By the waters of Sumer, there did Enheduanna sit down and write. Before T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, John Milton and William Shakespeare, there was this first woman, this Enheduanna, this daughter of the king Sargon of Akkad and priestess of the moon goddess Inanna, the first writer of whom we have a name. In the shadow of the great Ziggurat, Enheduanna in flaxen robes and gem encrusted tiara did chant the truths divine, the earliest poet of whom we can say "Yes, she existed, this was her name, and here is the verse which she wrote. This is what was important to her. What she prayed for." All of those authors, those writers of prose and poetry, of the forty-three centuries hence, yet the first of their names forever remains the five syllables of "Enheduanna," uttered like incantation.
There is, to be sure, a certain sublimity which derives from the sheer age of such verse, that we’re able to hear something that ancient at all. When she praises the "Radiant one/Beloved of Heaven and Earth" in her hymn to Inanna, how much can we recognize those same emotions in our disenchanted age? In the priestess’ dejections, her sense of exile from the divine where meaning itself perishes, do we not still hear Enheduanna’s words? Where "My beautiful mouth knows only confusion. /Even my sex is dust." This is a poetry about creation and destruction, about being once favored within the paradisical garden and the dejection of being caste through its gates. In other words, Enheduanna writes about the tragedy and exultation of being alive in a fallible body, of trying to find meaning in the din of disorder. The priestess’ references are archaic, her words are foreign, her stories are alien, but ultimately, Enheduanna’s poetry is concerned with what every spiritual lyric is concerned with – how do we get back home? Does it even exist?
One of our great contemporary liturgical poets, the Iranian-American writer Kaveh Akbar, whose own collection the 2017 Calling a Wolf a Wolf drinks from the same shores of Babylon as does the great Sumerian poet dead for millennia, describes those lyrics of Enheduanna in the notes to his edited anthology The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 110 Poets on the Divine as having at the center of her "poetic atom, the precipitating subject of all of our species’ writing… confusion, bewilderment, and a dizzy stagger at the divine." An ambiguous definition for the phrase "spiritual writing," though when dealing with anything as wooly as the transcendent, it would have to be. Of all the contemporary poets who could be tasked with assembling a collection such as this, the 33-year-old Akbar seems particularly well positioned. His own verse draws in equal measure from his Muslim background, particularly the mystical permutations within Sufism, as well as from the language of Twelve Step recovery derived from his own experiences as a recovering alcoholic, the later thought as embodied within works like Bill W.’s Alcoholics Anonymous constituting one of the most significant spiritual revolutions of the twentieth-century.
"I charged into desire like a/tiger sprinting off the edge of/the world," writes Akbar in a poem from his collection Portrait of the Alcoholic, a perfect encapsulation of the similar energy that drives both religious seekers and addicts—that later malady accurately defined by psychoanalyst Carl Jung as a material solution to a spiritual problem. With that enjambment between "edge of" and "the world," Akbar evokes a little bit of what it feels like to hang on to that balance between the enormity of nothing and the prison of the self, the central problem that manifests for both mystics and drunks, albeit to different ends. Superficially ironic but actually totally appropriate that Akbar comes from a faith which prohibits alcohol, yet whose Sufi variations often indulge in an antinomian drunkenness – the staining of elaborate prayer rugs red with shiraz – and who emerged scathed but alive on the other side in the safety of the Twelve Steps. What such an experience, what such a life, inculcates is a certain wisdom as to what constitutes religion and what defines poetry. Which is why The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse evidences such a necessary promiscuity, its beautifully heterodox assemblage of poets who once wrote along the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, the Tiber, the Danube, the Congo, the Yangtze, the Amazon, and the Mississippi and who prayed to Inanna and Yahweh, Christ and Allah, the Tao and Nothingness, forces us to brief what exactly this word "spiritual" might mean.
