Mystical poetry is not so much a matter of the subject. Instead, it is poetry used by mystics and the mystically inclined to express their awareness of an expanded consciousness, surpassing the everyday experience of so-called “reality.”
The most famous of all mystical poets is the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi (known in Persian as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī). Other well known Islamic mystics include the 14th-century poets Hafiz and Kabir (whose work had both Hindu and Muslim followers). Ghalib (1797–1869), an Indian poet of Turkish descent, has been an influence on a variety of poets. Christian poets who have strong mystical streaks include St. John of the Cross, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Thomas Merton.
English Romantic poet William Blake (1757–1827) stands alone in his own tradition, producing many mystical books and drawings, including the mystic histories America
. The great poet Rainer Marie Rilke (1875–1926) wrote mystical poetry with a hard edge, as through a crystal. Two poets representative of diverse East Asian traditions are Han Shan (Chinese, fl. 627–649) and the contemporary Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
In his landmark anthologies Shaking the Pumpkin
and Technicians of the Sacred
, contemporary American poet Jerome Rothenberg gathers sacred works with particular attention to indigenous traditions worldwide. Other contemporary poets who write out of mystical traditions or who are influenced by mystical thought include Robert Bly, Jane Hirschfield, and Brenda Hillman. We hope these examples are useful for writing and inspirational for the soul.
Some Contemporary Poets
Many contemporary poets use mystical inspiration in writing their poems. Some use mystical images in their work, while others write in prayerful or adoring manners. Still others go through their own dark night of the soul and write about it. The themes and variations are unlimited.
Robert Bly, Meditations on the Insatiable Soul
. HarperPerennial, 1994.
The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry
. Edited by Stephen Mitchell. Harper & Row, 1989.
Brenda Hillman, Bright Existence
. Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Jane Hirshfield, The October Palace
. HarperPerennial, 1994.
Jerome Rothenberg, Gematria
. Sun & Moon Press, 1994.
Jerome Rothenberg, Poems for the Game of Silence
, 1960–1970. The Dial Press, 1971.
Sekou Sundiata, [longstoryshort
]. Righteous Babe Records, 2000.
Poet, critic, and anthologist Jerome Rothenberg has done much to heighten awareness of mystical traditions on a global level. His two anthologies, Shaking the Pumpkin and Technicians of the Sacred, include work from American Indian and Pacific Islands cultures, among many others, emphasizing poetry as an integral part of cultural life and spirituality.
Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas
Edited by Jerome Rothenberg. Doubleday, 1972.
Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America,
Asia, Europe, and Oceania
. Edited by Jerome Rothenberg.
University of California Press, 1985.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1926– )
Thich Nhat Hanh began his training in Zen and the Mahayana school of Buddhism at age 16 in Vietnam. In 1949, at age 23, he was ordained as a monk. He worked tirelessly in his native country to put a stop to the Vietnam War. At age 40, he was exiled from Vietnam and has been allowed few trips back.
Nhat Hanh has written more than 75 books, and has lectured hundreds of times, usually to very large crowds. He primarily resides at Plum Village, the meditation community he founded in the South of France. After the Dalai Lama, he is arguably the most influential Buddhist teacher in the world.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Viet Nam Poems
. Translated by the author and Helen Coutant.
Unicorn Press, 1972.
Thomas Merton (1915–1968)
Probably the most important Roman Catholic writer of the 20th century, Thomas Merton published over 60 books, including his influential autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain
Merton lived a wild youth until his conversion to Roman Catholicism while attending Columbia University. At the age of 26, he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane, a community of monks belonging to the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), where he was to remain for most of the rest of his life.
Thomas Merton, In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems
. New Directions, 2005.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a British poet and Jesuit priest. The single most important event in Hopkins’s life was his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1866. It provided him with spiritual content but, at the same time, ensured that he remained unknown as a poet. (His poems were not published until 1918, and he never saw them in print.) His work is preeminently original and truly modern. He combined a mystical insight into nature with a profound humanity.
The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
, Fourth Edition. Edited by W. H. Gardner
and N. H. MacKenzie. Oxford University Press, 1967.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941)
One of the most famous of Indian poets, Rabindranath Tagore worked his whole life to bring various religious traditions together.
Tagore primarily wrote in Bengali but, while visiting England at age 51, he spent time translating his most spiritual Bengali poems into English. The resulting volume, Gitanjali
, was published in 1912 with an introduction by William Butler Yeats. The book was a great success and, in 1913, Tagore received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Subsequent world lecture tours increased his fame.
