Poetic Form: Qasida (Guest Post by Ren Powell)

Please welcome Ren Powell, whose most recent book is Mercy Island, New and Selected Poems–available through Phoenicia Publishing or Amazon. She is an associate editor with Poemeleon and blogs at http://tribeofmadorphans.com. In the following post, she introduces us to the poetic form called qasida.



While I was putting together my
research proposal for the doctorate I was also working with PEN and the International Cities of Refuge Network. Part of my job
was to help promote the work of the writers being hosted by our cities. One
problem I was not understanding the aesthetics of Arab or African or Asian
poetics. The original aim of my doctorate studies was
to challenge my personal aesthetics by studying and experimenting with various
traditions outside my comfort zone. However, my “travels” both began and ended
in pre-Islamic Arabia because I became
fascinated with the ancient qasida.

Described concisely, the
classical qasida is a non-strophic, tripartite poem employing 50 to 120
hemstitch lines, monorhyme and quantitative meter with a tripartite sequence of
thematic modules. However, I found the non-mathematical, yet
still distinctive characteristics of the qasida much more interesting.

limited to translations and theoretical interpretations of the original poems,
and inevitably (and unapologetically) influenced by my own cultural points of
reference, I spent the first year of my studies experimenting with my
perceptions of qasida-like usage of diction and intertextual dependence.

For example, similar to
kennings, they used adjectives in place of nouns: strutting in place of
ostrich. They used telescoping metaphors that were so much fun to work with:


And this


smooth-stiff coat of newborn

morning wet
clings to a neigh
The broad
touch of maple leaves
falls on my
           russet coaxing

“Mingo Oak”)

He left a
razor in the soap dish
          a slick

          a festering

          a red and white exit sign

(“Denouement” from An Intimate Retribution.)

I also
experimented with the narrative structure of the preliterate qasida.
the Greek ode, the qasida is divided into three parts. However, the
interrelated strophe, antistrophe and epode of the Greek ode do not correspond
to the three independent thematic sections of the qasida: the nasib, rahil and
fakrh. According to Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, the author
of The Mute Immortals Speak, the
classical qasida’s structure is similar to the Jungian “Hero’s Quest”:

  1. The
    nasib is a moment of separation and
    typically depicts a symbolic recognition of the “other”, which prompts the
    persona into a state of agitation.
  2. The rahil is a moment of margin and depicts a liminal state
    characterized by anti-social behavior.
  3. Finally, the fakrh is a moment
    of aggregation and depicts a scene of
    integration with the community.

S. Stetkevych explains that the
qasida’s narrative is a rite of passage, a transformative experience shared by
the persona, performer and audience.

Although some modern and contemporary Western poets have
written poems they call qasidas, few if any of these poems bear any resemblance
to the pre-Islamic qasida. The ghazal, on the other hand, is a derivative of
the qasida’s nasib and has been
popular among Western poets in recent years. No doubt this is due to the
quality described as “disunity”, a reliance on associative leaps into a realm
of recognition and understanding that Keats might have assigned to our
“negative capability” to simply be in
the Mystery.

According to the contemporary
Syrian poet Adonis, the author of An
Introduction to Arab Poetics
, the form of the qasida was deliberately
developed to teach Arabness at a time
when the culture was resisting Persian, Syriac and Indian influences. One could
argue that the pre-Islamic qasida was, in fact, consciously designed to defy
translation or adaptation.

For this reason, I make no claims
of having created a true adaptation of the qasida. However, I have been
inspired by, borrowed and purposefully distorted some of the poetic devices
that characterize the ancient form. I figure my qasidas resemble the original
as much as the word when I pronounce it resembles the word when spoken by an
Arab speaker. I am well intentioned and respectful… and inspired. Maybe a
closer look at the ancient form will inspire you, too. I highly recommend both Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych’s book and Jaroslav Stetkevych’s The Zephyrs of Najid.

My new book, just published by Phoenicia Publishing contains
four American qasidas: “Inner Space Qasidah”, “Bakersfield”,
“Mingo Oak” and the title poem “Mercy
Island” (which, by all
rights might be called a Norwegian qasida).