As with drinking to excess, or praying to excess for that matter, there are dangers in assemblage as well, risks in reading and collating toas if a glutton in a pleasure palace. The possibility of greater wisdom as well, for the road to excess and all the rest. Akbar’s anthology is not the first collection of spiritual, or religious, or liturgical verse, whatever you wish to designate such poetry by. To press into service lyrics by poets from cultures and times as dissimilar as those in which Li Bao and Emily Dickinson wrote risks a certain presentism, a sentimental universalism which erases distinction between faiths. Far easier to edit a reader based in literary movements, or even national literature, than it is to craft an anthology that’s to give due reverence to the full spectrum of belief. Oxford University Press published over the course of the twentieth-century three anthologies of religious poetry that are as close to standard as one can imagine for such a subject; the New Oxford Book of Christian Verse edited by Donald Davie in 1981, the Oxford Book of Christian Verse compiled by Lord David Cecil in 1940, and a century ago, the 1921 Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse by Daniel Howard Sinclair Nicholson and Arthur Hugh Evelyn Lee.
There are certain predictable inclusions; Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne, George Herbert and W.B. Yeats. William Blake doesn’t make his first appearance until the 1940 anthology, after his scholarly rediscovery, while some once lauded poets like the fashionable Victorian aesthete John Addington Symonds disappear from those pages. Predictably, all three anthologies hew white, male, and Christian, though the denominational allegiance at least matches the titles. Despite that provincialism, in other regards there is a pleasing eclecticism to such an impossible venture, including the publication of figures like the politically mercurial philosopher George Santayana, and, most surprisingly, the inclusion of the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley in the Nicholson and Lee collection. For any failings in these volumes—and by definition every anthology is an exercise in failure, regardless of who edited it—the designation of each collection as being concerned with "Christian" tempers any accusation that they’re not ecumenical enough. By contrast, the redactor of "religious" verse, or, God forbid, "spiritual" poetry, has set themselves up for a much more difficult task.
Such was the task of popularier Karen Armstrong’s 1981 Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience, which is unfortunately out of print, and Harold Bloom’s American Religious Poems from 2006, which at least limits by nationality as broadly constituted, or Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry, published in 2014, which seems to come closest to Akbar’s intent, albeit with a more extensive scholarly apparatus upended to it. Any anthology such as these has to pick its adjectives: "spiritual," "devotional," "religious," or, most constricting of all, "liturgical." Notably, none of these are synonymous, but the risk of religious studies as a discipline is that when in the kingdom of meaning, belief, and faith, there are perilously few synonyms across traditions. To put Lao Tzu and G.K. Chesterton in the same anthology is to assume that their faith was towards the same substance, and yet is the danger of making Western beliefs into an idol, in assuming that those from traditions radically different from a European Christian understanding were simply talking about Jesus but using different words, the same perennialist impulse that led early translators of the gospels into Chinese to render John 1:1 as "In the beginning, there was the Tao."
The word "religion" has a tendency to flatten, to group anything with a rite and a liturgy, or a doctrine and a philosophy, or ritual and scripture, and to group all of them together in their dizzying complexity. As a result, things which reminded religious studies scholars of Protestantism were identified as "religions," or else they were intellectually mutilated until they resembled northern European Christianity. As a result, much that concerns itself with ultimate meaning—be it the fragmentary aphorisms of ancient Greek lyricists or the I-Ching—could be cordoned off from "religion" proper. Such an approach can, at its worst, make it seem as if nothing is religious. Akbar’s method, by contrast, can seem to make everything religious, "spiritual" poetry including not just John Milton and Teresa of Avila, but Federica Garcia Lorca and Lucile Clifton as well. Lorca and Clifton are, I’d venture, profoundly spiritual poets, for between the two extremes of assuming nothing is religion or that everything is, the latter comes much closer to the truth, albeit it makes the task of analysis that much more difficult.
Though Akbar provides a charmingly idiosyncratic set of introductions to each poem, the general sense of how we’re to interpret the anthology as a whole is ironically sola Scriptura in its orientation, a Protestant reliance on reading the text alone. So then, how exactly do all of these poems cohere? How do they speak to one another? With Enheduanna making her supplications in her goddess’ temple from that unfathomable distance into the past, it seems clear that hers is a poetry of ritual and liturgy, rite and mythology. But what invisible thread connects her to every other woman and man who has penned religious poetry? If she is the godmother of our verse, how much of what we write is fundamentally about the same subject? For after all, Enheduanna contains multitudes; she is a universe, encompassing those poles of spiritual despair and exultation.
