Ghazal Poetry: How to Write a Ghazal Poem

The ghazal poem is an intricate, richly symbolic poetry form that finds its origins in 7th century Arabia.
Ghazal poetry typically ruminates on matters of love (both divine and earthly), and while the ghazal form has some strict requirements, it is also incredibly rewarding to write.

What are ghazals, and how do you write one? This article will guide you on how to write a ghazal poem.

The ghazal tradition is over a millennium old. By writing your own ghazal poetry, you string yourself like a pearl on the long necklace of ghazal poets that glimmers throughout history.

Let’s learn how to write a ghazal poem. First, what are ghazals?

What are Ghazals?

Ghazal poems (pronounced like “guzzle”) are love poems born out of Arabic and Persian poetry traditions. In fact, the word “ghazal” means “to talk to one’s beloved” or “to sweet talk” in Arabic.

However, it’s reductive to just call them poems about love. The ghazal form has a rich history, often using various themes, settings, and images that explore the speaker’s own relationship to the object of their desire. Moreover, the love described in a ghazal poem can be divine love, earthly love, or both.

Ghazal poetry can be further described based on the language the poem is written in. Because the form is so old, there are large bodies of ghazal poetry written in various languages including Farsi, Urdu, Arabic, and (more recently) English. Each language utilizes the same form, but each language has its own particular set of recurring symbols and imagery.

Let’s take a step back, then, and look at the history of ghazal poetry. Then, we’ll look at what poets must do to write in the ghazal form.

A (Brief) History of Ghazal Poetry

The first poems called ghazals were written in the 600s, Arabia (more specifically, near modern day Saudi Arabia and Iraq). The contemporary ghazal form as we know it didn’t emerge until the 13th century, after the poem was introduced to Persia (modern day Iran) in the 900s.

Ghazal poems quickly became favorites of the Persian poetry world, overshadowing other types of poetry in stature (namely, the qaṣīda). This is also how the form ended up in South Asia. In the 12th century, there was a significant migration of Persian influence, including Islamic laws, traditions, and the Sufi mystics, into the Indian Subcontinent.

Like the Persians, Indian culture also came to appreciate the beauty and mystique of the ghazal form. Over the centuries, Indian ghazals have developed their own recurring symbols, images, and aesthetics, but the form remains the same.

English language poets didn’t come to appreciate the ghazal poem until recently. The Indian-American poet Agha Shahid Ali was a big influence in promoting the ghazal form, as were the poets W. S. Merwin, Elise Paschen, and others. In tandem, the Sufi devotional songs called qawwalis became globally prominent around the end of the 20th century; many qawwalis are ghazals in song.

The form remains true for poems written in Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, or English. But, what actually is the ghazal form? Let’s dive deeper into this tricky poetry structure.

Ghazal Form: How to Write a Ghazal Poem

The ghazal form has many rules. In order for a poem to be called a ghazal, it must adhere to the following:

  • The poem is typically about love. Traditionally, ghazal poems are about love of another person, love of the Divine, or both. Some contemporary poems have played around with what counts as a love poem, and you’ll see in our ghazal examples that not all of these poems are love poems, but love is often present in the work.
  • The poem must be written in couplets, or stanzas of 2 lines each.
  • The poem has no less than 5, and no more than 15, couplets.
  • These couplets must be end-stopped. Each couplet typically ends in a period. Each couplet should be able to stand on its own, while also being interlinked with the other couplets. Often, these couplets are described as being “pearls, strung together.” Some ghazal poets argue that each couplet is its own poem; the ghazal is just what happens when the couplets sit side-by-side.
  • Each line must have the same number of syllables. You can challenge yourself by writing in meter, but contemporary ghazals don’t require this—only the same syllable count in each line.
  • Every ghazal has a radeef. A radeef is a refrain repeated at the end of certain lines. This refrain often titles the poem as well. The refrain appears at the end of lines 1 and 2, and then at the end of lines 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, etc. In other words, every even-numbered line, plus the first line.
  • Every ghazal has a kafiya. The kafiya is a rhyming phrase that precedes every radeef. The poem cannot repeat any kafiyas, so every radeef has its own unique kafiya.
  • The final couplet can have a self-reference. In other words, the poet can (and usually does) refer to themselves in the final couplet. Some contemporary ghazal examples eschew this rule, but most poems have the self-reference.

These rules are a lot to visualize, so here’s an example of the form in action, with the poem annotated based on the above rules.

Retrieved here.


Pay attention to how Patricia Smith innovates around the radeef and kafiya. Her play with punctuation and language allows her to keep the poetry form, while also inserting a rhythmic quality not unlike the qualities of hip hop music itself.

Let’s see the ghazal form in action with some other contemporary poems.