First published in Country Dog Review,
An Intimate Retribution (Wigestrand
Press) and Mercy Island, New and Selected Poems
(Phoenicia Publishing):

Space Qasidah

I can see that nothing is solid, no matter how it appears.
from the “atomobile” script for Adventures Thru Inner Space, Disneyland,

Tomorrowland has new attractions
though everything is still a shiny plastic

with sticky finger touch and mouth and
and handrails hot then cold through
every shadow

That day I stood beside the
and watched the people in the plastic

as some climbed out and others took
their places
the cars would spin but never stop or

Like luggage on a banded carousel
the people disappeared behind a wall

but reappeared inside a glass-like
that tapered into shrinking into

Because is not a reason, but it is
Just am is blue like woozy
boat-fishing scared

my sister sat alone inside a car
a gust of air conditioning took her

The ticket-taker pointed to the tube
and winked No one really shrinks, you

then Mickey Mouse led me to the exit
to see my sister’s five-foot five all
still there

It’s okay, Chicken my sister pinched
my nose
she’d seen the wrong-way through a

an enormous eye was looking back at
her every cell the spaces in between

It’s not a long drive from Disneyland
to home but still we had to stop for

the attendant  pulled the squeegee over the window
he smiled—my every atom jumped orbit.

My sister’s key ring had a rabbit’s
my fourth-grade science teacher knows

I know the human body is too fluid
I hold these truths to be


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96 thoughts on “Poetic Form: Qasida (Guest Post by Ren Powell)

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  10. Kathy Bowman

    blood flowing, nerves screaming
    it’s time to get-outta-here
    or sink into the collusion
    neither is acceptable
    let’s kiss and say goodbye
    then swearing and screeching
    rubber and a whole new life
    first of grief; then “oh-shit-ness”
    why-you-did-why-I rounds
    to be made til they are not
    don’t ever . . .

  11. Kathy Bowman

    I too had to go look up some terms (before I saw the translation) – I’m enchanted by the concept and am picking this up as a style to explore – fore cxample, tried to apply it to a description of my greenhouse in this fragment –

    beyond the season (qasida)

    sturdy and sunlit
    steam crawling the walls
    to drip triumphantly
    on the plants, the
    wind-hole ajar
    free radicles popping
    in jars and baskets
    have faith that all this grows –
    but in case of burning summer
    bring more water


  12. Taylor Graham

    Here’s a try. I have no idea if it’s a qasida….


    I looked for you in the lilac’s leaves, green
    as hanging hearts, their blossoms withered, gone.

    All I saw were men in shorts and straw hats,
    ladies in kimonos crimson as dawn.

    The Taiko drums beat loud enough to rouse
    grave-spirits, their pulse so deep, so long-drawn.

    Home is always another place and time,
    annual grasses dried, brittle to the awn.

    I wouldn’t stay to follow shadows down
    among the crowds that scuff a tattered lawn.

    The mulberry still knows your name, your face
    as in the pond reflected, now, a fawn.

  13. Francesco Sinibaldi

    The wind blowing in the sun.

    In the chirping
    of a delicate
    bird there’s a
    light that always
    shines near
    the sound of
    a quietness, it’s
    the tender relief
    now recalling
    the youth.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  14. renkat

    Yes, Sam, I agree about the haiku thing. Many English-language writers who consider themselves experts on the form don’t know that the Japanese language doesn’t even have syllables to count 5*7*5 in the form. It is a rather arbitrary adaptation.

    Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych’s book has very careful translations of a few qasidas. Desmond O’Grady has written what he calls "renderings", which is a very respectful admission that the poems can’t ever be faithfully translated, but it gives you an indication of the narrative (but not the kinds of poetic tools like the intertextuality or special use of metaphors). http://www.amazon.com/Golden-Odes-Love-English-Rendering/dp/9774244613

    If I can take the liberty of claiming this – I have seen a poetry video that I believe really has the spirit of the qasida – this is in praise of another person (the King of Dubai) though, where the original qasidas would be more like a rapper boasting about his own greatness 🙂 I saw this video and thought – ah, this is what I have been reading about, and I contacted two of my friends who have educations in Arabic poetry and they agreed with me that this does have much of the hallmarks of a classical qasida: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEV1IsTPP9o

    If nothing else, it is a beautiful video to watch!