Do we detect the Sumerian priestess’ despair at exile in the twentieth-century Ukrainian poet Anna Akhmatova’s grief in Requiem, a pillar of modernist verse? That devotional poet, born by the Black Sea in the once-again destroyed city of Odessa, waiting outside of a Leningrad prison to hear word about her caged son’s condition, standing alongside the families of all the other young men imprisoned by the Stalinist regime, where she "learned how faces fall, /How terror darts from under eyelids, /How suffering traces lines/Of stiff cuneiform on cheeks, /How locks of ashen-blonde or black/Turn silver suddenly," the tribulations of Sumer to which the priestess spoke carved on the faces of those mourning. In the slate-grey Baltic snow Akhmatova turns to the religious symbology of her religious upbringing, of how during the crucifixion a "choir of angels sang the praises of that momentous hour,/And the heavens dissolved in fire./To his Father He said: ‘Why has Thou forsaken me!’/And to his Mother: ‘Oh, do not weep for Me.’" Praying for her son, praying for her lover the fellow poet Ossip Mandelstam than dying in a Siberian gulag, praying for all of those she knew in the ever-dwindling crowd of intellectuals thinned out by the Great Purge, so that the only imagery that seems appropriate are those scenes of martyrdom rendered in icon and bejeweled mosaic, seen in the dimly flickering candlelight of the Orthodox church.
Some of the most significant spiritual verse renders God into a means of measuring our own suffering—often the most helpful thing that either faith or poetry can do. A less likely spiritual poet, but one all the same, named John Lennon, expressed this in the line, "God is a concept by which we measure our own pain." Akhmatova’s poetry isn’t a supplicating prayer per se; she’s not begging for intercession from the sky, Nobodaddy, but she’s using God as a means to measure and express profound suffering. Those who attempted to rationalize faith in the eighteenth century, who with their bourgeois affectations sheared it of all pathos and left behind the anemic watchmaker of Deism, missed one purpose of God; not that He can damn us, but rather that we can damn Him. The same desperate need to express with every breath as that taken by the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho, who upon the tatami mat on which he would die exerted his last pulse of energy to write in the swooping black calligraphy of the master haiku poet how "Death-sick on my journey/My dream runs out ahead of me/Across the empty field." Even facing the finality of death, and those beautiful doubts must endure, for that there is some field ahead of us is certain, but as Basho’s eyelids close, he can’t see anything laying within it. "How long till execution?" Akhmatova asks.
The soul, or spirit, or Ultimate Being, or God, need not always simply provide the means for being able to describe our grief, however. Spiritual verse isn’t just a poetry of death, but also of life, of the wondrous strangeness that any of us should exist at all. The eighteenth-century poet Phyllis Wheatley, whose last name was that of the Puritan Boston family who had enslaved her and whose first name was that of the hellish ship that transported her across the Middle Passage, understood that whatever the law said, to God her soul was free. Making her way through the red-bricked streets of Cambridge to the Congregationalist church, past the learned men of Harvard who had at first dared to cast aspersions on the authorship of these lyrics, and Wheatley was able to see angels in the trees, she could imagine how "her sacred retinue descends, /Arrayed in glory from the orbs above… O Thou, enthroned with Cherubs in the realms of day!" Notable that of the three Oxford anthologies of religious verse, from 1921, 1940, and 1981, and Wheatley isn’t found in any. Wonder also thrummed through the canticles of the twelfth-century German anchorite saint Hildegard of Bingen, who prayed the rosary in her cell and prepared tinctures of herbal abortifacients for the women of the village, who disputed scholastic theology and composed liturgical music while meditating on the "light of primordial/daybreak over the spheres… a wheel around the world, /who’s circling never began/and never slides to an end." A century later, and in the poppy fields of Afghanistan the great Persian mystic Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, in the rough brown woolen cloak of the Sufis and the felt sikke hat of the Dervish, could incant the forbidden in pleading "Pour, cupbearer, the wine of the invisible, /The name and sign of what has no sign! /Pour it abundantly, it is you who enrich the soul;/Make the soul drunk, and give it wings!"
