The idea that our bodies and minds are innately connected to the timeless energy of the cosmos is not easily expressed or understood with words. Sometimes the best way to make sense of these kinds of concepts is through the ancient art of spiritual poetry.
Although the word “spiritual” may be off-putting to some, it can simply be thought of as that ultimate reality that existed before we were born and continues after we die, and to which we are inseparably connected. The root Latin word, spirare, (to breathe) hints at the logic behind this link.
In poetry, words are chosen with great care for their meanings, their sounds, their spoken rhythm, the pauses (for breath) between them, and even their shape on the page. Done well, the result can induce an emotional response and an understanding that goes beyond the intellect that the reader (or listener) may not even know they were missing.
Of course, different poems and poets appeal to different people for different reasons, but this variety is a major part of the beauty and purposefulness of poetry. It offers the possibility of comfort, enlightenment or even ecstasy, if only we allow it.
The creative impulse behind spiritual poems almost certainly predates what we now think of as poetry. There are hints of it in some of the earliest written poetry, such the Sanskrit Vedas and Homer’s Odyssey. Not only do they contain a profound spiritual dimension, but their repetition of certain phrases and the rhythms they employ are also suggestive of an older oral tradition. Poetry, it would seem, takes the form it does in order to facilitate its retelling by storyteller after storyteller, generation after generation. It is only relatively recently, in terms of human history, that poetry has been recorded routinely in writing.
Even poems and poets not usually thought of as spiritual may offer a gateway to a spiritual awakening. Consider, for example, the English Romantic poets, such as Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and their profoundly Pantheistic leanings. Wordsworth wrote of “A sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, from The Complete Poetical Works, by William Wordsworth, London: Macmillan & Co, 1888). This was, he said, to be found in sunsets, sea, air and sky, as well as in “the mind of man”.
It might be expected that other, more traditionally religious poets would have ascribed that “something” to God, but the simplicity of this presumption risks masking the fact that even categorizing poets as ‘religious’ can be problematic. Christina Rossetti is an excellent example of this. Frequently regarded as the inheritor of the Romantic tradition, this fringe member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an exceptionally devout High Anglican, even rejecting two potential husbands on grounds of religious incompatibility. Despite this, she combined her religion with a forceful intellectualism that led her to question everything, including the ideas she was putting in her poems.
In the twenty-first century, knowingly or unknowingly, many poets are on a quest for spiritual fulfilment. An individual’s ongoing dialogue with themselves, with others, with the wider world and with that nebulous unseen – but very much felt – divine can transform a life. Poetry can be a wonderful way of observing this in a microcosm.
Below are introductions to six poets worthy of further reading by those in search of spiritual nourishment. With two modern exceptions, these poets did not write in English, and some are more widely translated and published than others. However, all are worth checking out.
6 Spiritual Poets Worth Reading
A Kashmiri mystic, Lalleshwari’s life spanned much of the fourteenth century. Confounding our modern expectations about women in that period in that part of the world, scholars who have examined her poetry agree it is likely that she was highly educated. Married to an abusive husband before she even reached her teens, Lalleshwari ran away while still a young woman to take Sannyasa. She is credited with being one of the creators of “Vakhs”, a form of mystic poetry that translates literally as “speech” (and provides another link to the earliest oral poetic traditions). Her poetry, largely in the form of proverbs and quatrains, has become an integral part of the Kashmiri psyche and spirit, as well as increasingly finding a wider, more international audience. One of these poems, translated as “I was passionate”, records her restless, wide-ranging search for some unspecified state of being. However, as the poem records, it is only once she is “at home” that “the Truthful One” finds her (I was passionate, translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred, New York: Harper Collins, 1994). This deceptively simple realization is one that readers of spiritual poetry will find in the works of many different writers.
This thirteenth-century Sufi mystic needs little introduction. With modern-day fans said to include everyone from pop stars to Heads of State, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi’s exploration of one’s inner journey and how to navigate it, clearly has as much resonance today as it had eight centuries ago. Even more than that, the overwhelming ethos of “peace, love, respect and unity” that permeates his teachings is finding new adherents in a generation that spurns the puritanical in favour of joy.
Although his six-volume epic, “The Masnavi” (The Masnavi I Ma’navi of Rumi: Complete 6 books, translated by E.H. Whinfield, OrangeSky Project, 2011), is perhaps Rumi’s best-known work, the breadth and number of his writings illustrates a difficult truth about translating any language, and particularly in translating poetry. Translation is about more than mere semantics; it is about a creation and a spirit. Those able to read the Persian originals may not always concur with a translator’s view of a Rumi verse. Meanwhile, those who can only ever consume it in English may wonder if what they have in front of them captures the essence of the original. However, there is a rapture to Rumi’s writings that makes its way into the best translations and leaves the reader in no doubt that they have found their way inside the poet’s luminous words. And, as Rumi himself hinted when he said, “The treasure that we are looking for is hidden in our own house”, the truth may be far closer at hand than it first appears.
