The Ghazal is an ancient form of Arabic poetry written in rhyming couplets with a refrain.  Ghazals ordinarily deal love and separation, and are written from the perspective of the lover, not the loved.   The poets Rumi and Hafez often utilized the form, and it has come to be associated with Sufi mysticism. 

The Sufi form of Islam incorporates mysticism, much as Kabbalah is a mystic form of Judaism.  Practitioners of Sufi Islam are also known as Dervishes, although not all Dervishes practice the spinning dance that Westerners are familiar with.  Spinning (or “whirling”, if you insist) Dervishes are of the Mevlevi Order of Turkey.  The dance is part of a ritual called the Sema, in which the dancers attempt to reach religious ecstasy. 

Much of Rumi’s work has been translated into English, and English writers have also explored the form.  I find English ghazals, when written in the strictest form, sound like Petrarchan sonnets or possibly sestinas.

The American poet Robert Bly is fond of Arabic poetic forms and adopted the ghazal, albeit loosely, in his collection, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars.  The poem that follows is one of my favorites, and read aloud, puts me in mind of those spinning Dervishes.

The Night Abraham Called to the Stars

Do you remember the night Abraham first called
To the stars?  He cried to Saturn: “You are my Lord!”
How happy he was!  When he saw the Dawn Star,
He cried, “You are my Lord!”  How destroyed he was
When he watched them set.  Friends, he is like us:
We take as our Lord the stars that go down.
We are faithful companions to the unfaithful stars.
We are diggers, like badgers; we love to feel
The dirt flying out from behind our hind claws.
And no one can convince us that mud is not
Beautiful.  It is our badger soul that thinks so.
We are ready to spend the rest of our life
Walking with muddy shoes in the wet fields.
We resemble exiles in the kingdom of the serpent.
We stand in the onion fields looking up at the night.
My heart is a calm potato by day, and a weeping,
Abandoned woman by night.  Friend, tell me what to do,
Since I am a man in love with the setting stars.


Robert Bly, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (Harper Perennial, 2002)