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  • Celia Jenkins

NaPoWriMo 2020, Day 3, Poetry Challenge

It seems that my #NaPoWriMo2020 is doomed to be a day behind throughout the month, as again I'm posting what I wrote the day before. But actually, I think that having sleep between first draft and first edit is a minimum necessity. The edits I've made since yesterday are small, but have certainly improved the piece.

Yesterday I tried to write a ghazal (pronounced 'guzzle', which doesn't seem right at all, but there you are.) It was immensely tricky. I researched and read ghazal for over an hour, thought about which topic to pursue for several more, and only managed one poem in the early evening.

The ghazal is an Arabic form, still popular today though often not heard of in the Western world. A ghazal is made up of couplets, a minimum of five and up to fifteen, usually with about six or seven couplets. Each line has 12 syllables, and the rhyme can be a word or phrase which appears on the second line of each couplet, with the first line of each couplet being a unique rhyme to every other first line: AA, BA, CA, DA, EA... etc.

The theme is often religious of romantic, love unconditional and relating to separation, usually unrequited love, sometimes erotic. With those themes in mind, it took a while for me to settle on a topic. I toyed with the idea of a Princess in a tower and a lowly servant, a sort of unrequited rags to riches romance theme, but no inspiration came. Unsurprisingly, I found inspiration at last in Japan as the theme of unattainable love made me think of geisha. So here's my ghazal, and I'll put translation notes and an explanation below.

Red Collar

While other men seek out the sound of the taiko

I’m bewitched by the drumming of a young maiko.

Her slender silk wrists, like white swans’ necks, pour the tea,

you’ve never seen such poise in such a young maiko.

Oshiroi powdered skin like the other girls,

but no other lips as red as my young maiko.

My geta, clapping down the cobbled flower streets,

held breath, shoji door, silhouetted young maiko.

The sweet, burning sake never tasted so sweet

as when served with a smile by my coy young maiko.

Her bright patterned kimono, rustling, red collared,

reveal the bird-like shoulder blades, oh young maiko.

My pocket, never deep enough for a patron,

I’m just a heart-wrung client to my young maiko.


Translation Notes

Taiko - A sort of drumming in Japan. It's amazing, particularly to watch live, which we did a few times at the Kumamoto Castle. There are several clips from Kumamoto on Youtube but here's a pretty good performance I have flagged on my channel.

Maiko - A young, trainee geisha/geiko. In the past, geisha started their training at the age of about 7, but now all Japanese schoolgirls must finish high school first, and some even wait until they've been to university or train later in life. Older trainee geisha will debut straight as a geisha - maiko is a title reserved for young trainees. You can tell them apart from geisha by slightly different styles of clothing, hair and make-up - noticeably, the red collar on their kimono.

Oshiroi - The thick white face paint worn by geisha (and kabuki actors) in Japan.

Geta - Japanese clogs.

Flower Streets - 'Hana Machi' is the name for the places where you find geisha houses grouped together in districts, such as Gion in Kyoto, which is where I had in mind when composing this.

Shoji - Thin sliding door/partition.

Sake - Japanese rice wine.

Kimono - A type of robe, made with intricate patterns and good quality material. Kimono are often heavy and difficult to put on by yourself.


So thinking about unrequited love, my poem is about a man who has fallen in love with a maiko but isn't rich enough to become her patron - someone who would 'set up' a geisha in her own home so she could basically retire from geisha life. Contrary to a continuing misconception, geisha aren't prostitutes and don't sell services of that kind - the name 'geisha' translates as 'artist' and describes the work that these women would do: playing musical instruments, dancing, singing, playing games, making pleasant conversation, entertaining, etc. In the poem we see the underlying tones of his yearning - the breath held in anticipation on seeing her silhouette through the shoji door, the thrill on glimpsing her neck and the back of her shoulder blades. I've mentioned birds a few times here (swans' necks, bird-like) to give the sense of fragility, and also of something caged, longing for freedom.

I like the poem but see that it needs some work. I don't like the repetition of 'such' in the 2nd line of the second stanza, but couldn't think of an alternative that would fit the syllables and give the right meaning. The first line of that couplet is flawed as well, as it indicates that it's her wrists pouring the tea, when of course it must be her hands with the teapot, even if the bewitched client is occupied with her elegant wrists.

So yes, tricky. But I like the ghazal. I struggled to find decent examples in English - many were written outside of the 12 syllable line structure, or without the concrete rhyme scheme. One that I did like was Even the Rain by Agha Shahid Ali, and it was this one that introduced me to the idea of a repeated phrase rather than just one word. There's a list on Wikipedia of other ghazal poets; I liked those by Robert Bly and Robert Pinsky (who I've met!) but they didn't seem to quite fit the form as I was attempting to do it. Quite tricky, but a good challenge. Perhaps I'll revisit the ghazal later in the month.

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