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The Art of Writing


The Art of Writing by Kate Clanchy

These are lesson plans and suggestions for poetry workshops for students aged 8-19. They are all road tested: they all derive from workshops run over the last ten years in a multicultural school in East Oxford.

Kate has won the V S Pritchett Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award for her short fiction; a Forward Prize, Somerset Maugham Award, and the Saltire Prize for her poetry, and the Writer’s Guild Award for her memoir Antigona and Me. Her novel, Meeting the English, was shortlisted for the Costa Prize. She has 12 plays and adaptations produced for Radio 3 and Radio 4 and was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for her radio poem, We Are Writing a Poem About Home. Kate is a teacher in schools as well as universities, and her most recent works draw on this: the anthology, England, Poems from a School, and the book of essays, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Kate is currently writing a book about the teaching of poetry.

the resources

These are lesson plans and suggestions for poetry workshops for students aged 8-19. They are all road tested: they all derive from workshops I’ve run over the last ten years in a multicultural school in East Oxford. There are accompanying video and poems to photocopy too, but please don’t take any of these elements as compulsory. To write a poem with a class the main ingredients are your enthusiasm, a good poem to read and share together, and some time.

How much time you have will determine how many of these ideas you might like to use. If you have a single joint session, you could try out the Surrealists Game with a translation follow-up activity. If you have two joint sessions, you could follow up with the ghazal exercises. Teachers in both centres could use the other ideas in separate sessions with their own students and share the results.

If you are working with Primary pupils, you will probably find the Feelings/Colours/Food Game most suitable, followed up with the Magic Box Poem and the Table Poem. With Secondary students, the Ghazal exercises always works well.

Your UK students will be working in English, while your International partners will be tackling the same tasks but in their own languages. The poems will then be translated. This means some adaptation: in particular, all the exercises are focussed on images, and I suggest telling the students not to use formal rhyme schemes (except when they can share them, in the Ghazal exercise). There are many reasons for this: but one simple one is that rhymes are rich and common in Arabic and Farsi so it easy to produce a long piece of rhymed verse without it sounding forced, whereas they are rare in English and it’s hard.

In general, translation though is a positive, creative, thing, and can be especially much fun when you can use GoogleTranslate to give you a literal version of a poem to play with. I’ve suggested translation exercises all the way through, and also chosen poems in translation, so that we are all sharing.

Your Arabic (and other) partners may well surprise you with their knowledge of and enthusiasm for poetry. Arabic poetry is extremely important to Arabic speakers in Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon, and the Arabic poets have included here, Mahmoud Darwish and Tamim Al -Bargouti have immense, rock-star status.

There are many reasons for this – it might be a good idea to have your Arabic students tell your UK students!) but some of them are: Classical Arabic is ancient – poems go back a thousand years – but has not changed very much. Students today can read and understand classical Arabic, and do, when they read the Koran. This keeps them in touch with their history and religion and with their fellow Arabs. Arabic is a shared language – though students in Palestine and Iraq speak different dialects, they can understand each other through Arabic. So poems are a shared culture and code, but also modern and exciting; Homer and Kanye West.

Because they have read quite a lot of poetry, and learned lots of the Koran, you may well find that your Arabic students readily produce verse which sounds grand and sophisticated, and also quite like the Koran – your challenge may be to get them to express themselves simply, about their own lives.

Classical Arabic form are heavily rhymed, often around a caesura (break) in the middle of the line. There are also many forms which use repeated and patterned rhymes. These are all forms which are very hard to reproduce in English, which is poor in rhyme. However, in the last sixty years much great Arabic poetry has also been written in ‘prose’ (informal verse) and in dialect. We will be encouraging Arabic students to write in this form, as we will be encouraging English students to avoid rhyme because we are focussing on sharing images. In the ghazal exercise, we will all share a simplified version of a form.

Classical Persian verse goes back nearly as far Classical Arabic verse and shares some of the elaborate forms. Persian verse is also shared by Farsi speakers of different kinds, from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I’ve included a poem by the great Persian poet Rumi here, but in translation by an American.

The Bengali poet Tagore is hugely important to anyone from Bangladesh – he’s a founding father – and I’ve included one of his lyrics here.

This game was apparently played by Salvador Dali and the Surrealist painters in Spain in the 1950s, sitting round with Absinthe and coffee. It works just as well with students of almost any age – though there is a simplified version for young children below.

