Letter from the House
The early descent of the night and the lighted warmth of the kitchen always recall childhood to me. There seemed to my child’s eyes in those early days an aura of expectation to the onset of winter that was beyond excitement about the holidays. The summer was my own but winter seemed somehow communal, not only between people but between times. The past, medieval or ancient seemed to run outside our house in the dark, in parallel with our interior family gatherings and I felt instinctively close to others not only around our particular Yorkshire fireside but with all those, generation after generation who had struggled through the same cold northern winters before us.
I recall this image because I feel as if humanity itself is sheltering from a particularly cold winter right now, gathered round the dying embers of a fire that seems to give off little heat and very aware that spring and summer seem far off. It is a time when people naturally begin to wonder if a warm spring day will ever come. It is especially marked when we have little good human leadership to rally our spirits. Then we must look to more timeless, invisible threads that weave together a life worth living and enjoying. There is a political and social fight necessary in the human world in order to improve things, but there is also an inner integrity, a necessary happiness and a willingness to enjoy life which demands a fierce intentionality and a greater perspective than our too tangible difficulties with the present.
Having worked in South Africa over the last two years I have been fascinated to learn the biographical details of Nelson Mandela’s struggle. His singular genius, and his ability to affect a whole society, seemed to spring from an ability to work in powerful parallels. On the one hand he always found a cause to work, a contour to follow, no matter how confined his exile or his prison cell. The victories could be small so long as they symbolized the greater things he stood for. His first task in prison was to win the right for himself and other prisoners the dignity of long pants. On the other hand he had an unflagging ability to look for enjoyment and entertainment, song and conversation, improvement and learning, even if it was through a discarded scrap of newspaper found in a corner. The most powerful accompaniment to his political integrity when he finally emerged after his long dark winter was an absolutely infectious, absolutely genuine sense of humor and a hard-won compassion and respect for others. This is a man who transformed even his own jailors.
We are imprisoned at present as much by our fears as we are by the real individual chance of being harmed by terrorism. Our prison is one we have built and fitted out with our own hands as much as by those who use violence against us. Most of us have lived and loved, triumphed or failed, painted or published in parallel with the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the slow unraveling of the biosphere. We do not have a free ride, we cannot turn our face away from these political necessities, but we cannot also turn away from our own sense of personal joy, our own sense of timelessness, the inner necessities that make the outer political fight worthwhile and qualify us to enjoy whatever victories we can secure. We are no different from all the generations of humanity who have gone before us. We must shape the best life we can amidst the evidence of our own ability to get it completely wrong, and thereby keep these winter embers alive until the new season turns.
©2004 David Whyte
Letter from the House
Two hundred years ago, William Blake worked in his engraving shop etching planes of metal with acid in the same manner in which he wrote: with a kind of burning intensity. In his own words: Melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
He wanted to see, not only beneath inherited artistic surfaces of his time, but beneath the brutal surface of the Georgian London in which he lived. He wished to see beneath glittering surfaces, a wish that was seen at the time as a deep form of insanity. He championed not only child chimney sweeps and infants indentured to textile machines, but wild creatures with no human voice of their own. His language brooked no defenses. A robin redbreast in a cage puts all heaven in a rage. He was ahead of his time; a harbinger of future sanities that we now, almost, take for granted. His social concerns were all part of a greater artistic vision. We look back now and hear his voice as one of the very few sane voices in a very, very insane society.
We might look at our own time and ask ourselves what particular form of insanity we live with that future generations would look on with disbelief. Many of the massive
imbalances of our time are becoming so clear to us that we can no longer turn away. The forgotten poor of America herded into the New Orleans dome. The dispossessed of Africa just a short commute from the bond dealing floors of London.
As individuals, we see elements and dynamics that seem to have no fit together. Even the most ordinary life seems to need a kind of imaginative personal artistry, one such as Blake possessed, to hold all of these conflicting dynamics together. We wonder if we are up to it. We are adolescents, with an adolescent political leadership, entering an adult world of consequences that we did not necessarily wish upon ourselves.
