Using repetition to splice two genres – the oriental ghazal and the blues – this humorous offering demonstrates the poet's joy in language and form
There's always a wealth of interesting new writing in Gene Doty's online quarterly, The Ghazal Page, reflecting the editor's welcoming and creative approach to the classical form (a ghazal is a kind of oriental lyric). This week's poem, Chain Ghazal: Chickens by Esther Greenleaf Mürer, comes from the latest issue and nicely blends innovative and traditional approaches. It's guaranteed to put a spring in your step, even if the March weather doesn't.
Originally, in the Persian ghazal, the couplet, or sher, was a single line divided by a caesura, and each sher formed a small, separate poem. Agha Shahid Ali, the ghazal's first "ambassador" in America, describes the couplet as "a stone from a necklace". A mono-rhyme (the qafia), declared in the first couplet, and picked up by the second line of each succeeding one, brings unity to the diversity of the whole poem. The refrain, or radif, has a similar function, and follows the qafia in the same pattern. The last couplet traditionally includes the poet's name.
Readers in the UK will know Mimi Khalvati's many fine and tender love poems in the form. The challenge for the anglophone poet lies both in rhyming skill and tonal balance. The repetition of qafia and radif suggests polysyllabic rhyme, and the latter, in English, tends towards comic verse. Mürer's poem is open to the comic spirit, but also uses the rhyme scheme's potential for generating serious ideas – and narrative.
The choice of linked quatrains thickens the plot. Mürer triples the mono-rhyme in each stanza, and each first line of a new stanza recovers, with minor variations, the refrain from the last line of the previous one: hence, the "chain" effect. That repetition, although it crosses the stanza break, gives a rather "bluesy" feel to this ghazal. In fact, the fourth stanza talks about the "blues", including the word in its trio of rhymes, and about how walking cures them. It's almost as if the poem spliced two genres: the ghazal and the blues. Even without that direct reference, you'd hear the slightly mournful undertone to the jauntiness.
Another kind of splicing occurs in the first line, which recalls both the proverb, "Never count your chickens before they're hatched," and the children's riddle: "Why did the chicken cross the road?" The combination is a little surreal, although the statement is perfectly logical and sensible. The quatrain goes on to establish its dialectic, a moral/artistic tension between caution and impulsiveness which underlies the whole ghazal: "I always run like the dickens when crossing the road."
The "chickens/ dickens" rhyme is fun, and the line sounds effortless, as a colloquial expression should. "What the dickens" goes back at least to Shakespeare ("I cannot tell what the dickens his name is," The Merry Wives of Windsor," Act 3, Sc 2). The word is a euphemism for "devil" and has no connection with great Victorian novelists.
The last line of the first stanza says "… the plot thickens once I have crossed the road." And it does. In the second stanza, crossing the road leads to "fixing to write an ode", the link between the two cunningly established by the toad, which reminds us not only that toads might get squashed on roads, but that, as Marianne Moore, said, poetry concerns "real toads in imaginary gardens".
There's a deliberate clash of high and low registers in "First I gird up my loins and then put on my shoes." The Biblical phrase refers to the belting of one's tunic in preparation for hard work or travel. The speaker's statement brings the two actions together. Crossing the road and writing an ode can both be journeys, after all, and take a certain amount of courage. As for "Des Moines", I didn't even know how to pronounce it until I met the inspired rhyme in this stanza. Then I caught someone on the radio quoting Bill Bryson: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." Everyone needs a Des Moines of the imagination.
That quatrain is full of humorously practical preparation: the coins, the girded loins, the shoes. And the gusto with which the last stanza turns the idea on its head, and rejects, after all, the precautionary measure of counting chickens, is highly satisfying: "A gallinaceous fixation beclouds the mind." Absolutely. The parable applies to life and art: you certainly won't "sight an auk" if you're obsessed with practical calculations.
For such a short poem, a considerable distance is covered – from a road to an ode, from a walk to an auk. The differently rhymed qafias of each stanza make a trio of genially odd companions. In an interview with the online magazine The Centrifugual Eye, the poet comments that using the absurd and surreal allows her to explore political themes, and "to say multiple things at once, like counterpoint in music". There is certainly an element of the contrapuntal in this ghazal.
In part, it's about getting into the right frame of mind for poetry. You might want to compare it with an actual ars poetica, Arrgh Poetica by the same author. Widely published online, Esther Greenleaf Mürer's poetry demonstrates a joy in language and form which began with her early reading of Lewis Carroll and Dorothy Parker. You can learn more about the poet and discover more of her work on her blog– where you'll also find information about her first print collection, Unglobed Fruit (2011).
Chain Ghazal: Chickens
I never count my chickens when crossing the road.
I always run like the dickens when crossing the road.
When I let go of expectations I'm always amazed
at how the plot thickens once I have crossed the road.
When preparing to cross the road I gird up my loins.
Before I pick up a toad I gird up my loins.
And thus I train myself in poetic practice:
When fixing to write an ode I gird up my loins.
First I gird up my loins and then I put on my shoes.
Fill my pockets with coins before I put on my shoes.
It will never do to arrive back home with bare feet;
can't go to Des Moines until I've put on my shoes.
I put on my shoes and decide it's time for a walk.
Wake up from a snooze and decide it's time for a walk.
The best therapy I know is peripatetic:
When I get the blues I know it's time for a walk.
It's time to go for a walk and stop counting my chickens.
Wanderlust makes me balk at counting my chickens.
A gallinacious fixation beclouds the mind:
I may sight an auk if I just stop counting my chickens.