There is a powerpoint to help you through the details. You can see this played on Video 1.

  • Remind the students of the difference between an abstract and a concrete noun.
    A concrete noun can be sensed through our five sense.
    An abstract can’t be sensed – it’s an idea, or a feeling.
  • Put some abstracts up on the board e.g. boredom, love, war, education…. and ask the students to tear a piece of paper in four.
  • On the first piece of paper, each person should write an abstract noun, just one word e.g. hope. On the second piece of paper, the definition of that noun in the style of the dictionary e.g. a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen. They should not repeat the original word.On the third piece of piece of paper, the students write a concrete noun e.g. penguin, and on the fourth, a definition e.g.: feathered bird which lives in the Antarctic and swims in the cold seas
  • When all the students are finished, all the nouns are handed to one student, and all the definitions to the teacher. The student and teachers shuffle the paper.
    Now, the student reads out a noun from the top of her pile, and the teacher reads the definition from the top of his. This is often very funny!
  • Thus we get:
    Hope: feathered bird which lives in the Antarctic and swims in the cold seas
    Penguin: a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.
  • Put the especially evocative/funny/interesting combinations in the middle of the table and read it through: the table has written a poem.


Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Emily Dickinson

Perhaps Emily Dickinson was playing the Surrealists Game…

This is a simpler version of the Surrealists game which works well with younger children.

  • Ask the children to think of some of their strongest feelings – Anger, Hope, Despair, Meanness, Envy etc and write them on the board with definitions:Hope: a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen. Despair: the state when you have no hope and think nothing good can happen
  • Then ask them some of their favourite foods and/or favourite colours, as unusual as possible: Verdigris – a colour between green and grey, a rusting colour
    Dahl – a stew of lentils with spice.
  • When all the students are finished, all the nouns are handed to one student, and all the definitions to the teacher. The student and teachers shuffle the paper.
  • The student reads out a noun from the top of her pile, and the teacher reads the definition from the top of his. This is often very funny!
  • Thus we get:
    Despair: A colour between green and grey, a rusting colour
    Hope: a stew of lentils with spice.

There are lots of creative ways to move on from the Surrealist’s Game.

  • One is to simply ask the students to write their own poem suggested on any of the ideas from the game. Being allowed to copy one or two ideas directly can build confidence.
  • Or you could ask the group to chose one feeling or abstract idea which matters to them – War, Love, Loss, Jealousy – and define it using only concrete images and words.
    A bit of directed writing can help them get started.
  • Give the students lots of prompts and encourage them to take their time.
    What does this feeling smell of? Taste of? Feel like? Sound like? Look like?
    If it were a bird, what sort of bird would it be? What animal? What insect?
    What landscape? What body of water? What weather?
    What drink? What food? What colour?
    What boat? What car? What house? What music?
  • Poems can develop from just one image – a place or a person, for instance – or from a list. But be strict about not using any abstract words. It’s a good idea to tell them NOT to rhyme at this point, or use acrostics – you want to keep them focused on images.
  • With younger children, try the same exercise with a day of the week, or a month of the year. What colour is Monday? What does it smell of?

Here are some short poems to share that work on the principle of taking an abstract idea and giving it a concrete reality:

Rukiya was 16 when she wrote this poem. She came from Bangladesh to England when she was 6.


It smells of sweat, a little musky,
and tastes like a penny,
salty, like a bloody gum.
It sounds like a lion, roaring,
groaning, in the distance,
anticipating, moving, watching,
It feels like a cactus,
prickling, hurting, manifesting
It is a mountain
on the clouds,
Misty, fog filled.
It is your safari vehicle
mud soaked and drenched
It is not a person.
Not Bear Grylls, Indiana Jones
Crocodile Dundee-

It is courage.

Rukiya Khatun

This example shows how well it can work to just pick one sort of image – in this case, a person. Rachel grew up in England and is Afro-Carribean.


Want is quiet but it sticks around.
It takes a seat before it makes itself known.
Want’s eyes glint, and its tongue flickers.
Want will listen, and wait, and study,
it learns everything. It learns you.

Want smiles and soon after it laughs –
not with you.
Want mocks in whispers and sometimes
(if you are unlucky)
want will shout.

Rachel Gittens (16)

You might want to use this poem with caution with Palestinian students as it is by Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s most famous poet. On the other hand, it is very much pro-compromise and peace! It was originally written in Hebrew and does very interesting things with Googletranslate.