I had a very humbling and very adolescent experience earlier this year, through an artistic residency in Tacoma, attempting to put the art of poetry into a new and different form - glass. Glass in all its forms: Molten glass. Blown glass. Cast, solid glass. Glass to be worked with slowly and painstakingly over days and then broken and shattered and quickly swept away. Glass to be burnt and seared by; glass to be sweated and muttered over; glass to be held up to the light and almost reluctantly admired. I longed for the utter simplicity of pen and paper, of fingers typing and a laptop keyboard. But no, it was glass, glass and glass.
Holding disparate elements together at molten temperatures, coaxing and pampering them as they cooled, I had to learn, and learn quickly, in the company of some very accomplished glass artists, how things held together through astonishing variations of fluidity and temperature.
The central insight was that there was almost always a way, despite my asking the glass workers to do things they had never contemplated doing, with often-unfamiliar materials.
There was always a trick, a method, a way that pleased the elements and in the end, the eye and the imagination. Out of dozens and dozens of attempts we emerged with just a few good precious pieces, but more especially with very, very precious and unforgettable images. The poetry broke through some invisible barrier at high temperature, alive and shimmering in the glass at 1500 degrees, glowing and revealing infinities in ways that would have made Blake very glad of heart.
I think of the molten flowing realities of our time; the brittle nature of each of us when we cool and become static. The way there is a trick to everything. Even perhaps, to negotiating our present difficulties and creating a future human society more at ease with itself and natural creation, holding all kinds of elements together we never imagined possible. I think of the central metaphor of artistry; the ability of human beings to form an image on a page, in glass, or on canvas that will hold together all the disparate images of their lives, no matter how diverse. I think also of the way, no matter our calling, each of us must learn a way to hold our individual artistry and integrity while risking ourselves bodily in society, as we see Blake did, for a future, others said, it was insanity even to imagine.
©2005 David Whyte
Letter from the House
An ancient, much visited, but unverifiable human intuition says that we dwell not only in what seems like the immediate present but equally in a past peopled by those who have made us and a future for which our present seems to be but a slow preparation. In the very young child’s face we have a sense, despite our daylight logic, of the unknown world from which they have come. In the steadily unfolding innocence of what happens each year we are amazed at the way our past seems to configure and reconfigure again, emerging each time with a willing imagination, as a new story. Our future changes according to the breadth of the story we inhabit; the days ahead are arbitrated by those who have gone before but also, importantly, by the sense we are able to make of them in a revitalized present.
Past, present, and future live robustly together in River Flow: New and Selected Poems, as if everyone I ever knew and passed away were still alive; as if I had just begun to write, as if I had just fallen in love again, as if I still lived in the mountains of Wales, sailed the iron-bound equatorial shores of Galapagos or gypsied the high paths of the Himalaya. Childhood in these pages is just a hairsbreadth look over my shoulder or, in my present life, found in the small hours of the night carrying my daughter asleep. Even more strangely, looking back, it is as if the future had somehow already happened to the young poet who began a difficult but rewarding apprenticeship many years before the 1984 of the title.
To capture this wanton, eternal experience with time, I have arranged the book in an unusual way - not according to strict chronology, but according to flows or themes: Admonitions, Revelation, Remember, Home, Ireland, Himalaya, Writing, The Well, etc. are chapter titles which speak to a felt sense of flow in the work, running from book to book, where the writing of a poem often felt like rejoining a current generated by all the antecedent poems that had gone before it. There is, however, a solid, chronological table of contents for those who wish to view the work according to each book in which the poems first appeared.
As to the New part of the New & Selected, there are twenty-three new poems, most of which appeared fresh and new over the last two years, a few of which I have worked on for years, especially Who Made the Stars? - a poem, perhaps, for those who are willing to be pushed and pushed hard for thirteen pages but which after five years of work, I feel finally captures one of the defining experiences of my childhood.
Finally, I am very happy with the cycle of Irish place poems: Dun Aengus, Mameen, Tobar Padraic, The Seven Streams and Coleman’s Bed, written as a series of admonitions as to how to shape ourselves as we approach geographical places and mythological stories that are precious to us. They speak to that ultimate fall, that other artful and difficult apprenticeship to which we all must come and which, ironically, we must learn while we are still alive - that final disappearance which is the consummation of our previous, storied, lifelong appearances.
