The root of “spirit” is the Latin spirare, to breathe. Whatever lives on the breath, then, must have its spiritual dimension— including all poems, even the most unlikely. Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams: all poets of spiritual life. A useful exercise of soul would be to open any doorstop-sized anthology at random a dozen times and find in each of the resulting pages its spiritual dimension. If the poems are worth the cost of their ink, it can be done.
But, no, I’ve been asked to choose, to recommend. The poems I suggest here are this moment’s choices, not “the best spiritual poems” (a phrase weighing nothing in so intimate and personal a context). The “gates” are an equally personal selection of entrance points into spiritual life. Some of the poems are well known, others less so. Each stands representative of many others. Each also, for me, plunges into the heart of the matter at hand, bearing witness in some essential way.
GATE 1. PERMEABILITY
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Izumi Shikibu (Japan, 974?-1034?) [translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani]
The moon in Japanese poetry is always the moon; often it is also the image of Buddhist awakening. This poem reminds that if a house is walled so tightly that it lets in no wind or rain, if a life is walled so tightly that it lets in no pain, grief, anger, or longing, it will also be closed to the entrance of what is most wanted.
The poem, by the greatest woman poet of classical-era Japan, is one I first encountered in 1986 while working with Mariko Aratani, my co-translator for The Ink Dark Moon. At first, I had the poem’s words, I had the poem’s grammar, but its meaning eluded. Once it clarified, this became for me a life-altering poem, transforming my relationship to safety, permeability, awakening, and the mouth of the lion.
Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto
For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
drags him down all his life.
C.P. Cavafy (Alexandria, 1863-1933) [translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard]
Cavafy is not generally thought of as a spiritual poet. This early poem's precipitating title comes from a story about a pope, as told by Dante, but that is not the reason it is here. Nor can I say I even fully understand the poem—the phrase "the right no" has been, for me, a decades-long riddle and harvest. But Cavafy’s basic proposal, that a person carries within himself or herself a great Yes or great No, requiring declaration—this surely is one gate to the spiritual dimension.
On a branch
a cricket, singing.
Issa (Japan, 1763-1827) [translated by Jane Hirshfield]
Issa's singing cricket is Cavafy's “great Yes” in action. The haiku offers a portrait of the circumstances of all our lives. Carried by capricious currents, certain to die, we nonetheless fully live. The poem can be read, I realize, with different comprehensions. It could, for instance, be understood in the spirit of Beckett and Camus. Mostly, that is not how I feel it—but, as with many great poems, the versatility of the image is part of its enlarging meaning.
GATE 4. HORACE’S ZEN
Ode I. 11
Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate,
Not you, not me: don’t ask, don’t hunt for answers
In tea leaves or palms. Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be our last winter, it could be many
More, pounding the Tuscan Sea on these rocks:
Do what you must, be wise, cut your vines
And forget about hope. Time goes running, even
As we talk. Take the present, the future’s no one’s affair.
Horace (Roman, 65-8 BCE) [translated by Burton Raffel]
When, studying Latin in high school, I first read Horace’s odes and verse epistles, I felt as if a previously unrecognized thirst had been awakened, acknowledged, and assuaged at once.
Later, I could see in the poetry of Horace one of the paths that led to the practice of Zen. The cricket of Issa's haiku would be, I believe, entirely recognizable to the Roman poet as a fellow singer of carpe diem. Spiritual poems emerge in response to the central questions of human life—mortality and transience, isolation and alienation, the question of suffering in all its dimensions. In Horace, as in Issa, a solution is found in returning the heart and mind to the present moment.
GATE 5. FOUR POETS, ONE THEME: SPIRITUAL RESIDENCE
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Auger and the Carpenter—
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life—
A past of Plank and Nail
And slowness—then the Scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul.
Emily Dickinson (ca. 1863)
You who want
see the Oneness
the clear mirror
Hadewijch II (Antwerp, 13th century) [translated by Jane Hirshfield]
I was passionate,
filled with longing,
far and wide.
