David Whyte on Poets Cafe

The following interview of David Whyte by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

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Biographical Information—David Whyte

Poet David Whyte grew up with a strong, imaginative influence from his Irish mother among the hills and valleys of his father’s Yorkshire. He now makes his home in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

The author of nine books of poetry and four books of prose, David Whyte holds a degree in Marine Zoology, honorary degrees from Neumann College and Royal Roads University, and has traveled extensively, including living and working as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Andes, Amazon and Himalaya. He brings this wealth of experience to his poetry, lectures and workshops.

His life as a poet has created a readership and listenership in three normally mutually exclusive areas: the literate world of readings that most poets inhabit, the psychological and theological worlds of philosophical enquiry and the world of vocation, work and organizational leadership.

An Associate Fellow at Said Business School at the University of Oxford, he is one of the few poets to take his perspectives on creativity into the field of organizational development, where he works with many European, American and international companies.

In organizational settings, using poetry and thoughtful commentary, he illustrates how we can foster qualities of courage and engagement; qualities needed if we are to respond to today’s call for increased creativity and adaptability in the workplace. He brings a unique and important contribution to our understanding of the nature of individual and organizational change, particularly through his unique perspectives on Conversational Leadership.


The Bell and the Blackbird

The sound
of a bell
still reverberating,

or a blackbird
from a corner
of a

Asking you
to wake
into this life
or inviting you
to one that waits.

Either way
takes courage,
either way wants you
to be nothing
but that self that
is no self at all,
wants you to walk
to the place
where you find
you already know
how to give
every last thing

The approach
that is also
the meeting itself,
without any
at all.

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

Available on Amazon







Lois P. Jones:                     From the studios of KPFK Los Angeles Pacifica Radio, this is host Lois P. Jones. Welcome to Poets Café. Internationally acclaimed poet, David Whyte, makes his home in the Pacific Northwest where rain and changeable skies remind him of the other more distant homes from which he comes, Yorkshire, Wales, and Ireland. He travels and lectures throughout the world, bringing his own and other’s poetry to large audiences. David holds a degree in marine zoology, honorary degrees from Newman University in Pennsylvania and Royal Roads University in Victoria British Columbia and is an Associate Fellow of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. He is the author of eight volumes of poetry and four books of prose as well as a collection of audio recordings. Welcome, David Whyte.

David Whyte:                     [RECITES “THE BELL AND THE BLACKBIRD”.]

Lois P. Jones:                     Thank you, David. Beautiful. This is the title poem from your latest book, The Bell and the Blackbird and I’ve been thinking about the duality of the bell and the blackbird being myself in a situation where I have to make a major decision. And I love this idea that both ways are possible and both ways take courage. And that you don’t really have necessarily a wrong path …

David Whyte:                     Yes.

Lois P. Jones:                     … as you go. Choices often involve leaving things behind that are very comfortable to you.  You’ve said that the only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance. And so, for me, that ties into the split path of the bell and the blackbird and how you can go one way or the other and that you just need to be vulnerable and willing to experience that.

David Whyte:                     Yes. It’s an evocation of a meme in Irish poetry actually of a monk standing on the edge of the monastic precinct and hearing the call to prayer, the bell calling. And of course, this is a very ancient human dynamic to go deeper. But at the same time he hears the call of the blackbird from outside of the monastic walls and he says to himself and that’s also the most beautiful sound in the world. And you’re left there with this image of this monk in the old Irish church, the pre-Catholic Irish church, listening to both at the same time. And I was writing at my writing desk, actually, and my wife came behind me and rang a bell for who knows what reason. Perhaps trying to get my attention while I was writing.

Lois P. Jones:                     Right, dinner time.

David Whyte:                     But at the same time I heard the red winged blackbird outside in the garden. It was Easter time and springtime. And the red winged blackbird is the harbinger of spring in the Pacific Northwest. And I immediately was in those monastic shoes from that image and that’s how I wrote the poem. And of course, the real choice is what in the Zen tradition is called the middle way, the Buddhist way. Which sounds really bland actually. It’s an unpoetic description of a very fiery kind of conversational identity that you occupy. Because the dynamic that every human being finds themselves in, the dilemma we all find ourselves in is should I go deeper? Should I broaden myself? Should I educate myself more? Should I practice? Should I rehearse? Should I learn another language? Should I wait until I seek –

Lois P. Jones:                     Should I get married? Should I move? All of these major decisions that sometimes take you out of …

David Whyte:                     and that’s the call to depth. It’s the … I mean looking at it most generously it’s the call to depth that every human being feels yes. But at the same time you have this call from the outside of the precinct which is the blackbird announcing the world just as it is, yes. Just as you are and just as it is. And the understanding in this poem and in the inherited image out of the Irish tradition is that we don’t get to choose actually. We’re at our most courageous when we’re the conversation between not being ready and being ready. We’re never fully ready and you have to be ready at the same time. So yes, you have to educate yourself. Yes, you have to deepen your understanding and you’re called by the world right now and you don’t get to choose between the two. So it’s what I would call a more conversational identity.