A New & Selected Poems is a defining moment in a poet’s life, no matter if the whole print run is thrown unread into the waters after which it is named. It says this is where I have come from, this is where I am now, and this is where, God willing, I am going. I hope River Flow brings you as much sense of journey, insight, and felt arrival as it has given me in the writing.
©2006 David Whyte
Letter from the House
We are creatures of desire. Even those deeply desired, desire-less states we seek in times of contemplation seem to require enormous amounts of wanting, discipline and energy to achieve. We are built to want and to follow our wants to their end, sometimes to our satisfaction but also many times, to our destruction. Little wonder then, that our effect on this planet through the accumulated wants of over six billion individual lives are providing a reflection not only of humanity as a whole but on the very nature of human wants and necessities. Innocent individual desires such as a meal or a Trans- Atlantic journey need now to be seen in their magnified multiplied effects; this, at a time when many feel besieged by post modern life and want simply to be left alone to get on with it, whatever it might be.
Almost all of us have an intuition that we live at a break point in history; that those understandings we may have nurtured about the human condition will not survive the coming years; and that we are on the edge of some kind of proving ground. We intuit a threshold, a line beyond which we will reveal ourselves to ourselves, and there is an unspoken fear that we might not like what we find, but there is also a sense that we may be forced to unearth inner resources previously neglected. We find it hard to look in either direction, perhaps because we are justly afraid of discovering how individually selfish we may be.
But it is not just the sense of helplessness before the real possibility of runaway climate change, the rise of powerful but democratically unaccountable states such as China or Russia, the unbelievable Humpty Dumpty incompetence of a sitting United States president, or the disappearance of old certainties. No, the sense of helplessness is far closer to home and has to do with the way we are vulnerable to being captured and then imprisoned by our own wants and further, by the technologies that manipulate those wants to grant us illusory narrow freedoms, while robbing us of a larger home in the world.
We live in a time when many of the direct human sensibilities that developed over our long evolution have become snares and prisons through the omnipresence of these new technologies and the interests and forces that lie behind them. Firstly, we find that our eyes, which for millennia saved our lives by tracking swift-moving predators, make us vulnerable to every flickering screen; no matter the blandness of the images they contain. Secondly, we see, in the ancient human need to be wanted, how helpless we are before the cell phone or the Blackberry, and that with our head down in the non-events on the screen, we forgo many of those chance public encounters that have transformed human destiny since the beginning of time. Thirdly, in the very old human wish to be confirmed in our beliefs, we find ourselves only at those on-line forums where those who agree with us naturally gather. Lastly, the need for a larger, mythological context has an enormous percentage of young men sinking their ambitions and hopes into virtual games which feed them endless false triumphs and a sense of almost otherworldly accomplishment that bears no relation to the world they actually inhabit. Without discipline and artfulness, it is hard to break out of the increasingly narrow contexts that these technologies so conveniently provide.
What is astonishing about our contemporary world is how few people are present to what is physically occurring around them. Distracted thumbs on phone keys are a brilliant, iconic image Shakespeare would use today, were he alive, to illustrate the desperate need to be busy and remain undisturbed by a larger horizon of human endeavor for which we might feel inadequate. There is an unconscious sense that if we refuse to be present to the physical world around us, we will be held harmless from any of the greater physical patterns that might disturb and destroy the protected, often virtual worlds we have taken so much effort to construct around us.
One of the many artful disciplines needed at this time is the art of poetry. Good poetry is speech representing the human imagination tempered by the details and necessities of the physical world we inhabit. It cannot exist without that relationship being cemented and made real. The frontier between speech and physical reality is not a fixed possession but a constantly moving conversation between self and other. It makes real our speech, our relationships, our communities and our ability to live in the only home we have for the moment. The world we have inherited; one we should not abandon while we still live and breathe.
©2007 David Whyte
Letter from the House
A FIRE INSIDE:
THOUGHTS ON THE CREATIVITY OF WINTER
Outside my window the wintry fields spread, as they have for centuries to the dark, smoke blue line of woods that limit the horizon of the valley. A bright fire burns in the grate to my left, while outside I can hear the call of a barn own cutting the still, even air.