The Place Where We Are Right

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai

Langston Hughes, one the founding figures of Black American literature, also shows how a single analogy – in this case ripening fruit – can be political and powerful. He’s writing about Harlem in the 1930s, when the hope of Black Americans in the first decades of the 20th Century were being destroyed. It’s all about the senses: textures, smells, tastes.Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes

If you’ve finished some poems this may be a good point to experiment with translations.

All languages carry some embedded thinking in their metaphors. For example, many of the phrases we have in English for change involve water, rivers and sea going. The phrase remember that we are a island people  – we ‘open floodgates’ arrive at ‘watersheds’ throw ‘three sheets to the wind’ and show our ‘true colours’.  Translated literally into Arabic or Farsi, these metaphors will be exposed and often seem very strange – they may well change your poem about politics into one about sailing. That’s why it’s fun and funny to translate a poem into another language via Googletranslate, then translate the translation back into English – the metaphors are altered and given back to us, and the other language often adds something in. Translation into Basque and back, for example, will usually add in the word ‘stone’ and surprisingly often, ‘goat’.

If your students have written poems using the Surrealists’ Game, why not try translating them using Googletranslate as your helper? You can do this as a partnership with your international school, asking ‘is that what you mean?’ with individual students. Or you could just do it on your own with your own students poems, putting them into Arabic and back. You may well find phrases that you want to keep, and you will definitely have fun.

This exercise moves on from the Surrealist Game using two similar poems. One is Kit Wright’s The Magic Box, which is used in many British schools, and the other is Tamim al-Barghouti’ s The Gift. Both poems imagine all the abstract things in life – or desires, losses, loves, political experiences – as concrete objects, which are packed in a concrete box.

The first thing to do is to let the students read and enjoy the poems. Then you encourage them to make their own version of either of the poems. That on its own can be enough instruction – just ask them to borrow the first line and go! – but it can also work well to pack a ‘magic box’ for one particular person.

After reading the poems, ask the students to think of someone they do not see enough of, for whatever reason.
They can pack them a magic box of memories.
Put in a photo, a food, a drink, an item of clothing, a flower, a bit of weather, a tune
Wrap it up carefully – say how
Tie it up – say in what
And how is it sent?

The Magic Box

I will put in the box
the swish of a silk sari on a summer night,
fire from the nostrils of a Chinese dragon,
the tip of a tongue touching a tooth.

I will put in the box
a snowman with a rumbling belly
a sip of the bluest water from Lake Lucerne,
a leaping spark from an electric fish.

I will put into the box
three violet wishes spoken in Gujarati,
the last joke of an ancient uncle,
and the first smile of a baby.

I will put into the box
a fifth season and a black sun,
a cowboy on a broomstick
and a witch on a white horse.

My box is fashioned from ice and gold and steel,
with stars on the lid and secrets in the corners.
Its hinges are the toe joints of dinosaurs.

I shall surf in my box
on the great high-rolling breakers of the wild Atlantic
then wash ashore on a yellow beach
the colour of the sun.

Kit Wright


My life is a gift
Given to me
On my zero birthday.
Today I pulled out the ribbon,
Unwrapped the Box
And found lots of things,
But also wonder-full:
A watch of gold,
And of gold
Is every hour in one’s life;
A jack-in-the box
Which makes you laugh
Or scares you to death, it depends;
Two beautiful baby-dolls,
The first a toy,
The second is not;
A prisoner’s crown and the shackles of a king;
I also found a Jack of Spades
You turn him upside down
He stays the same;
I found books;
I found a long video tape labelled
‘Fifty years of conflict between the Zionists and the Arabs’;
I found hell in an inkpot,
And heaven in an inkpot too;
I found an Arab horse on a race track
Covered with glue;
I found a stove with no flames;
At the bottom of the box,
I found a white card with my name on it,
The rest has not yet been written.

I did not know what to do with all these things!
Oh, God, thank you,
But why the trouble?

I put them all back in the box,
I closed it,
Wrapped it,
Tied the ribbon,
I threw it skywards and up it went,
The gift turned into a host of flying doves
That I will follow forever.
Why did I do that?
I really do not know!]

Tamim al-Barghouti Translation: Radwa Ashour

Memory Box
(for my Auntie)

I shall put in my box
the necklace you gave me,
the dress you let me borrow,
the cake recipe you taught me.

I shall put in my box
the last strand of hair that I found
the cake you gave me during the wedding
and a pinch of sugar from your sweetness.

