I’ve seen hundreds of afternoons like today.
No agony, just an anxious impatience:
something is going to happen.
Destiny doesn’t exist.
It’s God we need, and fast.
From “Dysrhythmia,” by Adélia Prado
The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 110 Poets on the Divine is a brilliantly curated anthology that explores spirituality and faith across time, across continents, across ideologies. Akbar is the perfect editor for such a sweeping endeavor; his selections reflect his commitment to building out a collection that approaches questions of the divine from numerous perspectives. He arranges the poems in roughly chronological order, beginning with excerpts from such classics as The Book of the Dead and the Bhagavad Gita before moving to canonical authors like Bashō, Donne, and Akhmatova. The collection closes with some of the most important voices of the contemporary moment, including Octavio Paz, Lucille Clifton, and Mahmoud Darwish. Akbar is deliberate and thoughtful about his inclusions, ensuring a collection that will appeal to a broad range of readers and that will surely introduce all readers to poets they are encountering for the first time.
Akbar begins the anthology with an introduction that considers the role of language and–more specifically–poetry in matters of the divine. He explains,
A common formulation states that prayer is a way of speaking to the divine and meditation is a way of listening to it. Poetry synthesizes these, the silence of active composition being a time even the most sceptical writers describe using the language of the metaphysical, saying ‘such-and-such a phrase just came to me’, or ‘those hours just flew by’. And then reading, a process through which dark runes on a page or strange vocalizations in the air can provoke us to laugh, weep, call our mothers, donate to Greenpeace or shiver with awe.
He juxtaposes this exploration of the divine with a personal story that moves from recovery and sobriety to the physical effects of alcohol addiction. Akbar describes himself as someone who speaks three languages, but clarifies that he has rarely spoken Arabic outside prayer. As he entered recovery, he struggled to find prayer while “poetry as a place [he] could put [himself].” Readers encounter The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse first and most importantly as a collection of poems that helped Akbar find prayer in moments where the divine felt impossibly distant.
The collection follows a strict structure: first, Akbar includes key information about the poet and poem, including the culture and historical period in which the poem was written; below that, Akbar shares a brief notation about the context of the poet and poem, as well as a personal interpretation of the verse(s); on the following page, the poem itself appears. The first poem in the collection is an excerpt from “Hymn to Inanna,” by Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, whom Akbar explains is “the earliest attributable author in all human literature.” Enheduanna offers an ode to Inanna, proclaiming: “My lady, you are the guardian/Of all greatness.” The poem describes Inanna in great detail, and includes the humble question, “Lady of all the great rites,/Who can understand all that is yours?”
These early poems follow familiar patterns as speakers often invoke deities or other elements of the divine directly, chronicling characteristics, powers, and origins of their respective subjects. Kakinomoto Hitomaro’s “In Praise of Empress Jitō,” for example, opens with the declaration:
Our great Empress
Who rules in tranquility,
True god of true god,
Has fone a divine thing.
Al-Husayn ibn Ahmad ibn Khalawayh draws on trope of ninety-names of God in the Islamic tradition, presenting a litany in “Names of the Lion” that situates the lion as divine through its structure and allusion to the Quran. By the 15th century, verses show a distinct shift, with many of the poets working to make sense of humankind’s place in the world, spiritually and cognitively. Kabir playfully closes a poem with the challenge, “This verse, says Kabir,/Is your key to the universe./If you can figure it out.”
Later poems take on more familiar tones and structures, centering human experience and self-reflection. Delmira Agustini finds the divine in nature, writing, “I drink from them the Calm as in a lake./For profound, for quiet, for good, for serene.” Numerous poets from the early 20th century are preoccupied with death and lament the darkness of the world, exemplified by the opening lines of a verse by Marina Tsvetaeva: “A black mountain/has blocked out the light of the Earth.” Others, like Paul Celan, warn of those whose pursuits overlook the presence of God: “They dug until they couldn’t hear a thing;/they never reached wisdom, they didn’t sing a song,/they didn’t even invent any words.”
The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse is an immense undertaking, and Akbar proves the ideal editor for the anthology. He makes no claims to objectivity or totality, instead imploring readers to treat the book as a collection of those poems that have most impacted and enlightened him. Despite–or perhaps because of–this personalization of the divine, the poets and poems are often in conflict with one another insofar as they approach the divine from vastly different perspectives. The result is, for me, the most exciting and accessible treatment of the intersection between poetry and spirituality I have ever encountered.