All is exactly as it has been for many a hundred year in the landscape where I happily find myself this winter’s day. Everything from horizon to horizon is eternal and quiet and seemingly unchangeable – except, that is, for one tiny but extraordinary portal I can open on this laptop to a parallel world of web-borne news, a world supposedly more real than the quiet one I inhabit this cold but beautiful evening. With a few clicks, I can enter an astonishing world of worry, anxiety and for many individuals, and indeed whole societies, material hardship, brought on by the cessation of credit. Out of the hermetic silence of a quiet winter day I can take a few short steps and almost touch the sense of panic and the extraordinary breakdown in trust that has stopped the flow of currency from one person to another, one bank to another, one society to another. It is as if the cold hands of this financial season have touched every last monetary stream and rivulet, and frozen them over. It is winter here in the countryside with all its well-loved beauties, but out in the world of money, it is winter with another form of terrible beauty, the winter of disappearance, immobility, and the worry, fret and anxiety that comes from seeming to have very little shelter from its effects.
It is always a trauma for the human psyche when those elements it has over-invested itself in at the periphery of life are withdrawn, and the spring-like world of growth and opportunity seems to close down, as if the old currencies have become worthless while we as yet do not know how to value or harvest the following season. But this form of trauma has also been seen by many of our great religious, contemplative and artistic traditions as an invitation back to another kind of valuation, a return to a more internal focus, an opportunity to revive an old friendship with the place from which all the peripheries are recognized, priced and named.
This internal, alchemical, almost catalytic core of identity-making and decision-making has long been associated with the soul of an individual; the part of us attempting to belong to the world in the biggest way it can; the part that witnesses our outer actions, stirs our conscience and quite often seems to be at odds with those other parts of us trying to game the system at the periphery. It is interesting to think that what may be a financial trauma for the surface personality may be a break for freedom for a more serious, central core of the psyche, the part that understands its own mortality and secretly knows that it will eventually all come to a place where we have to give up on all the peripherals anyway, at that unknown, appointed crossroads when our particular individual life as we know it comes to an end.
In times of difficulty, it is tempting to think that creativity, vision and new possibilities must be put aside simply in order to survive. It is tempting, when the financial tide goes out, to act from a sense of impoverishment; it is easy to feel abandoned when the source and sense of our riches are no longer in the summer air but hidden deep in a form of winter potentiality. It is always very hard to understand that the world has shifted to another axis of generosity; one not so readily recognized. When we feel bereft of one form of support we can easily forget that it is because we might be meant to put that particular form of comfort aside and look to a fiercer, more internally grounded stage of our maturity, one that might emanate from a simpler but surer ground than the outer sky of mirrors and monetary instruments we might have constructed for ourselves in the so-called real world.
It also might be surprising to think that there are just as many forms of courage and creativity associated with disappearance and doing without; just as many satisfying elements of aliveness associated with a winter as with spring This central, core conversation to which we return in each succeeding winter is both nourishing and deeply disturbing, it seems heedless of any flimsy structures we may have erected, it seems fiery in that it burns familiar things away and yet provides another form of warmth emanating form a more nested, interior health.
In my experience the first necessity of an individual in finding this fiery, core conversation is a radical form of simplification. To get to the core conversation we have to withdraw from the edges. Whatever expenses we have been making at the margins of our lives in terms of emotions, finances or time-based commitment must be brought back to the central conversation that makes the most sense. Radical simplification often entails a seemingly ruthless withdrawal from secondary involvements, it also involves simplifying wants and needs to grant us another form of freedom not necessarily involved with the freedom to buy anything we want at any time. Arguments for indiscriminate buying to revive the economy are circular and lock human beings into a never-ending cycle of buying goods that are nonessential, with everyone encouraged to live beyond their means, to the ultimate dismantling of the natural systems that supply those wants in the first place. The practice of radical simplification, however, might not mean living in a desire-less, enlightened state, but simply catching our desires as close to the center of our experience as possible.
