Writing between Epistemologies: The Cosmopolitan World of Steffen Horstmann’s Jalsaghar

- Basudhara Roy


Jalsaghar
Ghazal
By Steffen Horstmann
Partridge India, 2016
ISBN (Hardcover) 978-1-4828-8623-8
Pp 126 | Price  ₹ 1,350.00

“A hush. Silence is now the world’s prayer.
From God’s hand stars fall like grains tonight.”
(Steffen Horstmann, Ghazal of Restoration)

Steffen Horstmann
The ghazal has for long, in its universal aesthetic appeal and wide thematic range, made its mark as one of the most flexible and adaptable poetic forms, suited highly to literary innovation. Originating in 7th century Arabia and drawing inspiration from the deeply emotive section called ‘nasib’ that opened the pre-Islamic qasidah whose purpose was to stimulate poetic inspiration and to strike the right empathetic note with the audience, the ghazal gradually dissociated itself from the qasidah and made its emergence as a distinct literary form in its own right. Following the qasidah, however, the ghazal was expected to conform strictly to a definite verse structure wherein each line of equal metrical length would be constituted of two metrical hemistitches ending on the same rhyme called the qafiya. Making its way via trade and imperial encounters from Arabia to Africa, Spain and Persia, the ghazal found itself being mapped on new cultural contexts and expressed in entirely new linguistic registers such as that of Hebrew, Spanish, Persian and that of several West-African languages, absorbing and accommodating variations till the Persian writers of the late eleventh century imparted to it by their own poetic practice, technical features that have permanently become a signature of the form. Doing away with enjambment between the hemistitches and constituting them in the form of a couplet, the Persians introduced also the practice of using the rhyme or qafiya in both of the hemistitches, especially and often in the case of the first couplet. They also made the ‘radif’ or refrain (constituting of either a word or a phrase) and appearing after the qafia in every rhyming line of the piece, a compulsory feature of the ghazal. Allowing greater independence and autonomy to couplets and the inclusion, in the final couplet, of the ‘takhallus’ to stand for an authorial signature were other important characteristics of the Persian mode of ghazal-writing.

Basundhara Roy
The Persian ghazal was popularized in India through the advent of the Mughal rulers and though Amir Khusrau is widely regarded as the first Indian poet in this genre, the early Indian ghazal was nourished under Mughal patronage in royal courts in South rather than in North India and was eagerly taken up by practitioners of the Urdu language, notably Ghalib, whose excellence and lofty accomplishments in it led to such fame and lasting enthusiastic popularity of the form that today ghazals continue to be written in virtually every regional language of India, though Urdu has perennially remained its unsurpassed forte. In Europe, the form made its entry in the early nineteenth century through the translations of Persian ghazals undertaken notably by Goethe and other German poets like Friedrich Ruckert and August Graf von Platen and was embraced with warm inspiration and affection. The form, in America, received impetus particularly through the efforts of the critic Aijaz Ahmad who attempted on the occasion of Ghalib’s death centenary in the year 1969, to produce a translation of a selection of his poems. Very interestingly, Ahmad prepared prose translations of thirty-seven of Ghalib’s ghazals, reducing them to five couplets each and offered them without any footnotes or explanations to seven of the best and most well-known American poets of the time - W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, David Ray, Thomas Fitzsimmons, Mark Strand, and William Hunt, inviting them to translate or transcreate whichever pieces inspired them best. The resulting work Ghazals of Ghalib (1971) emerges as a rich creative collaboration between two entirely different poetic traditions and though the resultant ghazals do not actually translate Ghalib’s thoughts, they explore their diverse and enticing creative pathways under the influence of his overpowering inspiration. It is following this intensely impressionable creative engagement with Ghalib that Adrienne Rich composed in the late 1960’s her free-verse attempts in the form - Ghazals (Homage to Ghalib) and Blue Ghazals that constitute the first ever ghazal sequences to have been written by an American poet.