Is a unified theory of religious poetry even possible? Poetry, which at its best eschews all definitions, all categorizations, and all genealogies but rather looks obliquely upon the thing itself laid bare upon the altar, is the opposite of catechisms, doctrines, creeds, and statements of faith. Which is precisely why a Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim poet happen to sing praises of the same God, because the language of the poem – even if structured by words – gestures to something beyond mere representation. "A common formulation states that prayer is a way of speaking to the divine and meditation is a way of listening for it," writes Akbar. "Poetry synthesizes these… Sacred poetry teaches us to be comfortable with complexity, to be skeptical of unqualified certitude." This is a good formulation, I think, because it’s useful. It’s an ecumenical definition, a big-tent definition, and a promiscuous definition that allows many poets into the temple. Religious verse offers something different from scripture—not certainty, but the yearning of prayer, the doubts of existence; it serves to remind us of the finality of our lives, of limitation, but limitation within grandeur, of finitude within infinity. Devotional verse never needs to be about God necessarily; it can be about existence and creation, mystery and ecstasy, justice and theodicy, grief and the body, words, and final silence while still being "religious," which is to say obsessed with the direction towards which we direct both praise and damnation, even if ultimately nothing is there.
Nothing is more enigmatic than existence, except for non-existence. That any of us should simply be is a state so surprising, so odd, so inconceivable that the most potent of spiritual verse often dwells in that predicament. The twentieth-century Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska expresses our indwelling in her aptly named poem "Astonishment," asking, "Why after all this one and not the rest? /Why this specific self, not in a nest, /but a house? Sewn up not in scales, but skin?" A question so belying in its simplicity and profound in its implications; the only philosophical query that has ever really meant anything—why are we who we are rather than who we are not? Why is there something rather than nothing? "In spite of years of my not being here? /In spite of seas of all these dates and fates, /These cells, celestials and coelenterates?" Szymborska’s sing-song rhyme scheme and her befuddled joy in the propulsive, easy-going assonance all belies the paradox which is the focus of her lyric, the incongruity of us existing at all. The ancient Epicureans, in an effort to calm the mind which feared death, reminded people that even if there is an eternity of nothingness after our extinction, there was an equal eternity of nothingness before our birth. "Astonishment’s" wisdom is that it doesn’t pretend that there is anything calming in the fact of our one-time non-existence.
Creation, such liturgical poetry suggests, is not only the provenance of the Lord. The mere reality of anything being, that pre-requisite of existence, was God’s prerogative in that time before time, but within the domain as he’s set, we can rearrange bits and pieces, we can play as if were deities through our words. Twentieth-century Vietnamese poet Inrasara, who writes in the Cham language, enumerates the ways in which he has fortified himself in his own poetic creations, a recipe by "One line of proverb – one verse of folk song/half a child’s lullaby – one page of ancient poetry/I search and gather/like a child seeking a tiny pebble/(pebbles that adults carelessly step past)/to build a castle for only myself to live in" before moving from the interiority of the first person singular to the expansiveness of the plural, for this is "a castle one day they’ll use for shelter from the rain." An acknowledgement of the multiplicity of the individual, all of us who contain such baroque complexities within ourselves; or of the possibility of assuring a dry patch for those who must shelter themselves after we are gone, or both. To hollow out a bit of yourself to make room in which poetry may grow, to collapse your own being so that some kind of meaning may grow outward, Inrasara implies, is the purpose of playing with words like pebbles on the beach. Within each inviolate human soul is a cosmos, for as the Indian poet Chandaka recounted, some six centuries before Christ, about how one time when Krishna, an avatar of the deity Vishnu, was playing as an infant, he started to eat dirt. The god’s mother commands him "Open your mouth. /he opened it/and she stood speechless/inside was/the universe." We are not all poets, but we are all poetry.