But the day
that the Truthful One
I was at home.
Lal Ded (Kashmir, 14th century) [translated by Jane Hirshfield]
O my Lord,
the stars glitter
and the eyes of men are closed.
Kings have locked their doors
and each lover is alone with his love.
Here, I am alone with you.
Rabi’a (Basra, 717-801) [translated by Jane Hirshfield]
Rabi’a, is one of the earliest of the Sufi women saints. Orphaned on the streets of Basra and taken into slavery, she was released because of the visible power of her spiritual practice. Hadewijch II was a member of a 13th-century Flemish Beguine community (laywomen who, prevented from joining convents, gathered together under their own authority, taking voluntary vows of chastity, poverty, and good works). Lal Ded (sometimes called Lalla), born in 14th-century Kashmir, left husband and family to become a mystic and wandering visionary, immersed in a sense of oneness between God and the phenomenal world. Emily Dickinson’s story needs no summary here.
Each woman’s poem holds the same underlying statement about spiritual maturity: the comprehension that spiritual fulfillment is not to be found outside the door of the self. Lal Ded’s and Hadewijch’s poems speak from widely divergent spiritual traditions in almost interchangeable language; Dickinson’s is a tiny narrative of the soul’s maturation; Rabi’a’s is couched—as so many poems about spiritual life are—in the language of lover and beloved. One defining marker of the numinous is that it is felt profoundly as “home.” The ninth-century Chinese Taoist, Yu Xuanji ends one poem, “Every place the wind carries me is home.” Emily Dickinson’s gravestone bears the brief epitaph: “Called home.”
After I published Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, people often asked me how the spiritual poetry of women differs from that of men. My answer: more imagery of houses. (The earlier poem here by Izumi Shikibu also uses the image of a house to speak of the experience of self and its boundaries.) To become the authority of one’s own household is no small thing in many women’s lives, even now, and the lives of earlier women poets are almost always marked by some fracturing with the expectations and course of ordinary life. The same is often true for men, of course, especially mystics.
GATE 6. FOUR POETS, ONE THEME: ABUNDANCE
That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rutpeel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crúst, dust; stánches, stárches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Foótfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Mán, how fást his fíredint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Bóth are in an únfáthomable, áll is in an enórmous dárk
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disséveral, a stár, | death blots black out; nor mark
Is ány of him at áll so stárk
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A héart’s-clarion! Awáy grief’s gásping, | joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fáll to the resíduary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is |, since he was what I am, and
Thís Jack, jóke, poor pótsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (England, 1844-89)
Mountains, a moment’s earth-waves rising and hollowing; the earth too’s an ephemerid; the stars—
Short-lived as grass the stars quicken in the nebula and dry in their summer, they spiral
Blind up space, scattered black seeds of a future; nothing lives long, the whole sky’s
Recurrences tick the seconds of the hours of the ages of the gulf before birth, and the gulf
After death is like dated: to labor eighty years in a notch of eternity is nothing too tiresome,
Enormous repose after, enormous repose before, the flash of activity.
Surely you never have dreamed the incredible depths were prologue and epilogue merely
To the surface play in the sun, the instant of life, what is called life? I fancy
That silence is the thing, this noise a found word for it; interjection, a jump of the breath at that silence;
Stars burn, grass grows, men breathe: as a man finding treasure says “Ah!” but the treasure’s the essence:
Before the man spoke it was there, and after he has spoken he gathers it,
Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)
Let me not thirst with this Hock at my Lip,
Nor beg, with domains in my pocket—
Emily Dickinson (c. 1881)
Of all that God has shown me
I can speak just the smallest word,
Not more than a honey bee
Takes on his foot
From an overspilling jar.
