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Interview: David Whyte, poet, biologist, and philosopher

31 October 2014

'Poetry should be a language against which we have no defences'


I've written poetry since I was small, but seeing Jacques Cousteau sailing across our little television screen as an adolescent propelled me into sciences, into marine zoology, and eventually all the way to the Galapagos Islands. 

I returned to poetry in my late twenties, went full time in my thirties, and since then, all the different forms my work has taken, including my thinking and speaking on conversational leadership, have come from my life as a poet.

Perhaps the quality of holding back that you sense in my poetry is where the invitation is made to the reader to come forward, to listen in a different way, to pay attention in the created silence. To my mind, that created silence is the essence of the art form. Looking at it, I do practise this quality of holding back, but I would have never articulated it this way until you asked the question. 

I've been very careful not to use traditional religious or theological language, because of the general allergy towards it in mainstream society, especially as I believe that poetry should be a language against which we have no defences. But I grew up steeped in traditional religious phraseology and imagery, partly because I was always attracted to it. Now, I reserve it for my own private thoughts and reading. 

My mother's instinctual Irish Catholicism; my father's integrity and sense of fairness; the Wordsworthian revelations I experienced as a child in the fields and woods of West Yorkshire; three brilliant but very different teachers at Mirfield Grammar School; the powerful and almost touchable atmosphere of Christmas in our house; the spiritual terror of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner at nine years old; the moors of Yorkshire and the mountains of the Lake District; the slowly widening sense of my writing being part of a greater inherited flow and tradition - they are all foundations for my further explorations and destinations, all of which I return to literally or figuratively in my thoughts and travels. 

I'd single out Wordsworth's The Prelude as the most important book to me. I'm happiest walking alone, reciting or composing on the northern fells of Yorkshire or Cumbria. 

As to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, I feel that is available and has been available in every moment since the beginning of time. The difference might be that we're more aware of its presence now in all its different forms and under all its myriad names, and that we are allowing it to have a presence outside of our inherited religious language and outside of our inherited religious forms.

We're certainly all subject to the massive waveform of change that is now re-orienting our societies and our understanding of what it means to be human. With this sense of an invisible, parallel, vitalising spirit, it becomes emboldening, a pilgrimage to a new horizon. Without that invisible help, it is merely frightening.

I've been speaking on the subject of vocation for 25 years. I overheard myself stumbling into the theme of work, love, and life in The Three Marriages book for the first time in front of a South African audience a good few years ago, and felt it immediately as a very rich seam to follow. 

My whole approach in life - perhaps influenced by my Zen practice, but then again, perhaps just as much by Wordsworth or Emily Dickinson - is about "not choosing". Human beings are always trying to choose far too early on any given path, or in the maturation of a process, before a thing has been allowed to become fully itself. My very first thought with The Three Marriages was that we were not supposed to choose between family, our internal world, and work.

Given the right invitation, there is just as much willingness to change - and, I would say, in these present times more real willingness to change in Britain than in the United States where I now live. If I was forced into a generalisation, I would say that Americans are good at the initial stages of change, at setting off, trumpets blaring, calling others to join, while on this side of the pond we may be loath to get up and move the old bones, but once we are ambulant there tends to be more stamina for the long pilgrimage. I find this as much on the organisational level as in individuals, but of course there are great exceptions on both sides. 

Poetry is where I move and have my being. If I hadn't become a poet, I'd probably now be doing something I most likely shouldn't be doing.

I want to write about solace - solace as an active practice rather than a passive receiving. 

My family is an absolute foundation of my life. 

As a child in Yorkshire, I often used to wander over to a large flat stone set into the top of a dry stone wall by a neighbouring field, and sit there looking at the westering line of Saddleworth Moor. It was my dreaming place, and I went there as often as I could. Strangely and repeatedly, I used to see in the daydreams my future adult self standing in front of large audiences of people, speaking. At that time I had no idea what I would say to them. My ambition was to come to understand what I might say to them. 

My most important choices? Commitment to a woman, children, building a house, picking up a pen, going to Galapagos, going full-time as a poet, sitting Zen. The Three Marriages

I regret my acts of smallness. I have never, ever regretted being generous. 

I'd like to be remembered for a few surviving lines of poetry. And on my gravestone: "He was a generous man." 

Alec Barker, my English master at Mirfield Grammar School; Derek Fry, my physics teacher; Basil Christie, my Latin and Classics teacher: three bright stars in my educational firmament, who cared deeply about what they taught and whom they taught.

The Sermon on the Mount is a sheer, single-malt compassion, a profound invitation, and pure unalloyed poetry. "Blessed are the poor of spirit." It makes no sense; it turns the world upside down; it is pure invitational brilliance.

Favourite places: high Whiteside in Cumbria; Littondale in the Yorkshire Dales; Tobar Phadraic in County Clare, Ireland. 

I love the passage where Peter is stepping out of the boat on to the storm-racked water. I like the book of Revelation least. 

Favourite sound: the uilleann - the Irish pipes. 

I last got angry about being shouted at in Far Easedale, but I shouted back, and the situation was transformed into something quite enjoyable. 

I pray for understanding. 

The miraculous and eternal beauties of the natural world in all its many forms are what give me hope for the future.

I will tell you my second choice: I'd be locked in a church with the shade of Seamus Heaney. I had three marvellous conversations with him while he was alive, and I would love to pick up where we left off. 

David Whyte was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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