I shall put in my box
the toy you let me keep as a baby
the pen you taught me how to use
and the drinks you made to please us.

My box is fashioned with love and content
and grief in the corners.
Its hinges are made from the bark
of the biggest tree in your garden.

I shall jump in my box
and float to heaven
and slide down from my parachute
and roll into your safe loving arms.

Aqsa (12)

This is another poem which takes us on the journey from abstract to concrete using a poem, this time one translated from the Turkish.

A man comes home and puts down his (concrete) shopping,then adds the memories of the day, (abstract in the present time frame but concrete in his memory), then adds a whole pile of abstract ideas, than marvels at the (concrete) table, so laden with stuff.

The Table

A man filled with the gladness of living
Put his keys on the table,
Put flowers in a copper bowl there.
He put his eggs and milk on the table.
He put there the light that came in through the window,
Sounds of a bicycle, sound of a spinning wheel.
The softness of bread and weather he put there.
On the table the man put
Things that happened in his mind.
What he wanted to do in life,
He put that there.
Those he loved, those he didn’t love,
The man put them on the table too.
Three times three make nine:
The man put nine on the table.
He was next to the window next to the sky;
He reached out and placed on the table endlessness.
So many days he had wanted to drink a beer!
He put on the table the pouring of that beer.
He placed there his sleep and his wakefulness;
His hunger and his fullness he placed there.
Now that’s what I call a table!
It didn’t complain at all about the load.
It wobbled once or twice, then stood firm.
The man kept piling things on.

Edip Cansever
from the Turkish by Julia Clare Tillinghurst and Richard Tillinghurst

The table is a beautiful structure to build a poem on:

  • Read the poem with the students, then ask them to write their own.
  • Start with someone coming home – a man, a woman, a boy.
    It can be someone you know, or just an idea, or yourself, older or younger or now. Even if it is you, though, use the third person (he or she) because that that will give you a bit more distance and ease in the poem
  • Who is coming home? How are they feeling?
    A man full of…
    A child full of…
    Comes home
  • Now you need a place to put things down – a sofa, a bed, a floor, a peg…
    And puts his bag on the …..
    He puts stuff down. Concrete things, first:
    keys.. a phone…
    puts them down on the floor/bed/sofa…
  • Then he puts down some memories: the sounds and touches and smells of the day…
    Maybe some memories from further back, too. Make sure they are all concrete and clear.
  • Now he can put down some things that ‘happened in his mind’
    A wish
    A sum
    A line of poetry or a phrase from a song
    Someone’s name
    A worry
    A person – someone he loves or hates, what they said.
  • Now put down some really big abstraction (endlessness)
    And balance it with something small and concrete (the longing for a beer)
    One more big thing … maybe just one more …
    But this pile is getting big.
  • Go back to the concrete: the table/peg/sofa
    What is doing under all this weight?
    Talk to it. Congratulate it. Thank it. Show it to the reader.

A couple of encouraging examples. Michael wrote this poem for his mother.

The Never-Ending Pile

An old lady filled with the satisfaction of living
Put her walking stick on the table,
and stood up young and strong.
She put her jacket covered with snow on the table
She put her shopping trolley on there too.
On there she put the voice of her dead husband.
On there she put the mole she had cut off.
On that table, her first kiss and her last,
The one bitchy friend,
And the one she had tea with, an hour ago.
Tick, tock, tick, tock, the sound of the clock –
She put that on the table.
Reaching up through the sky
She grabbed the moon
And smiled at Armstrong
And put that on the table.
And her wish for wealth and freedom
And for grace and for quickening the pace of world peace,
And her future, a tombstone,
All on the table.

A crackle here, a crackle there
But the table stood like her, young and strong.
Her never-ending pile grew.

Michael Egbe (16)

Mohamed was a young refugee from Syria, just beginning to learn English.
He is a twitter star – put in his name and the word poem into Twitter to share with your students.


When I go back home
I throw all my stuff on the floor:
my bag, my jumper, my trousers, my shoes,
my tie and my tee-shirt; my feelings,
my memories, the smells of life
all on the floor.
I put 2×2 and my 4 ideas
on the table;
the stupid words I learned from my friends,
in the bin.
I think about playing football,
and when I will play more,
and I put this thought
under my pillow,
because I need to keep it with me.

Hey bin, you’ve got
all those stupid English words in you.

