Denise Levertov’s Ghazals

March 7, 2014

I wonder what they  thinking, these authors who write poems that they call ghazals, that bear no obvious resemblance to the traditional form in Urdu and Persian and Arabic?

Denise Levertov’s “Broken Ghazals” is simply one poem  in a heterogeneous collection, sandwiched between “Decipherings” and “The Gaze Salutes Lyonel Feininger While Crossing the New Jersey Wastelands.”  The highlight of the volume is probably the 14 poems by Jean Joubert — translations in the commonly understood sense.

But perhaps the ghazal-that-doesn’t-look-like-a-ghazal points to a less common but equally plausible idea of translation, based not on resemblance, an attempt to reproduce or approximate the semantic or formal contents of the original, but on something far less nameable, something like flavor, tone, or even the degree of finality of an apparently completed sentence?

On the front, Levertov’s “Broken Ghazals” actually reminds us a lot of Agha Shahid Ali’s.  I especially like the penultimate stanza: “Squinting toward light:/ a tree has filled it/ with green diamonds.  Or there’s the air, bemused:/ newfallen snow.”

But then it occurred to me that maybe I like it so much because the last line sounds exactly like a Tang poem.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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