Of fire and ghazals, Agha Shahid Ali, poet of the week

The life of exile has few pluses. But one is that it opens the door to a truly internationalist consciousness, and culture. Agha Shahid Ali was born February 4, 1949 in New Delhi, India, and grew up in Kashmir. In India he attended the University of Kashmir and the University of Delhi. In 1975 he emigrated to the United States, earning a PhD in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1984 and an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in 1985. . He spoke Kashmiri, Urdu, and English, and was a translator and editor as well as a poet. 

He has said, “I’m not an exile technically, because I haven’t been kicked out of any place, but temperamentally I would say I’m an exile, because it has an emotional resonance, the term exile does. The ability to inhabit several circumstances and several historical and national backgrounds simultaneously makes up the exilic temperament a lot.”

The ghazal is a poetic form that can be traced to seventh century Arabia. In its Persian (Farsi) form, it is composed of autonomous or semi-autonomous couplets that are united by a strict scheme of rhyme, refrain, and line length. The opening couplet sets up the scheme by having it in both lines, and then the scheme occurs only in the second line of every succeeding couplet.

The first line (same length) of every succeeding couplet sets up a suspense, and the second line (same length but with the rhyme and refrain-the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain) delivers on that suspense by amplifying, dramatizing, imploding, exploding.

Get your favorite refreshment. Relax your mind. Take your time reading out loud this ghazal, whose refrain is “Of Fire”. Feel the explosions.


In a mansion once of love I lit a chandelier of fire…

I stood on a stair of water; I stood on a stair of fire.


When, to a new ghost, I recited, “Is That What You Are,”

at the windows in the knives he combed his hair of fire.


You have remained with me even in the missing of you.

Could a financier then ask me for a new share of fire?


I keep losing this letter to the gods of abandon.

Won’t you tell me how you found it — in what hemisphere of fire?


Someone stirs, after decades, in a glass mountain’s ruins.

Is Death a cry from an age that was a frozen year of fire?


I have brought my life here where it must have been once,

my wings, still hope and grief, but singed by a courtier of fire.


When the Husband of Water touched his Concubine of Snow,

he hardened to melt in their private affair of fire.


Don’t lose me in the crowds of this world’s cities,

or the Enemy may steal from me what gods revere of fire.


The way we move into a dream we won’t ever remember,

statues will now move into wars for a career of fire.


What lights up the buildings? My being turned away! O, the injustice

as I step through a hoop of tears, all I can bare of fire.


Soldier: “The enemy can see you and that’s how you die.”

On the world’s roof, breathless, he defends a glacier of fire.


I have come down to my boat to wish myself Bon Voyage.

If that’s the true sound of brevity, what will reappear of fire?


A designer of horizons, I’ve come knocking at your door.

By my sunsets, please, for the Pacific’s interior of fire.


I could not improve my skill to get ahead of storms though 

I too enrolled in Doomsday to be a courier of fire.


“On the last day of one September” “one William was born”

Native of Water, Shahid’s brought the Kashmir of fire.


“Shahid”, the poet’s name, means “beloved” in Farsi, and “witness” in Arabic. It often appears in the last line of a ghazal.



John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.