Saturday, November 8, 2014

Prompt #207 – What on Earth Is Spiritual Poetry?

This week’s prompt was inspired by a Facebook post a few weeks ago that was written by my old friend and fellow poet (and my godson’s father), Joe Weil.  


By Joe Weil

In the middle of being busy, I grew distracted (I have that talent), and soon forgot to be busy, and I was four years old and sitting under the sweeping arch of a large forsythia bush that used to border our back yard. There were no blooms yet, but it was late winter, the beginning of March, and sparrows were puffing up their little bodies, perching close together to stay warm. I started to pray to God though I did not know any prayers yet or how to pray. I kept saying, “God, God, God.” God, and laughing. I was silly with the word. I made a song out of it. I said God in a deep voice and a high voice—very, very slowly, then very quickly. The sky was cloudy, the color of old oatmeal. The rich and slightly damp soil beneath the forsythia was on my hands, and it smelled vaguely of root beer. I heard my mother call my name, but I did not answer her right away, “Joseph! Where are you?” I blessed myself the way I saw my grandmother do a hundred times, and I shouted, “Ma!” I came out of this reverie stained with the grief of knowing even my most sophisticated prayers, all the work I do, can never make me feel that alive and intimate with God again. I thought, “I peaked at age five,” and then I realized the longing I felt to return to some interior life like that was a gift—perhaps my only gift, a genuine prayer given to me while, as Auden said, the dog goes on with its doggy life.


What struck me about this prose poem is its intense spiritual nature and its sense of wonder and awe. It is, in my reckoning, profoundly spiritual. It isn’t self-consciously religious and it doesn’t stand on superficial pretension. It’s spiritual, not because it mentions God, but because it affirms God’s presence in the poet’s life, the importance of the poet’s family members, how childhood’s innocence is something we all lose, and how we long for communion with the sacred.

To me, Joe’s words read like a prose poem; but, more importantly, they do what Joe is noted for: they approache the “sacred” through the here and now—an important component of spiritual poetry.

As poetry editor of Tiferet Journal, I’m often asked what spiritual poetry is. My first answer is always that spiritual poetry isn’t necessarily religious, a statement of faith, or about an “ism” of any kind. For me, it is:

  • poetry that approaches the sacred through the here and now,
  • meditative poetry that doesn’t just skim the surface of experiences,
  • poetry that avoids the sentimental, the corny, and the obvious while reaching toward deeper truths,
  • poetry that incorporates silence, awe, and humility,
  • poetry that may or may not include reference to a deity but somehow affirms something larger than humanity at the core of existence,
  • poetry that, without being overtly mystical or obscure, understands it has touched something that is unknowable and holy.

According to poet and translator, Jane Hirschfield, “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.” (Source)

I realized when writing this that “spiritual poetry” is hard to define, but I know it when I read it, and I suspect that you do too. I thought you might be interested in reading other poets’ thoughts on the subject, so I consulted a few poet friends, and their thoughts follow.

From Renée Ashley

I tend to think of spiritual poems as those that address the state of the inner being in the context of the long now as opposed to the lyric moment. Perhaps another way to say that is, those that address the condition of the soul over the long term, though I’m not certain what soul may be. Brigit Pegeen Kelly is very much a spiritual poet, I think. For example, her poem “Song” builds brilliantly and elegantly throughout and culminates with its reveal of the ongoing state of the boys’ inner lives after their murder of the goat. "Song" by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

From Priscilla Orr

For me, spiritual poems reach into the numinous.  What I mean is that the poems may be anchored in the natural world or even the human world, but they also reach into the ether.  They take the poem into territory, which is inexplicable to us but that we somehow all know or recognize as a place where we move beyond rational knowing to pure intuitive knowing.  We may not understand or comprehend in that rationale way, but we recognize the place we've entered as sacred in some way.  And sometimes it's the collision of these two worlds that reveals what we typically miss.  Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose" is a good example. The last stanzas illustrate the sense of wonder.  "The Moose" by Elizabeth Bishop

From Penny Harter

Spiritual poetry is poetry that celebrates life with a sense of wonder and humility, poetry that finds the most simple moments of our everyday experience revelatory and radiant with meaning. Also, it is poetry that searches for understanding as it probes the eternal questions of time and mortality, exploring our place in the mystery of the cosmos. Among contemporaries, Jane Hirshfield, Barbara Crooker, Julie L. Moore, Therese Halscheid, and Adele Kenny come first to mind as spiritual poets. And of course James Wright, and the late Galway Kinnell ...whom we will sorely miss! Many poets write "spiritual" poetry, too many for me to keep naming. It's an essential part of who our best poets are, I think.