In the chimeras of faith there is a freedom from the rigid, rectilinear rules of rationality, an encounter with mystery, with the miraculous. Ingrid Jonker, the twentieth-century Afrikaans poet who vociferously rejected the authoritarianism of South Africa’s Apartheid regime and became a dissident against it before walking into the sea in 1965 at the age of 31, understood this. With lushness of adjective and tangibility of image, Jonker describes "Ochre night and your hands/a vineyard through summer and frost? /eyes of rain over the meadows, but there is just one forever." Her short lyric goes on like this, tangible, sensual, physical descriptions of a "glittering body" and "gleaming hands," reference to that primordial red soil of our ancestors in the "great glow of the ochre earth" and of the organic "Green growth of the eternal," and yet every stanza ends with that truth – "there is just one forever." A strange construction, for "just one" seems to speak of the transitory, a carpe diem, but the "forever" sings of eternity. There is both the feeling that we must not waste our moments of experience, but that once they’re written they are also always present in that intangible, inaccessible forever; how what will come has already come and can’t be erased, or that we should at least live as if that were true. The Chinese Zen patriarch Sengcan anticipated Jonker’s insight, writing in the sixth-century how "If there is no here, no there;/infinity is right before your eyes. /The tiny is as large as the vast/when objective boundaries have vanished;/the vast is as small as the tiny/when you don’t have external limits" because there is "no yesterday, no today, no tomorrow."
To love God in ecstasy is the easier task, to love him even more through our hatred is a sacred calling. Calculating the Lord’s circumference with the compass of rapture is the neophyte mystic’s first trick, but in a world as fallen as our own, where a privileged minority profits off the material exploitation of billions, where the temperature is rising and the ocean is acidifying, where millions are corralled into camps or prisons, there can be at best a naivety and at worst a complacency in focusing on the transcendence of God without judging him. Even that we all die is an injustice enough to condemn the Lord, for to hold God accountable is its own form of holy love. Adonis, the contemporary Syrian poet, reimagines Genesis in a poem about Noah, depicting the patriarch asking the deity, "‘Why Lord, have you saved us alone/From among all the people and creatures?... We despair of the Light, /We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow/In which to start life anew." Hebrew Scripture’s most powerful moments – Sarah laughing at the Lord, Jacob wrestling with God – don’t allow the Creator to skirt his responsibilities to his children. If only Noah had been courageous enough to ask such a question as Adonis envisions, to wonder what justice could necessitate the melting of the ice-caps and the rising of the waters, the very destruction of the earth. A protest against such arbitrary injunctions which saves the lucky few upon a rickety wooden ark that disembarks at Ararat while letting all the rest perish. "If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember," Adonis writes, "Or something in between/Then we would not have to see/This world, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over." Soviet poet Marina Tsvetaeya, an associate of Akhmatova, gave a concise sentencing of the Lord in her Poems to Czechia – "A black mountain/has blocked out the light of the Earth. /Time – time – time/to give back to God his ticket."
In 1941, Tsvetaeya would kill herself, as Jonker had in 1965, because of the machinations of an oppressive state, the former by hanging and the latter by drowning. Sengcan, by contrast, survived an astounding 110 years of this life before gently expiring underneath a Bodhi tree in 606. Szymborska didn’t make it quite as long as Sengcan, but she was still able to live until 88 before gently expiring in her sleep in the suburbs of Krakow. Rumi, a true Sufi to the end, prophesied his own death and wrote a ghazel in anticipation of it before dying on the anticipated date of 1273. When the sisters of Eibingen Abbey gathered about heir Mother Superior Hildegard’s death bed in 1179, it was said that two divine lights burst from her corpse as she departed this earthly plane. And of the divine Wheatley, emancipated at last after the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she would live only a decade more in a half-freedom, before dying in 1785 in poverty and obscurity after having buried two of her own babies. She was 31, the same age as Jonker. All of this is to say that such sacred poets are not messiahs, that even our prophets and saints must die, but it’s in the shared affliction of having a body that some of the most distilled holiness is to be found. The contemporary Brazilian mystical poet Adelia Prado writes that "We give birth to life between our legs/and go on talking about it till the end, /few of us understanding:/it’s the soul that’s erotic," though then it’s also the body which is divine. Mirabai, a sixteenth-century Indian sage enthuses that "Within the body are gardens, /rare flowers, peacocks, the inner Music;/within the body a lake of bliss, /on it the white soul-swans take their joy." We are, in this way, all incarnations of divinity; the sparkle of eye or the warmth of a smile as much poetry as anything.