David Whyte:                     And I do think that we’re constantly trying to choose too early in most maturing sets of circumstances. That we don’t let things mature enough or grow enough until the solution announces itself. We’re constantly saying no, I’m going for black instead of white. No, I’m going left instead of right.

Lois P. Jones:                     That’s very real to me.

David Whyte:                     And we actually have to take that radical path that holds both together. Yes.

Lois P. Jones:                     And we’re so distracted by all of these things which don’t allow them to come into fruition sometimes in normal life. And so, you can’t really have that undercurrent to process those big decisions.

David Whyte:                     The poetry is one way of stepping down onto that ground, onto that foundation.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     To start close in, very close in the physical body. I mean, poetry is written in and from the breath in the body on the ground, yes. And it’s an invitation to actually what’s called in the old theological traditions to incarnate in this world. And one of the reasons we don’t incarnate is because this world is mediated through conversations one half of which are through loss and disappearance. Half of any real conversation is mediated through loss and disappearance. And so we say please God, there must be another alternative life. I don’t want loss. I don’t want disappearance. I don’t want hurt. I don’t want vulnerability. So we’re constantly abstracting ourselves, our bodies, and our language in order to create an ersatz second life, you know?

Lois P. Jones:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative)

David Whyte:                     And so I do feel poetry is the invitation back into the body, back into the conversation with something other than yourself also.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     That body in conversation with the body of the world or with another person.

Lois P. Jones:                     There’s another aspect of the poem which seemed part of the Zen tradition to me. The idea of the kind of nothing that goes in either direction. So it’s the spirit in their essence. So they will go whichever choice they make, the ideal is to be who they truly are in that journey.

David Whyte:                     Yes, it’s a tricky understanding in the Zen tradition. That nothing is actually the real something.

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

David Whyte:                     I remember being in a horse manger at 10,000 feet in an obscure part of the Himalayas once dying from amoebic dysentery and I was three days in this horse manger because the family didn’t know where to put me, covered in straw, hallucinating. But I had this incredible experience on the third day of actually feeling that I was about to die. And I could feel my whole physical system atomizing and parting and starting to flow on. I was sure I was going to go. And I had this astonishing experience of being a part of the whole moving tidal ecosystem of water around me. Like the clouds up in the Himalayan sky, the snow falling on the mountains, on Annapurna and Dhawalagiri above me. The glaciers, the tributaries into the river, and then the river itself. And then, the river going off into the Ganges below. And then the sea beyond. And I was the whole cycle. And I realized that this name, this David Whyte, was really just like the name that we’d given to the river. It was the Marshyangdi River in that valley. But you’re looking at something that’s already gone past in a way.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     And I was just like that river. I was this set of elements that had come together and they were about to go out into the great Ganges and the great ocean and separate. And I just suddenly had this amazing moment of hilarity about this whole David Whyte project, that took enormous amounts of energy of keeping this show on the road and actually that you are part of this astonishing coming together and then parting again. I sat up and let out this gunshot of a laugh, a kind of temporary moment of enlightenment. And the whole family ran out of the house to see what was going on. And there I was raving and laughing covered in straw.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     But Murphy’s Law, that was the moment I started to get better again.

Lois P. Jones:                     And here you are.

David Whyte:                     And I took on the whole David Whyte project again.

Lois P. Jones:                     That reminds me. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not but there’s a beautiful poem on Ars Poetica by Borges where he talks about how our faces become water, how we disappear again.

David Whyte:                     Gorgeous.

Lois P. Jones:                     Oh, it’s just beautiful. I’ll send it to you. But I love this idea of being present in the world and then the desire to not be in the world in some ways. And that comes up also in your collection. There’s a particular poem called Cleave if you’d like to read that.

David Whyte:                     Yes I do.  I feel that one of the invitations into the body, into this life, is into every part of it including the parts that we normally look at in negative and pejorative of ways such as we’re constantly disliking our fears and our reluctances and yet, we’re half reluctance, you know? And this poem looks at the way we don’t want to have the conversation because it’s actually part of our birthright experience. When a child is first born, it’s an absolute trauma for it to breath. Until it came out into the air, it was taken care of fully by its mother.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     It was given shelter. It was given warmth. It was given oxygen through being absolutely connected to the mother. So birth is an absolute trauma for the child. And was for every one of us. So this looks at the way that that is actually part of our birthright experience and that self knowledge is not only finding out what your powers and virtues are in the world but also where you don’t want to have the conversation.