Examples of Ghazal Poems

The following ghazal examples were written by contemporary poets. Although the ghazal finds its origins in Arabic and Farsi, and plenty have been written in Urdu, too, we are including ghazals written in the English language, as we don’t want to get into the tricky topics of translation.

Ghazal poems are not the easiest to translate while preserving the poem’s form—typically, when I read a poem in translation, I try to triangulate the translation between 3 or more different translators, as I’m trying to also understand the spirit of the poem, which one translation alone cannot convey. This would be too much to explore for one article.

Moreover, we want to showcase great ghazal poetry to English language poets who are also interested in writing English language ghazals. If you are interested in reading ghazals in translation, I highly recommend the poets Amir Khusraw, Hafiz, Rumi, Yunus Emre, and Mirza Ghalib. Agha Shahid Ali translated many poems in his lifetime, so I also recommend seeking out his translations of any ghazal poetry.

Now, let’s look at some excellent examples of ghazal poems.

Ghazal Examples: “Tonight” by Agha Shahid Ali

Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar

—Laurence Hope

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”—to gem—“Me to adorn—How tell”—tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar—
All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day—
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.

The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.

My rivals for your love—you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

This stunning, complex poem has some great examples of what the couplets in a ghazal can accomplish. Pay attention to the diversity of couplets, how each one stands on its own but incorporates a variety of strategies and literary devices. For example, the second couplet cites an Emily Dickinson poem; the last couplet references Moby Dick and the novel’s theme of an impossible chase—love as a white whale. And that third couplet! The wish to be in a prison cell, as it’s better than to be in the throes of heartbreak—how gutting!

It is worth noting that the poem makes a small sin—the repetitions of the kafiyas “infidel” and “spell.” The ghazal form might not traditionally allow for those repeated kafiyas, but each couplet stands on its own in such powerful, unique ways that you hardly even notice.

Ghazal Examples: “Ghazal !يا لطيف (Ya Lateef!)” by Marilyn Hacker

Retrived here, from

A lot more malaise and a little more grief every day,
aware that all seasons, the stormy, the sunlit, are brief every day.

I don’t know the name of the hundredth drowned child, just the names
of the oligarchs trampling the green, eating beef every day,

while luminous creatures flick, stymied, above and around
the plastic detritus that’s piling up over the reef every day.

A tiny white cup of black coffee in afternoon shade,
while an oud or a sax plays brings breath and relief every day.

Another beginning, no useful conclusion in sight‚—
another first draft that I tear out and add to the sheaf every day.

One name, three-in-one, ninety-nine, or a matrix of tales
that are one story only, well-springs of belief every day.

But I wake before dawn to read news that arrived overnight
on a minuscule screen, and exclaim يا لطيف every day.

Contemporary poets are less concerned with the ghazal form’s tradition of being about love. This poem is one such example (though, I would argue that love is still a catalyst of this poem—love for the people who are victims of inequality). “Every day” is a brilliant radeef, as its repetition reminds the reader of the constant state of malaise and grief that has defined contemporary politics.

As a note for clarity, يا لطيف (ya lateef) is a cry to Allah for help, as well as an expression of dismay (kind of like “oh Lord!”)

Ghazal Examples: “Ghazal: Back Home” By Zeina Hashem Beck

Retrieved here.

Tonight a little boy couldn’t walk on water or row back home.
The sea turned its old face away. Again, there was a no, no, back home.

Bahr is how we were taught to measure poetry,
bahr is how we’ve stopped trying to measure sorrow, back home.

“All that blue is the sea, and it gives life, gives life,” says God to the boy
standing wet at heaven’s gate — does he want to return, to go back home?

My friend who hates cooking has made that eggplant dish,
says nothing was better than yogurt and garlic and tomato, back home.

On the train tracks, a man shouts, “Hold me, hold me,” to his wife,
bites her sleeve, as if he were trying to tow back home.

Thirteen-year-old Kinan with the big eyes says, “We don’t want to stay in Europe.”
“Just stop the war,” he repeats, as if praying, Grow, grow back, home.

Habibi, I never thought our children would write HELP US on cardboard.
Let’s try to remember how we met years ago, back home.

On our honeymoon we kissed by the sea, watched it
rock the lights, the fishing boats to and fro, back home.

Some translational notes: “bahr” is Arabic for “sea,” but also refers to poetic meter. “Habibi” means “my love” or “darling.”

Each couplet in this ghazal poem yearns for a home that the poem’s various subjects cannot return to. The poem’s recurring images deepen this yearning, particularly the image of the sea, which is both comfort and barrier, a reminder of what home means and of what stands in the way of “here” and “home.”

The poem’s musicality is also gutting. Beck uses the “o” sound in the kafiya skillfully, at times creating the rocking sound of the sea (no, no; grow, grow), at other times invoking a sense of sadness and nostalgia (ago, sorrow). This masterful poem demonstrates how the ghazal form can reveal the many different facets of a single theme.

