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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
6. Drop articles when possible and remove prepositional
7. Create an integrated whole of language, form, and
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
And wears man’s smudge and shares man's smell: the
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
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.
leaving was our arriving?
they have to take with them?
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.