Mechtild of Magdeburg (13th century) [translated by Jane Hirshfield]
A foundational spiritual experience is the sense of abundance. Hopkins’s and Jeffers’s poems describe an identical arc, first delineating the richness of all that passes—a passing we know ourselves part of—and then entering (one by Christian faith, the other by a less classifiable path) into a larger identification that transcends temporality and individual death. Dickinson’s briefer acknowledgment of the limitless is for me equally powerful. Her reticence refracts what is acknowledged overtly in the poem by Mechtild of Magdeburg (yet another extraordinary woman mystical poet emerging from the Beguines): the fullness of spiritual knowledge lies outside words. These four poems demonstrate the two techniques we have for signaling, in words, the presence of what is unsayable. One strategy entails a heaping up of speech-attempt that ends by bending language beyond its customary horizons, forms, and syntax; the other, a stripping down to absolute simplicity and the barest possible statement or allusion. Yet even the briefer poems are embodied, based in a language of profound and intimate physicality. As Paul Valéry once said: “There is another world, and it is in this one.”
GATE 7. LONGING
Among the fiercest of spiritual poems are those of despair, separation, and longing for what is known to be absent. Such poems stand as proof that the dark night of the soul is universal. Especially stripped of consolation are Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “dark sonnets,” of which this is one:
No Worst, There is None
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old ánvil wínce and síng —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked “No ling-
Ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (England, 1844–89)
The longing for deepened connection may also be expressed as deftly and lightly as in this haiku by Basho:
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.
Basho (Japan, 1644-1694) [translated by Jane Hirshfield]
GATE 8. SPIRITUAL DIALOGUE
Thought is deepened by conversation. The poetry of spiritual dialogue sometimes takes the form of the one-sided conversation we call prayer—when not reduced to convention, a communication of the most pressing kind. In other poems, a dramatized dialogue appears. The writer, of course, knows that he or she inhabits both sides, yet by entering into the language of interchange reaches for a knowledge undiscoverable in any other way.
The possible choices of poems that are also prayers are familiar and abundant. (Czeslaw Milosz’s “Veni Creator” is one in which a contemporary sensibility is notably present.) Poems holding a dialogue between the self and a personified spirituality are similarly found in almost every tradition. They are especially visible in the work of contemporary American poets. Perhaps this is because a poem of two voices offers, by its inherent structure, not only the record of a transformation, but some haven for skepticism and doubt, even as it apparently resolves them.
In the English-language tradition, a seed-poem for the strategy of spiritual conversation is George Herbert’s “Love (III)”:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
George Herbert (England, 1593-1633)
Another early example—though one whose foundation in dialogue is less often noted—is John Milton’s sonnet on his blindness, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” a poem I first encountered in the eighth grade when a teacher wrote it, emphasizing its final line, on the blackboard.
When I Consider How my Light is Spent
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
John Milton (England, 1608-1674)
From among recent American poems using the rhetoric of spiritual dialogue, here are two.
The fish are dreadful. They are brought up
the mountain in the dawn most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea,
the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes.
Soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks,
washing them. “What can you know of my machinery!”
demands the Lord. Sure, the man says quietly
and cuts into them, laying back the dozen struts,
getting to the muck of something terrible.
The Lord insists: “You are the one who chooses
to live this way. I build cities where things
are human. I make Tuscany and you go to live
with rock and silence.” The man washes away
the blood and arranges the fish on a big plate.
Starts the onions in the hot olive oil and puts
in peppers. “You have lived all year without women.”
He takes out everything and puts in the fish.
“No one knows where you are. People forget you.
You are vain and stubborn.” The man slices
tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish
and scrambles eggs. I am not stubborn, he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows
flying on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.
—Once more the poem woke me up,
the dark poem. I was ready for it;
he was sleeping,
and across the cabin, the small furnace
lit and re-lit itself—the flame a yellow
“tongue” again, the metal benignly
and a thousand insects outside called
and made me nothing;
moonlight streamed inside as if it had been . . .
