Necessary Trouble: A Conversation with Poet David Whyte

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THERE ARE POETS who are theologians and philosophers. There are theologians who have brought their ideas to industry and the workplace. There are industry trailblazers who have employed their philosophy to inspire leadership. Then there is David Whyte. Whyte’s life as a poet has created a readership and listenership in three normally mutually exclusive areas: the literary world of readings that most poets inhabit; the worlds of philosophical, psychological, and theological enquiry; and the world of organizational leadership. The author of nine books of poetry and four books of prose, Whyte holds a degree in marine zoology and has traveled extensively, including living and working as a naturalist guide in the Galápagos Islands and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Andes, the Amazon, and the Himalayas. For over 20 years he has been developing a body of work and a series of seminars focused on the conversational nature of reality. His dynamic recitation and explication of poetry creates a bridge to individuals grappling with the challenges of life and leadership that are difficult to articulate. I was introduced to Whyte’s work fairly recently, when I attended a talk inspired by his most recent collection, The Bell and the Blackbird, which focused on living between the enlightened and the everyday, the invisible and the visible, the disappearing and the becoming.  As a poet and a seeker of self-knowledge, I wanted to meet the man behind the words and learn something of his repertoire of over 350 poems. Many podcasts, CDs, interviews, and books later, I’ve returned to the collection that found its way into my life during a time of paralyzing indecision. The Bell and the Blackbird is a collection of effulgent and profound work, but it’s also a way of being in the world.

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I live my life in widening circles, that reach out across the world

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours

LOIS P. JONES: As you’ve told it, the title of your collection The Bell and the Blackbird recalls a recurring meme in Irish poetry of a monk standing on the edge of the monastic precinct and hearing the bell calling him to prayer, saying to himself that the call to silence is the most beautiful sound in the world. Simultaneously, he also hears the call of the blackbird from outside the monastic walls and says to himself, that’s also the most beautiful sound in the world. The call to both deepen and continue to expand our reach into the world brought to mind Rilke’s widening circles. Is it possible to achieve both, and why is this concept so important to you and your present work? DAVID WHYTE: The sound of the bell is the call to prayer, to depth, to a greater context than the one you are inhabiting. The blackbird is the world calling to you as it finds you now and perhaps, even more importantly, as it finds itself, with no need for improvement. Hearing the bell and hearing the blackbird, at one and the same time, is the encapsulation of a way through all our present difficulties in this polarized, conflict-ridden world. In fact, it may represent the essence of contemplation, not as passivity or removal from engagement, but bringing together that simultaneous sense of intimacy and distance that all human beings feel at one and the same time in one physical experience. We live at that crossroads of intimacy and distance in a marriage, in a work, and indeed, just walking across the park. Every day we are constantly trying to eliminate distance or create it in our lives, we are constantly trying to create intimacy or run a hundred miles from it; our unhappiness lies in constantly choosing between the two. The image says there is (a) way to hold both by understanding the essence of our identity as always being at that crossroads, that the foundational miracle of human incarnation is the ability to experience and hold them both together at one and the same time. You are irretrievably alone, and you also belong to others and to the world in ways you cannot ever fully comprehend. Both are true, and letting that meeting place come alive inside you is where good poetry and perhaps more importantly the life human beings have wanted for themselves since the beginning of conscious time become a real possibility.

That radiance you have always carried with you as you walk both alone and completely accompanied in friendship by every corner of the world crying Allelujah.

In a world that relies heavily on escapism, you continually invite your readers to come to ground in reality. As I consider the body of your most recent collection as well as the arc on which it travels, I’m brought to the recurring theme of invitation. There’s even a gorgeous piece invoking the sacred called “Prayer for Invitation.” Do you believe it is our own power we sometimes fear in the invitation to examine the self? Perhaps more accurately, it is our fear of not being large enough, generous enough, or brave enough to fully incarnate that power. One of the reasons we refuse to make proper, clear invitations to others, why we are fearful of making invitations, whether in leadership in the corporate world, or in the intimacies of a marriage, is that the invitation is always interpreted and received in larger ways than we intended. A real invitation always leads to a real conversation, to a way forward, not to an arrived platform. It is many times a way forward we do not feel we are equal to: part of this way forward is to start to learn to have faith in the conversation itself as our way forward in a good work or a good marriage — a little like writing poetry. In the section “Blessings and Prayers,” the poet examines the act of blessing in various contexts. It seems to take on broader connotations than the distinctive Christian archetypes. What is a blessing to you in the truest sense of the word? I have a very physical sense of that extraordinary power, having grown up on a daily basis with my Irish mother’s tradition of “blessing.” She was extraordinary in this regard in being able to wish things for people they did not even know they needed. We tend to think of blessing as simply wishing the best for someone else, but a real blessing is far more transformative in its power and agency. A real blessing is a brave articulation of powers or circumstances that the receiver has not the confidence nor the imagination to wish for themselves. We might even, in a poem, be able to get beyond our own boundaries and wish the same for ourselves.