Mohamed Assaf (12)

This is a slightly more complicated exercise which may appeal more to older students – but it is still based on the idea of representing abstract feelings with concrete images.
First, read both poems and let the students enjoy them. Burnt Kabob is very much a translation – a shortened, unrhymed version of a formal Persian ode. Shukria knew both poem and translation and was a Farsi speaker, but she based her poem on the English version.

If you look up Shukria’s name on the internet, you will find videos of her reading some of poems and talking about her work.


Last year, I admired wines. This,
I’m wandering inside the red world.

Last year, I gazed at the fire.
This year I’m burnt kabob.

Thirst drove me down to the water
where I drank the moon’s reflection.

Now I am a lion staring up totally
lost in love with the thing itself.

Don’t ask questions about longing.
Look in my face.

Soul drunk, body ruined, these two
sit helpless in a wrecked wagon.
Neither knows how to fix it.

And my heart, I’d say it was more
like a donkey sunk in a mudhole,
struggling and miring deeper.

But listen to me: for one moment,
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you. God.

English rendering by Colman Barks

A Glass of Tea (after Rumi)

Last year, I held a glass of tea to the light. This year,
I swirl like a tealeaf in the streets of Oxford.

Last year, I stared into navy blue sky. This year,
I am roaming under colourless clouds.

Last year, I watched the dazzling sun dance gracefully. This year,
The faint sun moves futurelessly.

Migration drove me down this bumpy road,
Where I fell and smelt the soil, where I arose and sensed the cloud.

Now I am a bird, flying in the breeze,
Lost over the alien earth.

Don’t stop and ask me questions.
Look into my eyes and feel my heart.

It is bruised, aching and sore.
My eyes are veiled with onion skin.

I sit helplessly in an injured nest,
Not knowing how to fix it.

And my heart, I’d say
Is displaced

Struggling to find its place

by Shukria Rezaei

When the students are ready, they can make their own version:

  • Think of a time in the past when things were different to how they are now. That’s your ‘last year’.
  • Now build up a series of contrasting images.
    Last year, what drink were you? (wine, tea, lemonade?) This year?
    Last year, what food were? (Burnt kabob?) This year? And are you eating or being eaten?
    What weather were you? What time of day? And now?
    What animal are you?
    What bird are you?
    And what about your heart?
  • And now, to end the poem, tell the reader something directly. What should they do?

This is a lovely exercise to help students use memories in poems in a controlled but powerful way.

Start by reading these two poems with the students. I Cannot Remember My Mother is by Tagore, the national poet of Bangladesh. He lost his mother when he was three. Rukiya Khatun came to England from Bangladesh when she was six. She loved to read Tagore in Bengali, and when she was sixteen wrote the beautiful poem My Mother Country in English. Both poems are ironic: they show us how very important are the things we ‘don’t remember’.

I Cannot Remember My Mother

I cannot remember my mother
only sometimes in the midst of my play
a tune seems to hover over my playthings,
the tune of some song that she used to
hum while rocking my cradle.

I cannot remember my mother
but when in the early autumn morning
the smell of the shiuli flowers floats in the air
the scent of the morning service in the temple
comes to me as the scent of my mother.

I cannot remember my mother
only when from my bedroom window I send
my eyes into the blue of the distant sky,
I feel that the stillness of
my mother’s gaze on my face
has spread all over the sky.

By Rabindranath Tagore from Sishu Bholanath

মনে পড়া

মাকে আমার পড়ে না মনে।
শুধু কখন খেলতে গিয়ে
হঠাৎ অকারণে
একটা কী সুর গুনগুনিয়ে
কানে আমার বাজে,
মায়ের কথা মিলায় যেন
আমার খেলার মাঝে।
মা বুঝি গান গাইত, আমার
দোলনা ঠেলে ঠেলে;
মা গিয়েছে, যেতে যেতে
গানটি গেছে ফেলে।
মাকে আমার পড়ে না মনে।
শুধু যখন আশ্বিনেতে
ভোরে শিউলিবনে
শিশির-ভেজা হাওয়া বেয়ে
ফুলের গন্ধ আসে,
তখন কেন মায়ের কথা
আমার মনে ভাসে?
কবে বুঝি আনত মা সেই
ফুলের সাজি বয়ে,
পুজোর গন্ধ আসে যে তাই
মায়ের গন্ধ হয়ে।
মাকে আমার পড়ে না মনে।
শুধু যখন বসি গিয়ে
শোবার ঘরের কোণে;
জানলা থেকে তাকাই দূরে
নীল আকাশের দিকে
মনে হয়, মা আমার পানে
চাইছে অনিমিখে।
কোলের ‘পরে ধরে কবে
দেখত আমায় চেয়ে,
সেই চাউনি রেখে গেছে
সারা আকাশ ছেয়ে।