Lois P. Jones:                     Lovely.

David Whyte:                     Where you’re afraid of it all. Yes.

David Whyte:                     Cleave. Oh, and the word cleave, I’ve always loved because it means both to split apart and to bring together in the old medieval Christian marriage ceremony in England, the couple was said to cleave together.

David Whyte:                     [RECITES “CLEAVE”.]

Lois P. Jones:                     Gorgeous. If you’ve just tuned in, you’re listening to Poets Café. We’re with our esteemed guest, David Whyte. So happy to have him in the café. And we’re talking about his beautiful book, The Bell and the Blackbird. That’s David Whyte, W-H-Y-T-E.

Lois P. Jones:                     Your life is so rich through your interactions with people all over the world. You bring your knowledge, your poetry, your understanding to others in the corporate world and also just the idea that you can be a poet in the world is a phenomenal thing for all the poets that are listening. It’s hard to commit to that and say this is my life and this is my purpose. Of course, Rilke did it. And there’s very few that have and can and make the kind of impact you have on the world.

David Whyte:                     Yes although we’re all made so differently. I’m sure there’s many a poet now writing in a garret somewhere who none of us have heard of who centuries from now will be one of the iconic figures of our age. And there are some poets who are shy of social interaction. I just happened to be made and it’s probably my Yorkshire practical, down to earth, inheritance combined with the lyricism of my Irish mother. And I grew up in Yorkshire of an Irish mother with two linguistic rivers joining together, tributaries joining in that house in the hills of Yorkshire. And they were completely different linguistic inheritances and completely different ways of looking at the world. But I remember quite early on thinking that I wasn’t supposed to choose between them. And that I was supposed to hold both. I’m made to travel. My physical body recovers really quickly. I’m made to speak. I have a voice with which I can speak. Not all poets have a good reading voice. Some poets, it’s better if other people read them. You know?  So I don’t know if this life is one that every poet should try to have. But certainly there’s more possibility than most poets know in taking your work into the world. If you can build and deepen the narrative around your poetry. For me, it’s really illustrating the conversational thresholds that people stand on on a daily basis. My poetry, in a way, when I’m in the organizational world, I’m looking at the way you deepen the narrative around working together. When I’m in the theological world, I’m looking at the way you deepen the narrative with the mystery of the divine, what lies over the horizon and what lies inside you at the same time.

When I’m in the literal world, if I’m at a poetry festival in Wales or in Oxford, then I’m looking at our inheritance. The inheritance of poetry. I love literary biography. I love the lives of poets. I have lots of other poets memorized from times past.

Lois P. Jones:                     That’s fantastic. What do you think about committing that to memory? Is is something that takes on its own life once it’s in you? It’s different when it’s something you’re reading on the page.

David Whyte:                     Yes, so when you’re looking people in the eyes on stage or in a gathering, it makes all the difference. And you’re more keyed into exactly where you should repeat a line. And I do believe in repetition because that’s how we actually read poetry on the page especially the first time. You never read a poem first time from top to bottom. You always circle and say oh my God, what was that? If it’s a good poem that is. If it’s a bad poem, you just go straight to the bottom and say thank you very much. But a good poem, you say I didn’t quite understand that and you go back and you say oh my God. And then, you’re ready to take a step deeper.

David Whyte:                     But it’s just a microcosm of the way that we actually speak when we’re on our emotional edge with others. If you’re delivering poignant news to someone, the news of someone of a close friend’s death or a loved one’s death, you always repeat yourself. You always say the same things in three different ways. You always leave silence. And you wait to see if the other person has heard you. That’s the silence, really. And only then do you say the next thing. So this is all facilitated by memorization.

Lois P. Jones:                     I want to speak a moment to silence because one of the wonderful moments of the experience at your event was how you held silence. You could recite a poem or talk about a particular subject and then you’d be quiet. And everybody in the audience was with you in that silence. It felt very rich. And I just appreciate that you can navigate that silence and feel comfortable with it.

David Whyte:                     Yes. And I would put a lot more silence into the reading here on air except everyone driving along would switch off the radio. So it doesn’t quite work on air. But no, that’s where I feel everything is happening really in the room.

Lois P. Jones:                     Everything is happening.

David Whyte:                     Because I work extemporaneously. It’s where the audience is actually inviting you to go next where the silence is deepest, that’s where you follow.

Lois P. Jones:                     Perfect.

David Whyte:                     It’s what people are saying.