From Gary J. Whitehead

It seems to me that there are many ways of defining spiritual poetry. Some see spiritual poetry to mean religious verse. Others think of it as poetry that deals with New Age topics or the occult. I've always thought of it in the metaphysical sense—as poetry that attempts to examine one's own place as a living, breathing (think of the Latin meaning of spiritus), mortal being in the world. Spirit, separate from soul, then, is that unique breath of life of the individual. Stanley Kunitz comes to mind as a good example of a spiritual poet.

The word spiritual often gets in the way. Its connotations are usually that of uplift or wisdom or nature writing that seeks to induce "Serenity" on the part of the reader and to cater to easy epiphanies. There is an enormous market for serenity—countless self help books, and inspirational tales of affirmation, but I think serenity without some sense of ferocity is always a bit of a cheat. Miguel Hernandez was a deeply spiritual poet as was St. John of the cross and they didn't tidy things up to look like sunsets on a lake. George Herbert's pains and contradictions, and the absolutely sexual heat of much mystical writing also factor in. I think the best spiritual writing proves that uncertainty and trouble are not diametrically opposed to a peace that surpasses all understanding, or more importantly to joy. Joy can exist beyond the conditional without being in denial. Happiness is far more precarious and those who lust for easy transport often misunderstand that the spirit goes where it will, like a wind, plumbing and testing even the depths of God. It’s raucous, and rippling. The spirit has energy and ferocity to spare, and so does the best spiritual poetry. To me, it is not spiritual to sit on a lake at the end of the day feeling all blessed-out if your fanny gets to sit there because thousands of others are suffering and far from any lakes. We cannot make a heaven of others’ misery, but we can try as poets not to make misery the end all/be all. Spiritual poetry is kind, compassionate, in love with the physicality of life, and deeply wise, but it is not polite. It is not a "seeming."



1. Begin by thinking in terms of awe-filled moments you’ve experienced. Remember that these moments may be the simplest and seemingly unimportant but are moments through which your awareness of something special and good in the world was enhanced.

2. Pick one moment and free write about it for fifteen or twenty minutes.

3. Come back to your free write several hours (or even a day or two later) and read what you wrote. Cull from your free write images and ideas to work into a poem.

4. Begin writing—think in terms of form (free verse, pantoum, sonnet, haiku, haibun, etc.).

5. “Direct” your poem: to a particular person, from the first person, in narrative form.

6. Create a mood or tone.

7. Consider the spiritual insight you hope to share. What exactly is the point you want to make?


1. Spend time on your line breaks. Remember that how you break your lines (scansion) can help the reader pause exactly where you want pauses to occur. Line breaks can also be used to accentuate content and meaning.

2. Keep in mind that the best poems make their points by showing and not telling.

3. Beware of becoming self-consciously “religious.”

4. After you’ve written a couple of drafts, put the poem aside for a while and then come back to it. Try some reorganization; that is, move your lines around (sometimes the first line of a poem should become the last line and vice versa).

5. Look for adjectives and adverbs that are unnecessary. 

6. Drop articles when possible and remove prepositional phrases.

7. Create an integrated whole of language, form, and meaning.


1. For a wonderful article and numerous example poems with commentary, click here.

2. My personal all-time favorite when I think of spiritual poetry. (Note that this is a poem about God; that notwithstanding, how does Hopkins use language to empower the poem?)

God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

3. Here's another personal favorite (first published in Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature, Issue 19, 2011).

A Valediction to the Horizon by Robert Carnevale

I marvel at friends who believe
that they will see loved ones again

The Earth falls forward without belief,
and no struggle, no anguish of ours
can begin to deceive it.

It seems the most I could believe in
was how some grace brought us
together in ways no god would imagine.

But plots thicken beyond believing.
Nothing is still there where we knew it,
no one, still there where we knew them.