  15. Sam Nielson

    I was going to post early this morning, but never got back to it. I hope I am not speaking too far into where I know little. Just a few thoughts.

    I am intrigued by the idea of a qasida. Like many other forms, it seems to be one that grew out of a necessity of living life and understanding life. Its basic parts, the meter, the writing it down in seemingly two columns, etc all seem to point to a necessity of purpose. (We do it this way because. . . . )

    Of course there are many poetic forms that are simply academic constructions, valid, fun to play with, but are not rooted so closely in life this same way. I appreciated your comments about tying it in with the culture, so the cultural background becomes a help in writing and understanding it. I would guess that the form had many years, or centuries to develop. I bet haiku is also in that way, but now mostly written in a lesser vein, not having all that cultural import behind it. I am guilty of stressing the form that way.

    I think I would need to see a quite number more examples of qasida to get a better sense of where/how they go.

    Thank you Ren Powell. Nice to see you. Make us stretch some more.

    I would like to see some academic bits that perhaps make us look closer at some tenets of classical forms, e.g. strophe-antistrophe like the Greeks, etc. We tend to overlook some of the early stuff. And I think they still have some value, though as Ren says the forms tend to be tied into the language also.

    So now, I’m off to twang, ah uh, tune, my poetical lyre and hitch up my toga to keep the hems out of my cowboy boots.

  16. renkat

    Ouch. Sorry all. To be "concise" would necessarily mean using a lot of jargon. It would be easier to explain it all non concisely, of course… and take a lot more space than there is here.

    It is difficult to present another culture’s poetry respectfully in brief post. To unpack the jargon a little – "The classical qasida is a non-strophic, tripartite poem employing 50 to 120 hemstitch lines, monorhyme and quantitative meter with a tripartite sequence of thematic modules."

    Real World Translation:

    The qasida is a poem written in lines that are not grouped into stanzas. That is, it is just one line after another with no spaces between lines. In Arabic the lines are written from right to left, with a break in the center of each line, so that it appears to be two columns (but the poem is not read that way). The entire 100+ line poem uses a single rhyme (for example, every single line rhymes with "day"). Each line is also written in a special meter than is based on the length of the words. The poem is made up of three parts that are identified by their themes, but there is no other way to see it (no spaces or change in rhyme…). The themes have to do with stages of a man’s life.

    Hope that helps a little. I was trying to be brief, not difficult 🙂

  17. Tracy Davidson

    Eek! I like the way it begins "Described concisely". If that’s the concise version I’d hate to see a non-concise one! I’m afraid she lost me after "non-strophic", the rest may as well have read "rhubarb rhubarb".
    Thinl I’ll stick to haiku and shadorma for now – they don’t make by brain hurt.

  18. Rose Anna Hines

    I’m in total agreement with everyone above.
    What a workout.


    My body sweating
    My muscles aching
    My brain is shivering
    Cool down is necessary

    But I will be back for another work out anon

  19. PKP aka Pearl Ketover Prilik

    Ren Powell ….if there is a dearth of comments … might be attributed to a bunch of poets busy gluing their minds back together after having been blown by the complexity and oxygen deprivation resulting from attempting to fly at your heights of poetic analysis. ( see MiskMask comment above) thank you for sharing…
    And now…..a little jingle for you

    Thank you for sharing
    thank you for caring
    descending from the loft of your level – a feat, sweet and daring

    Seriously, all respect for your work and the Qasida although now that I notice a linkage with the ghazal I must repeat an early thought " with the ghazal, I have not had much " mazel"
    Will continue to read and learn. Thank you Ren Powell for a powerful work- out!

  20. Marie Elena

    Oh my. I’m with De and Misk … scratching my head over here and doing a lot of umm’ing. I love to read and write poetry, but know precious little history and terminology. However, this line speaks to me richly: "I am well intentioned and respectful…and inspired." Oh, that the whole world would claim that as motto.

    Thank you!

  21. de jackson

    This sentence ’bout killed me:
    "Described concisely, the classical qasida is a non-strophic, tripartite poem employing 50 to 120 hemstitch lines, monorhyme and quantitative meter with a tripartite sequence of thematic modules."

    Yeek. Much study is needed, yes. Enamored of the essence, though…


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