“On Location in the Loire Valley” is not only a remarkable exercise of formal technique in a little- known verse form, it is one of those poems that is thematically impossible to pin down. It seems to dance airily within its formal boundaries. At the same time as it delights in the comings and goings of life, it seems also to pose unanswerable questions, and in so doing it takes on a darker hue.
Ackerman’s achievement is all the more remarkable because most of the ghazals that have appeared in English, whether translations of poems written in Urdu or original ghazals, have lacked some of the fundamental qualities that are traditionally associated with the form. For example, almost all English translations of the ghazals of the renowned nineteenth-century Indian poet Ghalib, who wrote in Urdu, employ neither a repeated refrain nor a rhyming word immediately before it. They are traditional ghazals only in the sense that they consist of several independent, self-contained couplets. The loss of certain structural elements is nearly inevitable in translations of any strict verse form from one language to another. However, there is one translation of Ghalib that does emerge in English as a recognizably traditional ghazal. The translation is by William Stafford in Ghazals of Ghalib.
This ghazal fulfills the formal requirement that the first couplet ends with the repeated refrain. This is known as the Quafia (“longer”). The Quafia appears at the end of the second line of each couplet. However, the repeated rhyming word (known as the Radif) before that refrain is absent from the translation.
One of the few poets other than Ackerman to write a ghazal complete with Quafia and Radif is the American poet John Hollander. In Rhyme’s Reason, Hollander explains all the forms of English verse with self-descriptive examples.
If ghazals continue to be written in English, as seems likely, a distinctively English type of ghazal may emerge. In order for this to happen, poets writing in this mode will probably have to make more than a cursory study of the form and themes of the original Asian ghazals. This may in turn lead to more experimentation, which will stimulate the creative transformations that happen when an art form crosses a cultural boundary and takes root in new soil.
Scholars of the ghazal as it was practiced in India, where the form has been practiced since the twelfth century, offer many and varying analyses of the nature of the ghazal. One common practice is for the poet to identify or allude to himself in the final couplet, either by his own name or his pen name. For example, this is a translation (in Masterpieces of Urdu Ghazal) of a typical final couplet of Mir Taqi Mir, a prominent Indian poet of the eighteenth century who wrote in Urdu: “Your face, O Mir, is growing pale, / Have you, too, perchance, fallen in love?”
It seems unlikely that many poets writing in English will favor this overt reference to themselves. Indeed, in “On Location in the Loire Valley,” Ackerman seems to undercut this tradition, since the implication of her final couplet, far from offering self-revelation, is that such a thing is not possible.
Some authorities, including Agha Shahid Ali, argue that each couplet should have a turn in the thought between lines 1 and 2. Line 2 should surprise the reader with a twist. Ackerman follows this practice in her first couplet:...
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