My World and Words

A Lyricism of Discontinuities - Steffen Horstmann
Shahid and Steffen (Tucson, Arizona, 1984)
Derek Walcott once said that the primary impulse of poetry is to ascend into song. I grew up reading Keats, Wordsworth, Blake and Dickinson, and modeled my early poems on their work. A high school instructor with good intentions told me that this kind of poetry was now antiquated, suggesting I begin writing free verse. But I already knew that I would continue to be inspired by poets of an earlier age, those practitioners of the old forms (sonnets, quatrains, terza rima), which were filled with cadences and possessed a quality of richly detailed perceptions.

I became Agha Shahid Ali's student during my sophomore year at the University of Arizona. Until then my teachers had encouraged me to make my own personal experiences the focus of my poems, which was advice Shahid did not fully endorse. He asked: "Why limit oneself solely to one's own experiences?" He cited the writing of Wallace Stevens as an example of a poet whose body of work includes very few specific references to his own life, but was inspired by what Shahid described as "The life of the mind, the life of the imagination."

Much of what I had learned about poetry until then was derived from a single book, an edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which begins with Chaucer and concludes with poets born in the early part of the 20th century, including John Ashbery, James Merrill, Seamus Heaney and Adrienne Rich. Two of Rich's poems in the anthology happened to be ghazals, which I found intriguing for their disjointed couplets. My introduction to the aspects of the traditional ghazal came when I asked Shahid about the poems by Rich. He explained that the form is demanding in its requirement of a metrical consistency and use of proper rhymes, and that each couplet of a ghazal is considered autonomous (a feature Rich's poems adhered to). Shahid explained that it is not unusual for a single ghazal to include one couplet that is tragic, one political, one romantic, one religious, and so forth; and I was fascinated to learn, that in terms of the actual content of a ghazal, there was no overall unity—it is a poem held together by its formal unity, which is based on a system of rhyme, refrain and meter.

As I began to discover English translations of the work of Ghalib, Hafez, Mir, Faiz, and many other Persian and Middle Eastern poets, I experienced a sense of being spellbound by the alluring tension of those poems, their intensity of emotion and sensuously vivid descriptions of the natural world. But it wasn't until years later, when I read Shahid's English ghazals, that I became exposed to the power of the form's lyricism and magical word-play. Shahid's contemporary ghazals are particularly unique for their blending of Hindu, Muslim and Western influences, which represented something quite new in English poetry.

My teacher referred to the ghazal as a form of "ravishing disunities." So 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.
Steffen Horstmann has written more than two hundred ghazals in English, and his poems and book reviews have appeared in publications throughout the world, including Baltimore Review, Free State Review, Istanbul Literary Review, Louisiana Literature, Texas Poetry Journal and Tiferet. Horstmann has published two books of ghazals, Jalsaghar (2016) and Ujjain (2017).