Other Ghazal Examples

Here are some other examples of ghazal poems, both classic and contemporary.

Additionally, here’s a free PDF of a great collection of ghazals by Hafiz.

Note that some of the poems in translation follow the ghazal form in their respective languages, but not in English.

How to Write a Ghazal Poem

The above ghazal examples demonstrate mastery over a tricky form. And, even within those poems, you can see how the form proves elusive: repeated kafiyas and lines that aren’t the same number of syllables. (In searching for good ghazal examples to include here, I found plenty where a couplet isn’t end-stopped, or the first line doesn’t have a radeef, etc. etc.). I’ve written ghazals myself, and the one that I’ve published, in hindsight, broke more rules than it should have—the first two couplets weren’t end-stopped. Whoops!

So, since it’s a form that poets struggle with: how do you write one of these tricky things? Here are some tips on how to write a ghazal poem:

1. Have a Strong Sense of Theme

Ghazal poetry usually explores topics of love. But, even within love, there are plenty of themes to explore. Is this love: romantic, erotic, divine, political, familial?

You want to go into writing your poem with this sense of theme, because you want to know that this theme is multifaceted. In the above ghazal examples, each couplet approaches the same topic with a different lens, highlighting the complexity of the topic at hand.

As we’ve also seen, contemporary ghazals aren’t necessarily about love. If you plan to diverge from this tradition, give some thoughts towards what you want to accomplish specifically with the ghazal form.

2. Think of a Fitting Radeef

The radeef is what pulls the poem together, unifying the different couplets around their shared theme. So, it’s good to think about the kind of radeef that can accomplish this unification.

Take another look at the above ghazal examples. Often, the radeef makes direct mention of the poem’s central theme. Agha Shahid Ali’s “Tonight” is a bit of an outlier here, in that the theme of the poem isn’t the night itself, but each couplet explores a different facet of the loneliness of this seemingly large, never-ending night.

Most radeefs are only one or two words, so be economic!

3. Experiment With Your Couplets

The hardest part of writing ghazal poetry is getting the couplets right. Remember that each couplet:

  • Is end-stopped.
  • Has the same number of syllables in each line.
  • Ends with a kafiya and radeef. (The first couplet has two kafiyas and radeefs.)

Since each couplet can stand alone, one way to approach your poem is to start writing individual couplets, and worry about arranging them later. What different thoughts do you have on the poem’s theme(s)? How does the poem’s radeef reflect the theme in different ways?

You will also need to figure out the right kafiyas for each couplet. What words should you rhyme? There’s no good answer to this question, but rhyming dictionaries are always helpful.

This process involves a lot of trial and error, and probably won’t happen just in one day. So play around, experiment, and most of all, have fun through this process, which can often feel like threading a tiny thread through the tiny eye of a tiny needle.

4. Start Arranging Couplets

If you follow the above process, you should generate 5-15 couplets to then arrange into a ghazal poem.

With your couplets written, here are some ideas for arranging them:

  • Think about juxtaposition. What happens when two different facets of the same theme get placed side by side? A poem is composed not just of words and forms, but of the relationships between those words and forms.
  • Look for ways to amplify ideas. How can one idea be developed later in the poem? Marilyn Hacker’s poem begins with the concepts of malaise and grief, before the following couplets amplify and describe the contours of that grief.
  • Build a narrative. The ghazal poem is not a narrative poem, but a story can develop based on how the poem’s themes get juxtaposed.
  • Surprise the reader. Can your poem go in a completely different direction? Can it make the reader see your theme in new and unexpected ways? Perhaps a couplet that does this goes in the middle, breaking up the mood and tension of the piece. Or, perhaps it goes at the end, and creates a sense of revelation, tension, or irony.
  • Make sure you’re not being repetitive. If two couplets have similar words, images, or ideas, perhaps they need to be spaced further apart, or perhaps you should only keep the stronger couplet in the final draft of the poem.

5. Edit for Form and Clarity

Writing a ghazal poem is a process of intense tinkering. Once your couplets are written and arranged, let your draft sit for a few days or even weeks or months before you come back to it.

Then, with a fresh set of eyes, pay attention to your own reaction to the poem. Are you moved, surprised, or confused by it? Is the poem in line with the proper ghazal form? Does this form enhance the poem’s themes and musicality? Do the poem’s repetitions enhance its ideas, or distract from them?

Some poems take months or even years to revise. Give your poem the time and attention it deserves. Patience pays off with complicated forms like this one!

Fine Tune Your Ghazal Poems at!

Need help writing or editing your ghazal poems? can help! Take a look at our upcoming poetry writing classes, where you’ll receive expert feedback from our roster of talented poetry teachers.


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