However, it is with the publication of Agha Shahid Ali’s Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English in the year 2000 that the practice of writing ghazals took a formal turn in America. Ali, in the Introduction to this edited volume argued that with the ghazal as a poetic form having being largely misunderstood by Americans so far, the time was ripe on grounds of form for form’s sake, to “impose stringent, formally tight disunities on the form” rather than to allow it to flourish via rules that poets had been arbitrarily calling to their practice. (3) Harping on the need for corresponding to the correctness of form, Ali offers a working simplification of the regulations of the ghazal:

the opening couplet (called matla) sets up a scheme (of rhyme called qafia, and refrain called radif) by having it occur in both lines – the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain – and then this scheme occurs only in the second line of each succeeding couplet. That is, once a poet establishes the scheme – with total freedom… he or she becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master. (3)
Agha Shahid Ali’s own ghazals testify to his mastery over the form and he offers in Ravishing Disunities specimens of the ‘real ghazal’ in English by over sixty poets which have gone a long way in promoting ghazal writing in America and in establishing the rules and standards of the ghazal form in English.

In the poetic practice of American poet, Steffen Horstmann, one discerns a similar Shahidean obsession with formal correctness and in his meticulous approach to the techniques of ghazal writing, Horstmann does absolute credit to the biographical fact of having been a student of Agha Shahid Ali in his sophomore year at the University of Arizona. Having always been drawn towards classical poetic forms, Horstmann’s introduction to and subsequent interest in the form of the ghazal, came about almost entirely as a result of his association with Agha Shahid Ali. In his conversation with Sunil Sharma, the poet says:

The technical requirements of the form can seem intimidating, even for an experienced poet. But in working with the ghazal there is the lure of a kind of freedom that no other poetry form provides. Since each couplet is considered autonomous, an independent poem, one is able to engage different issues and themes from one couplet to the next. So I was particularly attracted to that element of the form, the ability to move from one topic to the next very quickly, which creates a certain intensity that I believe is unique in English.
A gifted poet, Horstmann has written more than two hundred ghazals so far which have culled serious critical acclaim with their appearance in prestigious literary magazines all over the world such as the Baltimore Review, Free State Review, Istanbul Literary Review, Louisiana Literature, Oyez Review, Texas Poetry Journal, and Tiferet. Jalsaghar (2016) is his first book of ghazals closely followed by his second book Ujjain (2017). “The presence of Jalsaghar in the world seems like a kind of miracle to me,” states Horstmann in his interview with Sunil Sharma, explaining:

It was in 2001 that I decided in earnest to write a book of ghazals and there have been many stops and starts along the way. Working extensively with the ghazal form can be a humbling experience; initially I had to fight off a constant sense of self doubt. I reached a point where I decided that I simply wanted to enjoy the process of writing these poems and not worry about fulfilling any kind of ambitions that I had in the beginning. And it was at that point I began making real progress, when I began writing poems that I felt good about, poems that I thought were good. 
The title of the book, ‘Jalsaghar’ with its performative connotations, places the volume very aptly within a dialogic framework, for the ghazal, however its enunciation or practice may vary across cultures and languages, remains in its essence a fluid performative dialogue between the poet and the audience/ readers.  Throwing light on his title, Horstmann states, “Jalsaghar means ‘The Music Room’ in Bengali. In my book of ghazals Begum Akhtar becomes a supernatural being whose singing transforms the world into a luminous realm. Jalsaghar is the world that has become Begum Akhtar's music room.” The volume, divided into four sections, contains a total of seventy-eight ghazals which draw their theme, content and inspiration from a wide, globalized range of historical and contemporary sources and span an astounding breadth of spatio-temporal landscapes. Here, jostling and rubbing shoulders with each other in inspired and harmonious camaraderie are metaphors, images and symbols drawn from both the Oriental and Occidental philosophical and literary traditions and fused by a creative and empathetic imagination to offer an utopic vision of life and humanity beyond borders and beyond needless grounds of difference. Illuminating upon his own poetic practice in his essay ‘My World and Words’, Horstmann writes:

when I am asked what my poems are about, I describe my writing as a poetry of discontinuities, of lyrical couplets that speculate on the spiritual world, or the world of spirits, or that may convey imagery which can be like stills from a movie: ice-glazed mountains that are seen through heat waves rippling over a hot road, the image of Shiva meditating in clouds that flow above a mountain of light, the metallic ticking of Dali's melting clocks, Layla embracing Majnoon in an oasis garden; or that meditate on the slaughter of a herd of elephants in 6th century Kashmir, or the sound of echoing thunder that is like the rushing chariot cavalries from an ancient war (which also refers to the wars of our time). So while my ghazals explore the complexities of earlier eras as well as those of the twenty-first century, a longing for a time of peace is at the heart of their inspiration, a hope that the generations of the future will remember us with gratitude.
Horstmann’s ghazals, in attempting to offer the charms and emotive consonances of the Persian and Urdu tradition of the form in English, aspire to wed images from a staggering range of cultural and linguistic registers. Acutely perceptive of the ghazal’s fertility, Horstmann adroitly exploits the form’s associative freedom to conjure that familiar atmosphere of absence and deep longing that has always watermarked the oriental tradition of the ghazal. Conscious that the ghazal form in English is yet to evolve the shared context of cultural intimacy between poet and reader, Horstmann tries to weave in his ghazals multiple disjunctive images that, with terse poetic skill find their place in a marvellous emotional whole. In this sense, Horstmann’s ghazals may best be described as emotive composites that attempt, through the traversing of widely fragmented cultural terrains, to arrive at an intended emotional unity. Thus, in ‘The Manikarnika Ghat’, the existential yet commonplace merging of life and death and the complex weavings of tradition, religion, beauty and futility, along with their inherent connotatations of universality and timelessness, are strikingly brought out through eight well-toned couplets that offer intersecting visions of the ghat as both a spatio-temporal location and as timeless symbol. Horstmann, in his literary and physical familiarity with Indian culture and landscape is both the insider and outsider playing upon images that thematically transcend each other in rapid succession weaving a rich, latticed aura of longing that is as seductive as it is compounded. Here, by using the rhyme in the first line of his couplets and employing the entire second line of each couplet as the refrain, Horstmann attempts, as in many other poems in this collection, an interesting variation on the traditional ghazal form.

In the breathtakingly beautiful piece ‘Ghazal of the Elephants’, written in unparalleled formal perfection, time and history are made to telescope through extremely evocative imagery to summon to the present the poignant pain of a dark, forgotten past. The ghazal bases itself on an episode described in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini wherein in the sixth century A.D the cruel and barbarous Hun invader of Kashmir, Mihirkula ordered a hundred mighty elephants to be forcibly thrown off a cliff because the painful sound of the trumpeting of a tusker who had accidentally fallen off a cliff had filled him with delight and excitement. In Horstmann’s poem, there is an intense desire to undo the pain of history and to offer it cathartic hope through the innocent image of “a child, on paper, scrawling elephants” but realist as he is, the poet knows that the past shall eternally haunt the present with the mourning “winds crossing distances, calling elephants”.

In this as in many of his ghazals in this volume, Horstmann evinces a keen ecological consciousness. In ‘Paper’, for instance, a ghazal in which he retains the refrain while doing away with the rhyme altogether, the couplets play on the various connotations of paper – prosaic, poetic and ecological to evoke a sense of futility towards the enterprise of not just writing but also of communication. The opening couplet marks a lament for a banished semantic – “words are exiled from a country of paper,/are burned in books, in the debris of paper” and each succeeding couplet proceeds to intensify this lament by evoking as in the second couplet the inefficacy of paper from which “notes of music” must be liberated to blossom into sound, or the tragedy of paper which must cause forests to fall and mountains to be full of stumps in order to be begotten - “Saws are buzzing like steel insects,/ Turning – in seconds – a tree to paper” - till the final couplet brings the poem back full circle  - “This poem was crumpled and discarded, lifted/by the wind to swirl in a sea of paper.”

In several of his ghazals, Horstmann while using both rhyme and refrain, attempts a variation by not using them in the first hemistitch of the first couplet as is characteristic in a conventional ghazal. In ‘The Diva of Jalsaghar’, Horstmann following this practice, ambitiously weaves a ghazal of more than seventy couplets, stretching the technical aspects of the form to its limits and justifying Agha Shahid Ali’s observation that technically a ghazal has no end, no closure and can, therefore, go on forever. Here, he dispenses with rhyme or qafia as such and while in some couplets he clearly uses ‘Begum Akhtar’ as refrain, in most others, the second hemistitch of the couplets ends in an innovative rhyme of this chosen refrain, the rhyme mostly corresponding to geographical names with the result that a host of places whose nomenclature ends in ‘ar’ are evoked – Zemar, Zaccar, Khobar, Kashgar, Srinagar, Kathiawar, Ahaggar, Dhankar, Qarqar, etc. and the landscape of the ghazal, in incorporating all these echoes from different geographies, cultures, philosophical systems, and historical periods, becomes a cosmopolitan space with Begum Akhtar at its illumined centre, symbolic of the Muse’s universality and unchallenged potency.