Tagore spent his later years at home in Calcutta, but continued to write tracts and essays against nationalism, militarism, war, and intolerance, speaking out for world peace with a powerful voice.
Rabindranath Tagore. Selected Poems
. Penguin, 2005.
Ghalib, who wrote both in Persian and in Urdu, is one of the most popular of all Hindu Urdu poets. He was particularly praised (mostly after his death) for the ghazals that he wrote as a young man. He lived and wrote in the city of Delhi, most unfortunately during the completion of the British conquest of India, a time of great unrest and traumatic change.
Ghalib relied for his livelihood on a succession of patrons, and never had a secure life. In his later years, he wrote more ghazals, of the same high quality as those he wrote in his teens.
Ghazals of Ghalib
. Edited by Aijaz Ahmad. Columbia University Press, 1971.
The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib
. Translated by Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta.
The Ecco Press, 1991.
Kabir was born of Muslim parents in Benares, India and became the disciple of a popular Hindu teacher, Ramananda. Kabir is most unusually beloved by Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. He lived a quiet life of prayer, meditation, and weaving (he was a weaver by trade and throughout his life continued the craft).
Kabir was said to have lived to the age of 120. One of the best-loved legends associated with him is told of his funeral. Kabir's disciples disputed over his body, the Muslims wanting to claim the body for burial and the Hindus wanting to cremate the body. Kabir appeared to the arguing disciples and told them to lift the burial shroud. When they did so, they found fragrant flowers where the body had rested. The flowers were divided, and the Muslims buried the flowers while the Hindus reverently committed them to fire.
Kabir, The Fish in the Sea is Not Thirsty
. Translated by Robert Bly. Lillabulero Press, 1971.
Jelaluddin Rumi (1207–1273)
One of the greatest mystic poets of Islam, Rumi was born in what is now Afghanistan. Led by his father (a famed theologian), Rumi and his family moved throughout the Middle East. They finally settled in Southern Turkey, where the Sultan built a college for Rumi’s father.
Upon his father’s death in 1231, Rumi was chosen to succeed him, although he was a mere 24 years old at the time. It was from here that he gained fame and adoration through his teaching and writings. His works have been translated many times into many languages.
The Rumi Collection. Edited by Kabir Helminski. Shambhala, 2005.
Rumi, Spiritual Verses
. Translated by Alan Williams. Penguin, 2006.
St. John of the Cross (1542–1591)
Educated by Jesuits, St. John of the Cross entered the Carmelite order in Spain and, along with St. Teresa of Avila, was active in reforming that order, founding the discalced (barefoot) branch of the Carmelites.
The pair founded dozens of monasteries throughout Spain.
After escaping imprisonment and torture, St. John wrote many mystical poems and a treatise, The Dark Night of the Soul, that is a classic of Christian spirituality. He is acknowledged as one of the greatest of Spanish poets.
Poems of St. John of the Cross
. Translated by Roy Campbell. Grosset & Dunlap, 1967.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)
Perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th century, Rilke wrote in both German and French (although most of his famous poems are in German). Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies are perfect examples of mystical poetry, or for that matter any kind of poetry.
Although Rilke knew a great number of people (including royalty, and especially women), he was very jealous of his solitude. In a letter he said “Never forget that solitude is my lot, I implore those who love me to love my solitude.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus
. Translated by Willis Barnstone. Shambhala, 2004.
Han Shan (712–793)
Named after the cold mountains of Eastern China, Han Shan has been translated many times by poets including Burton Raffel, Red Pine, and Gary Snyder. He is one of the best known poets of the Tang Dynasty, a particularly productive period in the history of Chinese poetry.
D. T. Suzuki has described this hermit poet: “His features looked worn out, and his body was covered in clothes all in tatters. He wore a head gear made of birch-bark and his feet carried a pair of sabots too large for them. He frequently visited the Kuo-ch'ing monastery at T'ien-tai, where he was fed with whatever remnants there were from the monk's table. He would walk quietly up and down through the corridors, occasionally talking aloud to himself or to the air. When he was driven out, he would clap his hands and laughing loudly would leave the monastery."
Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-Shan
. Translated by Burton Watson.
Columbia University Press, 1970.
William Blake (1757–1827)
William Blake is one of the major English poets, acknowledged as one of the most important poets of the Romantic Movement. He is most importantly known for his illuminated books in which text and illustration are unified, producing works of great beauty and power. His most famous books, Europe, Jerusalem, and America, are impressive works of art.
Unacknowledged during his lifetime, Blake has since become the object of considerable study, recognition, and even veneration.
William Blake, America: A Prophecy
. Albion Facsimile Number Two. The Trianon Press, 1963.