"Destiny doesn’t exist," writes Prado. "It’s God we need, and fast." There is an ambiguity to her demand: are we requesting God’s arrival, or is Prado commanding us to finally construct the Lord? Where sacred poetry differs from scripture, liturgy, and prayer is in the intuition that we’re not so much describing God as we are birthing him—that the poetry itself is generative of such holiness. The fifteenth-century Indigenous Mesoamerican poet Netzahualcoyotl imagines God as a sort of omnipotent writer and all of us as characters in his book, where "With black ink You will blot out/all that was friendship, /brotherhood, nobility. /You give shading/to those who must live on the earth. /We live only in Your book of paintings, /here on the earth," yet the converse is just as true. Whatever exists at the center of all meaning, where words and images cannot venture, may be what it may be, but how we choose to envision it in our limited language is our own birthright, not as angels but as mere humans, mere humans with an infinite ability of imagination. Iraqi poet Nazik Al-Malaika – by the same rivers were once her great-great grandmother Enheduanna did write – explains that "Tomorrow we will build ourselves a dream-nest of words, /high, with ivy trailing from its letters. /We will nourish its buds with poetry/and water its flowers with words. /We will build a balcony for the timid rose/with pillars made of words, /and a cool hall flooded with deep shade, /guarded by words."
Ever the blessed and gorgeous failure of poetry, of words, for though we can build our own heavens, render our own gods, construct our own salvations, language itself must always fall short of the divine, for the nature of God must always be silence. Poets scan out beats and craft rhyme schemes; they deploy metaphor and metonymy, and each in its own way may give us that ecstatic flash of understanding, but to truly be in the enduring presence of the Lord, the Tao, or the Nothing, it must be continually deferred (until one day it isn’t). The Luminous, the Spiritual, the Transcendent – all abstractions, for we have no finality, all that we can do is gesture toward that empty field that Basho saw upon his deathbed and hope that some answers are forthcoming. "I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree," writes the twentieth-century Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, and though he wasn’t speaking from the vantage point of the Creator of the universe, he might as well have been. Silence is God’s idiom. That there is no evidence for his existence—not really—is the most powerful evidence that God is real, though whatever his title means, it remains just as mute as his pronouncements.
"Silence" is an odd word to choose to describe an anthology like Akbar’s, with poems written in Sumerian and Akkadian, Hebrew and Aramaic, Greek and Latin, Pushto, Urdu, Wolof, Nahutal, Spanish, French, German, and English. A volume like this would, far from being silent, rather sing in a glorious cacophony, a sacred babel. And yet the translator’s art always has ineffability at its core—the inexact science of matching word to word, and in the case of sacred writing, of connecting them to something all the more undefinable. Failure necessarily marks any such venture, though that’s true of being a human as well. The aforementioned Chinese gospel translation of John 1:1, which rendered "Word" as "Tao," (or, strictly speaking, translated "logos" as such), is an exemplary case because there can never be an exact definition for any of those terms. "Word," "Logos," "Tao," "God." They are signs in search of referents, but all the more holy because of it. Spiritual verse must always gesture toward the infinite, the eternal, the absolute, and the transcendent, because as regards those final things, gestures are all that we’re capable of.
For when it comes to sacred verse, to poetry that most fully embodies the singularity of holiness, where both space and time disintegrate and meaning is measured in the infinite and the eternal, then quietude is the only proper response. Baring that, sometimes entropy itself can supply the illuminations of silence. Sappho, the great ancient Greek poet, the Ninth Muse herself, exists only in fragments (save for one complete lyric of hers quoted in a work of literary criticism). What survives of hers is sublime, but often what doesn’t remain can be all the more transcendent because it doesn’t survive. She wrote "because I prayed/this word:/I want," and then the papyrus breaks off into lacunae, Sappho made numinous by that which is missing. What she wanted, what Sappho prayed for, is forever lost, for scrolls burn and disintegrate, get destroyed by water and mold. Same for all of us, eventually. That beautiful silence, which Sapho approaches, is what we hope to receive from our supplications. What she prayed for, what she wanted, was ultimately only this. To be speechless before the infinite is the most humbling aspect of sacred poetry, dimly grasping towards the ineffable. The most joyful as well.