In her article ‘Ghazal Cosmopolitan’, Shadab Zeest Hashmi makes a valid case for the ghazal as a cosmopolitan literary form citing its ancient origins, its extensive travels across historical periods, countries and cultures, and its plasticity in accommodating different variations and influences. She writes:
An aspect of cosmopolitanism is the availability of a rich lexicon as well as a network of idioms and metaphors yielded by a literary heritage that is built on cultural exchange, among other things. Historically speaking, such a standard is met by languages that have had imperial privilege. Arabic, Persian, English, and to a large extent Urdu are among such languages.
Horstmann may be seen to have seized in his practice of ghazal writing the cosmopolitan potential of this form in English. His ghazals traverse an astonishing range of epistemologies drawing their inspiration from multiple literary traditions as he attempts thematic variations on poems by other poets, creating in his ghazals a dialogic space for existential exploration. In ‘Ghazal of the Beloved’ for instance, the poem taking off from an extract by Wallace Stevens, becomes an intense and searching exploration of the figure of the beloved that evokes echoes both Eastern and Western, physical and spiritual, earthly and cosmic. In poems like ‘Ghazal of Restoration’, ‘The World Your Word Kept Between Us’, ‘Broken Ghazal’ and ‘Whom We Call Ishmael’ – ghazals that focus on the theme of human relationships with its entire kaliedoscope of things said and unsaid, Horstmann rises to a distinct and undeniable Shahidean perfection, setting up, in the words of Agha Shahid Ali “an immensely seductive tension” between couplets  and compounding meaning through understatement and epigrammatic terseness while at the same time firing the imagination through the astonishing wealth of his fluid images. Couplets like

“I stand like an exclamation mark in a cemetery of snow,
Envisioning the shrine of words I’ll place within it. (Broken Ghazal)
or
“You were comforted by the evening star, shining
Like a brilliant coin in the sacred well tonight.” (Whom We Call Ishmael)

testify to the brilliance that Horstmann, on inspiration, is capable of rising to. These last poems of the volume gathered under the section ‘Whom We Call Ishmael’, constitute a worthy tribute to the memory of his teacher Agha Shahid Ali in manifesting, as they do, a remarkable philosophical acuity, an infectious empathy and a luxurious languor of movement that echo the engaging oeuvre of Ali while at the same time retaining their distinct individuality of style and expression.

In these latter ghazals, Horstmann offers fresh hope both for the ghazal in English and for the American tradition of the ghazal and imparts to both a linguistic, metaphoric and philosophical vigour that reasserts the form’s strength and its firm claim to cultural cosmopolitanism. In a globalizing world order marked as much by collapsing boundaries as by new strategies of identity assertion and rampant xenophobia, art emerges as the most powerful means of evoking empathetic engagement with people, countries and cultures. Horstmann’s ghazals, in engaging with diverse literary and philosophical traditions, attempt to perform just this – to act as conduits of human connection, urgently claiming space for a humanity which though frail and flawed, remains undeniably heroic and utterly noble.

Works Cited:
Ali, Agha Shahid (ed.) Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Horstmann, Steffen. ‘My World and Words’.                                   http://www.setumag.com/2017/04/My-world-and-words.html
Horstmann, Steffen. Jalsaghar. New Delhi: Partridge India, 2016.
Jalajel, David. ‘A Short History of the Ghazal’. http://www.ghazalpage.net/prose/notes/short_history_of_the_ghazal.html
Sharma, Sunil. ‘In Conversation with Steffen Horstmann’. https://journals.flinders.edu.au/index.php/wic/article/view/9



Basudhara Roy (b. 1986) is the author of two books, a monograph, Migrations of Hope: A Study of the Short Fiction of Three Indian American Writers (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and a collection of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019). As a creative writer, she has featured in magazines like Muse India, Shabdadguchha, Cerebration, Rupkatha, The Challenge, I-mantra, The Volcano, Gnosis, Daath Voyage, Das Literarisch, Reviews, Triveni, Setu, Hans India and on the Zee Literature Festival Blog. She teaches English at Karim City College, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand and can be reached at basudhara.roy@gmail.com.

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