Formal Poetry as a Way to Survive: Ghazal in the Year of Corona

By Lesléa Newman, W4CYA Faculty

When times are tough, and frankly, they couldn’t be tougher, I turn to poetry. More specifically, I turn to formal poetry. There is something about molding language into prescribed patterns to express unwieldy emotions that I find incredibly soothing. Focusing on rhythm, rhyme scheme, syllable stresses and counts, as well as imagery, simile and metaphor, can be a great distraction. On the other hand, going over and over and over a poem as I try to get it right brings me closer to my emotions. This tension works its way into the poem and (hopefully) provides a rich reading experience.

Since the pandemic began, I have written a series of haiku, a pantoum, a triolet, and a ghazal. The ghazal was the most challenging poem to write.

An illustrated headpiece from a mid-18th century collection of ghazals

The ghazal is a Persian form of poetry. It is written in couplets using an internal rhyme scheme (“qafia”) and a refrain (“radif”). One thing to note about the ghazal is that each couplet should be able to stand on its own. It is often described as beads of a necklace. Each pearl is beautiful by itself, but strung together, it is even more beautiful (the sum of the parts is greater than the whole). In a true ghazal, the order of the couplets does not matter, and a test of a successful ghazal is if the couplets can be rearranged without taking away from the poem.

The ghazal has the element of expectation and surprise which gives the poem tension. As the pattern is established, readers expect the refrain, but are surprised with each turn it takes.

Finally, in a traditional ghazal, the poet inserts their name into the last stanza.

It sounds more complicated than it is! The easiest way to write a ghazal is to have one beside you to use as a pattern. I offer you “Ghazal in the Year of Corona” and hope that you will try writing one on your own.


Lesléa Newman has created 75 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections, Still Life with Buddy, October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard (novel-in-verse), I Carry My Mother, and the forthcoming I Wish My Father. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. From 2008 – 2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program.


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