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.