to eat?” “Something.”
(Poet’s wife after work) “I’m one fried banana.
I also think I’m coming down with something.”
(Beatles song) “Something in the way she moves at-
tracts me like no other lover. Something…”
Ali Alizadeh’s review of Petra White’s The Simplified World on the Heat Poetry Review stirred up some heated discussion of what constitutes radical poetry (amongst other things). Some have suggested here on the Overland blog that in order to be a published poet in Australia, a degree of conservatism such as an adherence to traditional lyric aesthetics which is usually the result of academic study is paramount. Roger Sedarat’s book is evidence that academic study and paying homage to a classic poetic form can be radical, both aesthetically and in subject matter.
Buy it on Amazon.