৯ আশ্বিন, ১৩২৮

My Mother Country

I don’t remember her
in the summer,
lagoon water sizzling,
the kingfisher leaping,
or even the sweet honey mangoes,
they tell me I used to love.
I don’t remember
her comforting garment,
her saps of date trees,
providing the meagre earrings,
for those farmers
out there
in the gulf
under the calidity of the sun,
or the mosquitoes,
droning in the monsoon,
or the tipa tapa of the rain,
on the tin roofs,
dripping on the window,
I think.

Rukiya Khatun 17

Now encourage your students to write their own version.

I don’t remember is a magical way to frame a poem. It gives it irony and dramatic tension at once, while also plunging us into the deep past.

  • Ask the students to think of an early memory: a person or place, or person-and-place you lost in childhood.
    Grandparents perhaps – or just a holiday house you stopped visiting, or another loss.
    Think about the sounds, smells and tastes of the that place.
    Make sure all you memories are concrete – no abstract nouns wanted in here.
  • Now try a poemI don’t remember my grandmother
    Just the scent ….I don’t remember that house
    Just the taste of …..I don’t remember that country
    Not even the sound of ….Run through your five senses –
    what are the smells,sounds,touches,tastes and sights you associate with that loss.
    What colour?
    What flower?
    What sky?

Ftoun came out of Syria when she was 10 years old. She wrote this straight into English when she had been in England for just over a year.

The Doves of Damascus

I lost my country and everything I had before.
and now
I cannot remember for sure
the soft of the snow in my country,
I cannot remember
the feel of the damp air in summer.
Sometimes I think I remember
the smell of jasmine
as I walked down the street.
And sometimes autumn
with its orange and scarlet leaves
Flying in the high Damascus sky.
And I am sure I remember
my grandmother’s roof-garden,
its vines, its sweet red grapes,
The mint she grew in crates for tea.
I remember the birds, the doves
of Damascus. I remember
how they scattered. I remember

Trying to catch them.

Ftoun Abou Kerech (14)

Punjabi: ਗ਼ਜ਼ਲ, Urdu: غزَل ‬‎, Hindi: ग़ज़ल, Persian: غزل‎, Pashto: غزل‎, Bengali: গজল, Gujarati: ગઝલ,)
The ghazal is an Arabic form of poetry which was adopted in Persian and has spread across the Middle East and into India. Your international students will know what it is: let them tell the UK Students. Arabic students will know it primarily as a form of love poetry, but in other languages it has other uses as an ode and form of devotional poetry too. In English, it is beginning to be used as a cross-national form, about cross-cultural issues.

In Arabic, Persian and Bengali the ghazal has a very elaborate rhyme scheme based around a caesura. This is nearly impossible to make work in English – English just doesn’t have enough rhymes. So contemporary poets writing in English use a simplified version of the ghazal, and that’s what we are going to write and share here. If your international partners want to use their own form of the ghazal, that’s fine, but make sure they agree what that is!

The easiest way to explain the rules of a ghazal to a class is to share the examples, probably starting with the ones by students Halema and Shukria .

An English ghazal uses couplets of long lines with a repeating word: the refrain. The refrain is used at the end of the lines. The first couplet uses the refrain twice, once at the end of each line.

The word Halema chose was ‘wings’. You can use a pair of words or a phrase though – Shukria chose ‘circle home’.

The second couplet uses the word once, at the end of the second line.

Same with the third, fourth, fifth – up to 12 couplets.

The last couplet ‘signs off’ with the poet’s name. Shukria’s name means ‘thank you’ and she has cleverly used it twice to have both meanings.

This might be a good time to look at the contemporary ghazal Jamaican British and WWE – they are longer and they each break some ghazal rules, but they show how alive the form is.

You can hear Fatimah Asghar read WWE here.

You can see Raymond Antrobus read Jamaican British here.

Ghazals are often composed in a group – try it with yours.

Divide the group into 12 small groups or pairs. Give them a refrain by writing refrain words on small pieces of paper and handing them out: my country, poetry, silence, peace, wings, home, all work well.