I pray for you world, to come and find me, to see me and recognize me and beckon me out, to call me even when I lose the ability to call on you who have searched so long for me.

I pray to understand the stranger inside me who will emerge in the end to take your gift.

The last two sections of The Bell and the Blackbird focus on your poems of Australia and Japan. You’ve said “[w]e are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.” As an itinerant traveler, is there a particular, radical aspect of David Whyte you’ve never shared before? Probably around my love of regional cuisines, and I might say, seeking out the often obscure, cultural settings in which they are served! I will walk a long way for a very short meal! A famous noodle shop in a remote rural town in Japan; a local, as yet undiscovered back street restaurant in Provence. A paella shack on the Andalusian coast; an outdoor barbecue or Braai in the wilds of South Africa. My constant traveling and speaking, and through those travels, being hosted so generously around the world, though it can be exhausting, has its many compensations! There is marvelous lyric compression in your poem “One Ear”:

After the heat, my head resting on a cool buckwheat pillow, one ear listening to the river.

You are familiar with a legion of poets and have studied and sat with Zen teachers. Did immersion in the Japanese landscape allow for your sense of internal concision, and if so, in any particular way? Having grown up with the last gasp of a classical education in the North of England, and in the midst of a veritable thicket of inherited English and Irish poetry, I was always intrigued by the natural openness, the freedom, the spaciousness, and the easy vernacular of the Chinese and Japanese poets. In my first wanderings through the Himalayas in my 20s, I carried The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse, and was astonished at the clarity with which it described both the landscape and peoples I saw, but more tellingly, the essence of the journey I was on myself. Later, when I came to the States, I was more than inspired by the easy vernacular of the Chinese and Japanese influenced poets Gary Snyder and Robert Sund. My first book, Songs for Coming Home, is an homage to that lineage. Only after that book, and that apprenticeship, did I begin to build in a facility for narrative out of the inherited English, Irish, and Welsh traditions I had grown with. The various sections of The Bell and the Blackbird point to ways in which we might use the imagination, especially the sensory imagination to both deepen and remain present in the world. In the current sociopolitical climate, I’m often drawn to the shelter of my writing nook, yet none of your poetry or essays shy away from the human condition. What particular area concerns you as a poet right now, and how do you look to reimagine it? As I said at the beginning of this interview, I don’t think we get to choose between the necessary shelter of our writing nook and taking that work, and the way of being we have shaped in that writing, out into the world. Climate change is perhaps our greatest test ever as a species. Does the way we were shaped by our evolution preclude us from having the imagination, the global communal willpower to change? I am an Irish and Yorkshire rebel, something of a Luddite, a poet who needs at times for the world to go away, whether it is warming or not. I work with others in my own very idiosyncratic way. My very success in speaking, writing, and reading makes me inclined — out of a very ancient evolutionary impulse, and like many others who are successful — to harvest while I can, even if it may, unwittingly, contribute to it being the last harvest for others. How do I get beyond myself and even beyond my artistic inheritance and help the broader ecological situation, rather than hinder it? This is a daily question for me, a daily trouble for me, but it’s good trouble; it’s necessary trouble. If you are a completely happy person in today’s world, you are not paying attention!

Just Beyond Yourself

Just beyond  yourself.

It’s where  you need to be.

Half a step  into  self-forgetting and the rest restored  by what  you’ll meet.

There is a road  always beckoning.

When you see the two sides  of it closing together at that far horizon and deep in  the foundations of your own  heart at exactly the same time, that’s how you know  it’s the road you have to follow

That’s how you know it’s where you  have  to go.

That’s how you know you have to go.

That’s how you know.

Just beyond yourself, it’s  where you  need to be.

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Lois P. Jones is a poet and poetry editor of Kyoto Journal, host of KPFK’s Poets Café (Pacifica Radio), and co-host of Moonday Poetry.