A Marsiya is an elegantly written poem whose purpose is to express sorrow over the death of a great man or a deeply-loved person. From a historical perspective, the traditional Marsiya of Urdu poetry was composed to honour the self-sacrifice of Hazrat Imam Husain and his troops at the Battle of Karbala. This type of Marsiya describes how Hazrat Imam Husain and his comrades fought Yazid's army on Karbala's plains.
A Masnawi is a long, narrative epic poem that depicts stories of great battles that were fought in the past. They usually include a philosophical or ethical thought. A Masnawi is much longer than a Ghazal and it contains rhyming couplets. However, each of the couplets have a different rhyming pattern and end in different words.
A Qasida is very long ballad that is written to praise a king or a nobleman. It sometimes also describes great battles. It is not unusual to find a Qasida that is more than 100 couplets long. Like the Ghazal, the Qasida starts with a rhyming couplet and uses the same qafiya, or rhyming pattern, throughout the poem. The Ghazal as we know it today was originally derived from the Qasida.
In Urdu poetry, the word "Nazm" is used to describe a poem that cannot be classified under any particular form. From a literary perspective, each verse in the Nazm is built upon one central theme, as opposed to the theme variation of the couplets in a Ghazal. The verses of a traditional Nazm adhere to the same rhyming pattern, but more modern Nazms may be written in free verse. As you can see from this short description of some of the different forms of Urdu poetry, the subject is a very intricate and wide-ranging one. It normally takes a dedicated student years and years to master the art of Urdu poetry. But that knowledge shouldn't stop you from reading and enjoying the fantastic poems of this very special form of art.
See also: Types of Urdu Poetry
Author: Basit Habib
The Author writes articles on mushaira and new urdu poets which can be found on the web.