Practically, we can catch a need for an expensive new sports car early on in the process by buying a second hand version of the same, we can catch it even earlier, nearer to the center, by renting one every now and again, without having to go to the expense of maintaining it, we can catch it very close in indeed, by attempting to live out directly the very qualities that underlie the desire itself. Without the prop of the car, we might try to cultivate a certain air of freedom as if the wind was always in our hair. The withdrawal from the literal, over-concretized periphery where everything is counterfeiting for something closer in, almost always leaves us dealing in another, more imaginative currency at the center.
Now that our focus is shifting away from the peripheral bubble of promised riches, we are just beginning to be reminded again for the depths of poverty, both in the developing world and the United States where the social safety net for those in difficulty has been worn almost to nothing. But it is exactly this reevaluation of the periphery and the renewed emphasis on what is essential that will bring spending back from mere baubles to infrastructure and education, back from foreign adventurism to a coherent approach to the sources of terror; in the United States especially there must be an attempt at a better health care system, a more cohesive, less poisonous political conversation and a renewed relationship with a world in desperate need for it to return to its foundational ideals.
This new faculty of valuation can be quite disturbing to the way we might have priced and measured out our life in the recent, unbalanced, heady times. The road of radical simplification almost always leads to the door of the great and unwanted unknown. The door to begin with seems to open on to nothing we at first can recognize. To enter through that door we have to cultivate what Suzuki Roshi called beginner’s mind, where we stop having to know and name everything in advance and allow ourselves the satisfactions of discovery and revelation. In doing this we actually start to remold our identity in the form of the learner and listener.
Learning, listening and radically simplifying as we go we might have a possibility of opening up that catalytic core where very few elements need combine to create a great deal of new energy. A decision made from this core has enormous leverage on the outer world where we see, hear, work and have relationships. This internal center appears when the outer peripheries have bankrupted themselves, fallen and become a loam that we must plough back to enrich the ground. In the depths of winter under the cold night of wind and stars and shut off from the garden, we look for those hidden and invisible springs that will uncoil, in the still summer air, each new, yet to be imagined rose.
©2008 David Whyte
Letter from the House
THE POETIC NARRATIVE OF OUR TIMES
Night mist hangs on the Connemara mountainside above Mameen, hiding the immensity of its sleeping, background bulk and at the same time magnifying its presence, bringing out its depth and making known to us its essential rough, unspeakable mountain-ness even as it veils and takes full sight of it away from us. Over stone precipices, the lazy movement and hanging drifts of fine silvered water vapor outline and enhance what we call the beauty of the mountains, by enabling us to see them again and again, as if new and reborn through each shifting pattern. We are strangely delighted by our imagined fears of what it would be like to be abroad in the dark and the mist and the stones, out on their ridges and peaks, in that night where so much is hidden. Then, above the ridgelines, a full moon suddenly appears from between clouds, accentuating its own luminosity and the luminosity of the mountains by its swift appearance, seeming to demonstrate its very essence through a sheer, round, isolated contrast with what it looks down upon.
Looking up from the lit door of Keanes’ Pub in the heart of Connemara, these clouds, landscapes, and even the Irishness of the night seem fuller and more essential through their disappearances as much as through their appearances. Human beings stand at the center of these sometimes swift, sometimes slow, always moving patterns of presence and absence, but rarely intuit their own essence might be revealed and magnified by what is veiled and hidden, or by what has been taken away. Yet this form of subtraction may be the very hallmark of our time. At the present time we are asked to live in companionship with patterns and dynamics that are either disappearing, have not fully emerged or can never be fully named; patterns perhaps already changing into forms for which we have yet no language.
It is tempting, in this limbo time between the traumas of a world once said to be in ceaseless war with terrorism and a not yet fully formed future ideal, to feel righteously lost. Everything seems to be paused and hanging in a mist wrought, barely moving dance. The world’s economic systems, the world’s ecological systems, the relations between haves and have-nots, the sovereignty of nation states upon which many millions of individuals have based their identities, all these are taking forms which we cannot quite recognize, and in that movement through form seem to be on the verge of disappearing. Even the recent worldwide enthusiasm for the American presidential elections has waned, as the poetic narrative that put Obama so enthusiastically in the White House is dissipated by the cares of office and the sense that he is already half captured by the very denizens of Wall Street that brought everything so dangerously to the brink. The problems seem immense; the forces at play absorbing and able to deflect the need for reform.
