Poets are always looking for constraints, limitations that push them toward new words and new ideas they might never have expected. For the last few decades Western poets have been exploring the constraint of an ancient Persian form, the ghazal (pronounced like guzzle). And, as might be expected from this kind of cultural appropriation, we have been getting it wrong. Our poets were intrigued by the demand that ghazals, written in two-line stanzas, have no narrative or rational connection between the stanzas. The reader has to do the work of putting things together. There were some wonderful poems written that way (particularly by Jim Harrison and Adrienne Rich), but they almost certainly weren’t ghazals. The late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali criticized this trend and asked that Americans also accept the formal considerations of the ghazal, a very strict pattern of rhyme and refrain.
Michigan poet Eric Torgersen is one of the few to take up Ali’s challenge. Torgersen’s new collection, In Which We See Our Selves, is a series of thirty-two ghazals, beginning and ending with explicit homages to Ali, that assume the constraints of the form while retaining the voice and wit of Torgersen’s other work–a quietly self-deprecating humor, a willingness to engage the big themes of love and aging, and comments on the culture and politics that swirl around him. Now retired, Torgersen taught writing at Central Michigan University, and his long and close reading of Rilke–he wrote the definitive work about the relationship of the German poet with the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker–has made him one of our most perceptive and informed commentators on that poet.
All those varied interests fit quite nicely into Torgersen’s ghazals. In an endnote the poet tells us, “I’ve tried to avoid faux-Eastern themes and tones,” and we can be thankful for that. But one of my favorites here is a poem called “Holy,” which brings back the concerns of the ancient poems with particularly American details:
Whitman felt his ribs and found the fat holy.
Poor mad Smart found Geoffrey the cat holy.
Growing up on Yankee turf I found
a Mickey Mantle Louisville Slugger bat holy.
A grown man now, I do confess to finding
one pose you strike on your new blue yoga mat holy.
The poem has eleven of these couplets, each of which could stand alone but all of which get more force by the rhyme and repetition. My favorite is toward the end:
Should we agree to stop calling every last thing
that makes our little hearts go pitter-pat holy?
Eric Torgersen reads from In Which We See Our Selves with longtime Ann Arbor poet Ed Morin at Bookbound on June 8.