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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Favourite places: high Whiteside in Cumbria;
Littondale in the Yorkshire Dales; Tobar Phadraic in County Clare,
I love the passage where Peter is stepping out of the
boat on to the storm-racked water. I like the book of
Favourite sound: the uilleann - the Irish
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
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.