Falling somewhere between traditional and modernist poets, the Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), is known for his radical use of imagery and for a pantheism that, while not denying God, regards religion as the “art” of “the uncreative”. In his view, God is less the begetter and more the end result of the divine process. Perhaps it is his conscious distancing of himself from traditional Christian preoccupations that goes some way to explaining his very profound influence on so many writers, poets, New Age thinkers and spiritualists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The first line of his seminal work, the Duino Elegies, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?” (from Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus, translated by Stephen Mitchell, Vintage International Press, Bilingual Edition, 2010) not only hints at his preoccupation with angels but also at his analysis of, and absorption in, the human condition. His angels are not benign (“every angel is terrifying”) but they do represent the perfection that humans seek and the struggle inherent in attaining it.
This fifteenth-century Indian mystic has connections to three of the great religions of the subcontinent. Born to a Muslim family, his writings strongly influenced the Hindu movement, Bhakti, as well as Sikh scriptures. Despite this, during his lifetime he adhered to no religion, although this did not stop both Hindus or Muslims from trying to claim him as their own after his death. His legacy can best be traced through the Kabir Panth a religious community that forms one of the Sant Mat sects (movements following mystic saints and their teachings) and, of course, through his inspirational writings. Although written in vernacular Hindi, Kabir’s words frequently find common ground between Hindu and Muslim and inspire countless others of different beliefs or none.
One of the chief translators of Kabir’s poems was Tagore, and 75 years after Tagore’s death, these versions are still regarded as the gold standard. They emphasize that mystical as Kabir’s words are, he had a knack of focussing on the details of earthly life: “Knowledge is the branch, and the Name is the root. Look, and see where the root is: happiness shall be yours when you come to the root…” (from Songs of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore, assisted by Evelyn Underhill, Evinity Publishing Inc, 2009). In so doing, they show how these details connect to the “attainment of bliss beyond”.
‘Ecstatic’ is a word that is sometimes bandied around too casually, particularly in the spiritual context. This is not so in the case of Hafiz, the fourteenth-century Persian poet. Much of his life remains shrouded in mystery, although many scholars suspect that he learned to recite the Qu’ran by heart (a Hafiz, or Hafiza, is a person who has memorized the Qu’ran). However, his spiritual ghazals are as important to many Iranians as they were to the Persians who first heard them around 700 years ago. They have new currency as proverbs and sayings, such as: “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being”. Increasingly, they are finding new and receptive audiences in the west, who recognize themselves in poems like For Years My Heart Inquired Of Me. How many people have not, at some point, asked themselves, as Hafiz did, “What is their meaning?” (The “their”, of course, is transposable to a multitude of situations.) An equal number of people must have struggled to find the answer that Hafiz arrived at: “It’s your distracted lovelorn heart / That asks these questions constantly” (For Years My Heart Inquired Of Me, translated by Dick Davis, POETRY, The Translation Issue, 2008)
Poet, philosopher, cancer survivor and New York Times #1 bestseller, Mark Nepo is a modern phenomenon. Not only does he help bridge the gap between the great spiritual poets of earlier centuries and those writing now, he acts as a guide and a beacon of light for all of those struggling with contemporary life. His poetry has been described as “medicine”. Each word is a balm for the soul and, taken together as poems, his words are therapeutic in a way that little else is in our modern world. He also does not shy away from acknowledging the challenges all of us face as we navigate daily life, our relationships and the particular paths of our lives. He urges his readers to “Let no one keep you from your journey, / no rabbi or priest, no mother / who wants you to dig for treasures / she misplaced, no father / who won’t let one life be enough… / no voice that tells you in the night / it can’t be done.” (Breaking Surface, from The Way Under the Way: The Place of True Meeting, Mark Nepo, Sounds True, 2016). This is the diamond-centred essence of spiritual poetry: the acknowledgement that we are who we are, and that the greatest riches are to be found within ourselves.
Ellen Grace O’Brian
The spiritual insights accumulated over centuries by poets, mystics and others can all too often seem bewildering, impenetrable or simply irrelevant in modern life. In an age when religious traditions can feel dogmatic, even offensive to modern sensibilities, Ellen Grace O’Brian is a calm voice in a wild storm. She understands that people from all faiths and none seek a deeper meaning, connection with something sacred, or ‘Self- or God-realization’ – and yet may still struggle to realize that the awakening they seek is already present within their own hearts and souls. For many years, in her practice and teaching of Kriya Yoga, with its origins in ancient Vedic teachings, Yogacharya O’Brian has helped people reach their own spiritual awakening. Her poetry, too, takes up the tradition of those who have gone before her. Above all, again and again, her poems point to the transformative power of love. She urges her reader to take “prasãd – ambrosia of now…[because] it will sweeten your tongue / render you speechless / make you sing” (Sãndhya, from The Moon Reminded Me, Ellen Grace O’Brian, Homebound Publications, 2017). It is messages such as these that keep spiritual poetry as relevant and resonant in the twenty-first century as it was hundreds of years ago. The times may change but the questions, and the yearnings for something that is missing do not.
Photo: Samara Doole