I looked around, I thought of the lower wisdom,
spirit held by matter:
Mary, white as a sand dollar,
and Christ, his sticky halo tilted—
oh, to get behind it!
The world had been created to comprehend itself
as matter: table, the torn
veils of spiders . . . Even consciousness—
missing my love—
was matter, the metal box of a furnace.
As the obligated flame, so burned my life . . .
What is the meaning of this suffering I asked
and the voice—not Christ but between us—
said you are the meaning.
No no, I replied, That
is the shape, what is the meaning.
You are the meaning, it said—
(The book-length polyphonic investigation of Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris also comes to mind here, as a spiritual dialogue undertaken on a larger plane. In it each poem is given a different voice: plant, human, or an unnamed, witnessing presence who speaks from the point of view of divinity and creator.)
GATE 9. REALIZATION
Only a Borgesian library, commensurate with all existence, could complete this listing. It does though seem fitting to close with a few poems that point toward what at times might be called grace, awakening, or realization, and at other times escapes any description beyond Rilke’s: “Perhaps we are only here to say ‘house, bridge, fountain, gate.’”
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
William Wordsworth (England, 1770-1850)
Untitled Shaman Song
The great sea
frees me, moves me,
as a strong river carries a weed.
Earth and her strong winds
move me, take me away,
and my soul is swept up in joy.
Uvavnuk (Iglulik Eskimo, 19th century) [translated by Jane Hirshfield]
To Live in the Mercy of God
To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
before ribs of shelter
To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.
To float, upheld,
as salt water
would hold you,
once you dared.
To live in the mercy of God.
To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
O or Ah
spray. The smoke of it.
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
flung on resistance.
Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
Li Po (China, 701-762) [translated by Sam Hamill]
Izumi Shikibu, “Although the wind ... ,” translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani, from The Ink Dark Moon. Copyright 1990 by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of Vintage Classics and Jane Hirshfield.
Constantine Cavafy, “Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto,” translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Copyright 1975 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Reprinted with the permission of Princeton University Press.
“On a Branch” by Issa, translated by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of Jane Hirshfield.
Horace, “Ode 1. 11,” translated by Burton Raffel, from The Essential Horace. Copyright 1983 by Burton Raffel. Reprinted with the permission by Northpoint Press.
Emily Dickinson, “The Props assist the House” (1142) from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Copyright 1945, 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted with the permission of The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Hadewijch, “You who want ... ,” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred. Copyright 1994 by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of Harper Collins.
Lal Ded, “I was passionate ... ,” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred. Copyright 1994 by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of Harper Collins.
Rabi’a, “O my Lord ... ,” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred. Copyright 1994 by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of Harper Collins.
Robinson Jeffers, “The Treasure,” from The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Copyright 1938, 1966 by Donnan and Garth Jeffers. Reprinted with the permission of Stanford University Press.
Emily Dickinson, “Let me not thirst ... ,” (1772) from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Copyright 1945, 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted with the permission of The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Mechtild of Magdeburg, “Of all that God has shown me,” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred. Copyright 1994 by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of Harper Collins.
“In Kyoto” by Basho, translated by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of Jane Hirshfield.
Jack Gilbert, “Going Wrong,” from The Great Fires. Copyright 1994 by Jack Gilbert. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Brenda Hillman, “Little Furnace,” from Bright Existence. Copyright 1993 by Brenda Hillman. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.
Uvavnuk, “Untitled Shaman Song,” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred. Copyright 1994 by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins.
Denise Levertov, “To Live in the Mercy of God,” from Sands of the Well. Copyright 1996 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions.
Li Po, “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” translated by Sam Hamill, from Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Copyright 2000 by Sam Hamill. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.
Award-winning poet, essayist, and translator Jane Hirshfield is the author of several collections of verse, including The Beauty (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award; Come, Thief (2011); After (2006); shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize; and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), a finalist for the National Book Critics...