You might like to work with the International group on a shared refrain – British, or Damascus – for example, in English and Arabic translation. or a use shared word.  Algebra, sugar, coffee, sofa, ghoul and cotton all all came straight into English from Arabic, while zero came via translation. Then you can produce a shared ghazal.

Assign the task of opening the ghazal – double refrain – and closing it – names – to a group of students you know are confident poets.

If a group gets stuck, give them a starting phrase: ‘I dreamed’ is a good one, or ‘ I saw’  or ‘Have you seen. Gvie the students no more than  15minutes, then read the ghazal round the class– it always sounds good! You can make a shared powerpoint if you like.

After they have contributed to a shared ghazal, you group may well be keen to write their own. Let them, and emphasise that they use any of the refrains and even lines in the examples or that they have written: this sort of sharing is traditional with ghazals.

Both these ghazals were written in English by young Afghan girls. Shukria was from the Hazara people and a Farsi speaker. Halema was a Pashto speaker. Both had mothers who sang and composed ghazals with their friends. Shukria and Halema had different religions and their people were traditionally at war. This didn’t prevent Shukria from mentoring Halema and the two girls becoming great friends.

Ghazal: Circle Home

We tear discs of naan, circles of home
dip them in the soup in our circle of home.

The silver metal soup bowl shines
on the cloth, the spoon circles home.

The way my grandmother ground the millstone,
her hand held easily, circling home.

And here are mud walls, rough and dusty- home
Spiralled in the jagged roads, the circle of home

The discs of my memory turn,
Shukria, shukria, I circle home.

Shukria Rezaei (17)

Ghazal: Wings

I saw that I had been transformed into a crow with wings
There were feathers black as death along my wings

Why, said crow-girl, why are my feathers black, colour of death?
Where are the white feathers that covered my wings?

I am flying high above my country, over the Hindu Kush
Mountains, over my village, on my wings.

I see the grey landscape, the grey towns, the green trees
near the mountains. I feel the dry wind under my wings.

I see the grave of my father, who I never knew,
I, Halema, on my black wings.

Halema Malak (14)

Jamaican British

(after Aarron Samuels)

Some people would deny that I’m Jamaican British.
Anglo nose. Hair straight. No way I can be Jamaican British.

They think I say I’m black when I say Jamaican British
but the boys at school made me choose: Jamaican, British?

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.
Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British.

Eat callaloo, plantain, jerk chicken – I’m Jamaican.
British don’t know to how to serve our dishes; they enslaved us.

In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall – Jamaican.
at home, I told Dad, I hate dem, all dem Jamaicans – I’m British.

He laughed, said, you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness,
took me straight to Jamaica – passport: British.

Cousins in Kingston called me Jah- English,
proud to have someone in their family – British

Plantation lineage World War service, how do I serve Jamaican British?
When knowing how to war is Jamaican British.

Raymond Antrobus

Raymond Antrobus is a Jamaican British poet who lives in London. You can hear him perform his poems, including this one,  on the internet, and he is also the author of the collection The Perseverance, where this poem is published.


Here’s your auntie, in her best gold-threaded shalwaar
kameez, made small by this land of american men.

Everyday she prays. Rolls attah & pounds the keema
at night watches the bodies of these glistening men.

Big and muscular, neck full of veins, bulging in the pen.
Her eyes kajaled & wide, glued to sweaty american men.

She smiles as guilty as a bride without blood, her love
of this new country, cold snow & naked american men.

“Stop living in a soap opera” yells her husband, fresh
from work, demanding his dinner: american. Men

take & take & yet you idolize them still, watch
your auntie as she builds her silent altar to them—

her knees fold on the rundown mattress, a prayer to WWE
Her tasbeeh & TV: the only things she puts before her husband.

She covers bruises & never lets us eat leftovers: a good wife.
It’s something in their nature: what america does to men.

They can’t touch anyone without teeth & spit
unless one strips the other of their human skin.

Even now, you don’t get it. But whenever it’s on you watch
them snarl like mad dogs in a cage—these american men.

Now that you’re older your auntie calls to say he hit
her again, that this didn’t happen before he became american.

You know its true & try to help, but what can you do?
You, little Fatimah, who still worships him

Fatimah Asghar

Fatimah Asghar is a Kashmiri/Pakistani/American poet. She is a popular performer and you can easily find her reading her poems on the internet.