   Whose leaving was our arriving?
   What did they have to take with them?
   What will grow from our going?

But even to question is to believe
in what makes the question conceivable
over here in the impossible. 

Here, now, we can only be
on one side of a door or the other.
That is not how it is where we’re going.


  1. Terrific post! I like that you imply a distinction between spiritual and religious. It's possible to be one without being the other. Likewise, the poems.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Diane! I'm happy to know that you enjoyed it.

  2. Brilliant, Adele! I think this just may be my favorite of all the prompts (and you know I'm a loyal follower, so I've seen them all).

    Some great distinctions are made among the poets' comments, and something of the undefinable has been made clearer. I suppose there will always be a a certain 'mystery' about spiritual poetry but, somehow, that seems exactly right.

    My thanks to you and to all of the poets.

    1. Thanks so much, Jamie! I agree about the distinctions and the "mystery" inherent in spiritual poetry.

      I'm delighted to know that you like the post!

  3. Such a beautiful prompt and such lovely poems! I especially like the poem by Robert Carnevale and the prose poem by Joe Weil -- and Hopkins is, of course, the master of spiritual poetry.

    The other poets' thoughts on spiritual poetry really enrich the prompt. I must go now and see what I can write. thank you!

    Amita (Mumbai, India)

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Amita!

      Hope you wrote something you love!

  4. Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)November 9, 2014 at 9:16 AM

    Wonderful post, Adele, so beautifully and thoughtfully presented. Thank you to you and to the poets who contributed their thoughts. The poems by Joe Weil and Robert Carnevale are gorgeous!

    1. Thank you, Maire! It's always good to hear from you!

      I agree about the Carnevale and Weil poems!

  5. I really don't know why but there is " The spirit" in this poem of Pessoa:


    Que voz vem no som das ondas
    Que não é a voz do mar?
    É a voz de alguém que nos fala,
    Mas que, se escutamos, cala,
    Por ter havido escutar.
    E só se, meio dormindo,
    Sem saber de ouvir ouvimos,
    Que ela nos diz a esperança
    A que, como uma criança
    Dormente, a dormir sorrimos.
    São ilhas afortunadas,
    São terras sem ter lugar,
    Onde o Rei mora esperando.
    Mas, se vamos despertando,
    Cala a voz, e há só o mar.

    1. Thanks, Jago! Great to hear from you!

      I'm trying to find a translation from Portuguese into English but haven't been able to online. Can you help, please?

  6. I'm trying too : it is strange but perhaps the spirit is untrastatable...

    1. You may be right! If you find a translation, please let me know and I'll let you know if I find one!

  7. maggots crawl over the flesh
    cleaning the bones
    flies buzz
    the stench of death fills the air
    everything gets recycled

    flowers grow


    1. Very effective in the way you use negative imagery to lead into the positive. Well done, as always!

  8. Just an attempt to traslate

    The Fortunate Islands

    Which voice comes over the sound of the waves
    that is not the voice of the sea?
    It is the voice of someone who speaks to us,
    but, if we listen, stops talking because
    he is heard.

    And only when, half asleep,
    without knowing to hear,we hear,
    it tells us about the hope
    to which, as a child
    sleeping, we sleeping smile.

    These are fortunate islands,
    are lands that have no place,
    where the King lives waiting for. But, if we go waking,
    the voice stops talking, and there is only the sea

    1. Thanks so much for the translation! I know how good your translation work is so I'm certain that this gives a very accurate sense of Pessoa's original.

      Grazie mille!

    2. Thanks for this, Jago! I love Pessoa's work, and I've greatly enjoyed your translations in the past.

      I found this quote from Pessoa on Goodreads: 'Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily. It is a journey of the spirit through the material world and, since it is the spirit that travels, it is the spirit that is experienced. That is why there exist contemplative souls who have lived more intensely, more widely, more tumultuously than others who have lived their lives purely externally.'

    3. Thanks for the translation of this most interesting poet's poem. Most certainly a spiritual poem/poet.

  9. you
    at two
    flying by
    with your plastic superman cape
    tired around your shoulders
    that mad look in your eyes
    stole my heart

    1. Lovely! And, as always, your inimitable style! Well done, Risa. Thanks for sharing with us.