Lois P. Jones:                     It’s one of the central draws that I had to you, that is the ways in which you perceive and take take things in and that is also your connection with Rilke. And there’s a particular poem that I found you’d translated which speaks to this interstices, this place between the light and this other darkness which isn’t a bad darkness. We’re drawn to it somehow. So it’s the one you darkness from which I come.

David Whyte:                     Du Dunkelheit, aus der ich stamme, ich liebe dich mehr als die Flamme.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes, yes.

David Whyte:                     The rhythm is just incredible. It’s this invitational rhythm inviting you into the darkness. And Rilke, in that poem, is saying you know, you can be out in the wilderness on a moonless night when it’s completely pitch black looking at this immensity but if there’s even one pinpoint of light, you will take the reference of the whole sky from that single pinpoint. So Rilke invites you into this beautiful question. What would it be like if you didn’t take your reference from that point of light, from that star or from that campfire? What if you actually took your reference from this immensity of darkness around you and you, darkness from which I come, I love you more than all the fires that fence out the world.

Lois P. Jones:                     For the fire makes a circle for everyone so that no one sees you anymore. Yes.

David Whyte:                     Yes. And then it’s really powerful that the darkness holds it all. The fire and the flame and the images of animals and everything. And then, the German is really difficult to translate because in German he says Und es kann sein: eine große Kraft rührt sich in meiner Nachbarschaft.  Ich glaube an Nächte. He says, and it could be that a great power is breaking into my neighborhood, is the German. And that just doesn’t translate. But it’s … What he’s looking at is this fiercely physical sense of community, in German communities, where everyone is looking at what everyone’s doing and everyone’s following the rules.

Lois P. Jones:                     Oh wow, oh interesting.

David Whyte:                     So it’s this body. This physical body. I was in Germany for a while and you do feel a part of the physical body of the neighborhood. And everyone is policing everyone else in a very subtle way. So this breaking into the neighborhood is like someone is breaking into the immune system of your body.

Lois P. Jones:                     No wonder why he wanted to be alone.

David Whyte:                     And so, I translated that as literally as and it is possible that a great power is breaking into my body. I have faith in the night.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yes.

David Whyte:                     Yes. But the German is very, very powerful and almost impossible to translate at the end, what he says, Und es kann sein: eine große Kraft rührt sich in meiner Nachbarschaft.  Ich glaube an Nächte. And I believe in nights. Yes, I believe in nights.

Lois P. Jones:                     And I think that navigating the night is something that we can be drawn to as spiritual beings. I find myself at night looking at the silhouette of the mountain or the filigree of the trees or birds against the darkness, and there’s some part of me that lives there too.

David Whyte:                     Yes. And the invitation is also into your fears of the dark. We have natural inherited evolutionary needs to be afraid of the dark. So when we love the dark, we actually have to admit all the ways that we’re afraid of it at the same time. And so, I think Rilke’s looking at the night as a way that brings you fully into your body because vulnerability is not a choice for any human being whether you’re only awake in the daylight hours or not.

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

David Whyte:                     Vulnerability is not a choice. We’re open to the world in ways that we find quite disturbing and quite difficult. Caring for a child who’s sick. Caring for your parent who’s dying. Caring for your friends who are exhibiting behaviors which are self destructive which you can do nothing about. So these are constant vulnerabilities that we have. And you’re healthy until the day you’re not no matter how healthy you are. So to live fully and to see vulnerability not as a weakness but as actually a faculty for understanding what’s about to happen and who you’re about to become.

Lois P. Jones:                     And that’s well conveyed in your book, The Bell and the Blackbird. If you’ve just tuned in, we’re listening to our wonderful guest, David Whyte. I’m host, Lois P. Jones, and we’re on Poets Café. And there’s a lot here that makes me want to be courageous. Yes. And to be decisive too in some ways even though sometimes that’s difficult. I think that people need more courage now than ever because the world can feel oppressive. You’re giving people tools through poetry. And poetry has a permeating power for change as well.

Lois P. Jones:                     David, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on the show. I wonder if you would take us out with Stone.

David Whyte:                     Stone. This is about a carved face on a mountainside in County Clare overlooking Galway Bay. A face I had a conversation with for many, many years which was an invitation into vulnerability in a way.

David Whyte:                     Stone. It’s an ancient carved face. A woman’s face. [RECITES “STONE”.]

Lois P. Jones:                     Beautiful. This is host, Lois P. Jones and our guest has been David Whyte. The music you hear is “The Bell and the Blackbird” by Owen & Moley Ó Súilleabháin from their CD Fields of Grace. Thanks to our producer, Marlena Bond. Look for us on the Poets Café fan page on Facebook. You’ve been listening to Poets Café on Pacifica Radio for all of Southern California and beyond.