“Lil’ Wayne writes ghazals.” This from Program Coordinator and poet Reynold Martin to the amazing group of teens doing spoken word (and so much more) at Urban Word as he introduced the workshop I gave on the ghazal a couple of weeks ago. Thanks to poets doing well with the form in English—especially the likes of Marilyn Hacker, Suzanne Gardinier, and the late Agha Shahid Ali—more often than not the form needs little introduction. Thankfully, it also lends itself to so much clever invention in our trans-cultural age that it spontaneously receives an introduction like the one from Reynold.
One of the many classical masters from Iran aptly defined Persian verse by saying, “Poetry is in the rhyme.” That may sound a bit antiquated, even among contemporary Iranian writers, who tend to break away from the established Persian form of the ghazal. Yet rhyme of course endures, insisting on making itself heard, whether in the original poems of Rumi and Hafez or the lyrics of Lil’ Wayne. In asking the teens at the workshop why rhyme keeps coming, and also what is it about rhyme for Rumi and others that inherently makes for us a kind of spiritual connection, versions of the same response answered both questions. Basically, as they observed, it links what might not belong together, cleverly connecting as it helps us to remember.
I get the gist of Reyold’s comparison, but following the workshop I needed to explore it for myself. First, a very brief recap on the form of the ghazal. Sticklers will rightly get upset and say I’ve glossed too much here, but it’s a blog entry, for goodness sake. Rest assured, there are ample resources out there to better and further introduce the form. I’d say a good place to start is Shahid Ali’s introduction in his anthology: Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English. Anyway, here is a short overview, followed by a comparative analysis to Lil’ Wayne and others:
The ghazal is a poem comprised of autonomously closed couplets, wherein each stanza stands independently from others. A recurring rhyme followed by a repeated phrase concludes both lines of the first couplet as well as the second line of the remaining couplets. Typically, the convention calls for the poet or persona to include his or name in the concluding couplet. Emerging in 7th Century Arabia, the form became especially well known through the 13th and 14th century verse of Persian poets such as Rumi and Hafez, making its way to later poets writing in Urdu such as Ghalib. It has been adopted by other poets writing in Hebrew, Turkish, German, Spanish, and English.
To give an excellent example, here are a few lines from Shahid Ali’s poem, “Even the Rain,”
Even the Rain
What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief's lottery, bought even the rain.
"our glosses / wanting in this world" "Can you remember?"
Anyone! "when we thought / the poets taught" even the rain?
After we died--That was it!--God left us in the dark.
And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.
Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you'd poured--what?--even the rain.
The first couplet reproduces in both lines what the following couplets will copy only in the second line: the recurring rhyme followed by the word or phrase. In the last couplet, typically the poet mentions his or her name or a pseudonym as a kind of signature.
It’s worth noting that after Rumi met his esteemed teacher, Shams-y-Tabriz, who reoriented him in time and space (whirling him into a true poet as opposed to a mere learned academic), roughly ¾ of what he wrote was in this form. It’s also worth speculating why. Each couplet, unlike an entire western sonnet, coheres unto itself, remaining closed. You could scramble a given ghazal and get an interesting poem in flux, even as each couplet maintains its autonomy (which is why in the Urban Word workshop we could each write our own couplet and then make an entirely unified ghazal in a very random way that seemed to fit together as if by author intentionality).
This obviously puts productive pressure on the form and specifically the rhyme + the recurring word, in a great way. One would, and should, have to read tomes like Annemarie Schimmel’s The Mystical Dimensions of Islam to fully appreciate how the philosophy of Sufi mysticism underpins this form and vice versa, creating a seemingly disjointed world that unexpectedly unifies through musicality of the form. And here is where English does fall short compared to Persian, Urdu, (and other languages I’m sure). In Iran, the form itself literally sings. I write now listening to Sufi music streaming on RadioDarvish.com, an internet site that serves as my kind of go to station for any kind of writing or translating. The great Mohammad Reza Shahjarian sings a ghazal by the 13th century classical Persian poet, Saadi.
Translations by Marilyn Hacker and original English ghazals from Shahid Ali are about as good as examples one can get of the form in English. Add to this the introduction of supplementary music (which becomes integral thanks to the form, and the poetry itself) by Coleman Barks. Even so, the form, if only as analogy, can be compared to some masterful lyrical songwriting that uses the crux of such repetition.
Before getting to Lil’ Wayne, consider another great songwriter (and no stranger to appropriation of middle-eastern mysticism) invested in similar repetitions, Bob Dylan. Here are a few couplets/lyrics from “Shelter from the Storm”:
I was burned out from exhaustion buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile ravaged in the corn
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm".
Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm".
Of course this is not a ghazal; it’s an American song, a very good one at that. But as a song, it embodies the spirit and, to a certain extent, the letter of the form . The last two lines work as an extended repeated phrase, while each third line varies the “orn” rhyme. In part, constructions like these enable Dylan to go the distance and branch out in so many interesting ways while returning to an inherently satisfying (and darkly spiritual) repetition.
To conclude with where we started (very much like a ghazal), Lil’ Wayne in his own way does indeed approximate the form as well. It’s too much to get into how deftly he puns to reinvent cliché, politically charge his own self-reinvention with humor, etc. Even so, at some point it’s really worth going into the kind of correspondence between his rhyme in this respect and the likes of Hafez. Like the latter, for Lil’ Wayne much of the poetry is indeed in the rhyme. Going back to Tha Carter II Album, consider these lines from “I’m a Dboy:”
Thinkin' of a masta plan
I get money but I'm thinkin of a fasta plan
I'm tryin' to cash it in
I got 5 in thet garbage can and the Wrap Saran
I need cash advance
See I know three sold
The other two a jam
I'm a sit on one and whip the other one much as I can
Hot ass fuckin sadan
Windows rolled down no sound
Them bricks got the speakers drowned
I ain't listenin for shit but sirens
I ain't tryin to get to my ships sunk fuck you pirates
I'll touch you cowards
It ain't nuthin to a boss
The niggaz in the hood tryina floss and ya head gotta cost nigga
Take a loss nigga
SS five five all black with the top chopped off dat
Catch me in the spots where the shots pop off at
I ain't tryin to prove nuttin I'm jus tryin to move somthin
I'm a d-boy
Bitch I'm a d-boy
Ho I'm a dough boy
I got the scope in the rope for them jackboys
I got money in my pocket
I got money in my block
I got the money in the power
Now, I know this is a stretch, and I’m getting myself in trouble (and Reynold along with me). All, or most any kind of pop song has a refrain, so how can one just say willy nilly chorus= repeated phrase? One can’t, unless the series of rhymes can be said to equal one long rhyme, and the rhyme functions at this level of musicality and inventiveness. We are at best still dealing with an analogy as opposed to an equation, but I’d maintain we are closer to the ghazal than may at first be realized.