Little wonder then that if we prefer the appearance of stability or clear unobstructed vision we will manufacture fake narratives to replace the complexity, changeability and raw beauty of real ones, especially if the stories we always wanted to be true seem to shimmer and disappear. The flat earth vision of Thomas Friedman is well articulated, but ultimately based on a human identity parsed solely through economics, as if human life can be defined by whether one is more productive or educated than the next person. It is the task of poetry, and the poetic narrative, to bring our eyes to bear on the raw immensity of these patterns and the heartbreaking nature of our disappearances, which are unavoidable no matter our economic standing or our education; what Yeats called the terrible beauty that is a consequence of being alive in this world, no matter how relentlessly positive we may be. It is the province of poetry to be more realistic and present than the artificial narratives of an outer discourse, and not afraid of the truthful difficulty of the average human life. A good poem looks life straight in the face, unflinching, sincere, equal to revelation through loss or gain. A good poem brims with reflected beauty and even a bracing beautiful ugliness. At the center of our lives, in the midst of the busyness and the forgetting, is a story that makes sense when everything extraneous has been taken away. This is poetry’s province; a form of deep memory; a place from which to witness the intangible, unspeakable thresholds of incarnation we misname an average life.
I think of a good friend, once robustly healthy, adventurous, hard working, inventive and entrepreneurial, now confined to a wheel chair and barely able to function intellectually after a terrible accident. His wife and children have lost many of the outer stories they had told themselves about their future but the central story, the one that lives under the busy surface of a family’s life, the one that was always there, still remains clearly, luminously at the center. His wife has spoken many times of the essence of his spirit and the essence of her love for that spirit, which remains as a thing of beauty in and of itself, informing all the work that must be done to adjust and adapt to the new outer narrative.
It might be liberating to think of human life as informed by losses and disappearances as much as by gifted appearances, allowing a more present participation and witness to the difficulty of living. What is real can never be fully taken away; its essence always remains. It might set us a little freer to believe that there is no path in life in the low valley, in the shelter of Keanes’ comfortable bar, snug by a turf fire or abroad in the mountain night, that does not lead to some form of heartbreak when the outer narrative disappears and then reappears in a different form If we are sincere, every good marriage or relationship will break our hearts in order to enlarge our understanding of our self and that strange other with whom we have promised ourselves to the future. Being a good parent will necessarily break our hearts as we watch a child grow and eventually choose their own way, even through many of the same heartbreaks we have traversed. Following a vocation or an art form through decades of practice and understanding will break the idealistic heart that began the journey and replace it, if we sidestep the temptations of bitterness and self-pity, with something more malleable, compassionate and generous than the metaphysical organ with which we began the journey. We learn, grow and become compassionate and generous as much through exile as homecoming; as much through loss as gain, as much through giving things away as in receiving what we believe to be our due.
It may be that we live in a time of collective heartbreak, where for the first time in history we are being asked to witness the disappearance and reappearance on a global scale of what it means to be fully human; to give away our identity and see how it is returned to us through a sincere participation in the trials and necessities of the coming years. Part of that heartbreak is the sense that we might not be equal to the ecological, political and economic transitions that are necessary, that our own selfishness may be writ too deeply into our genes and that the future is therefore untenable and unreachable. We do not as yet know if this is true, but the old humanistic story around ourselves as a successful species, always on the up and up and appointed to some special destiny, is fading and silvering into the night air, and we are left, at this point in history, contemplating the unknown immensity of the night behind it.
©2009 David Whyte
Letter from the House
A SEA OF DEBT
I consider myself a student of the hours of the day. I have always had a monk-like need for rituals associated with the progression of the day or the calendar or even the years, and since childhood I have always felt an overwhelming sensitivity to the peculiar ambience that gathers around a certain time or season. When growing up, the drawing of the curtains in our house in the Yorkshire winter always led me into a reverie and to thoughts that seemed impossible in the full light of the day or of a summer evening.
I feel indebted to this childhood perspective. I feel it very strongly even now, as I sit by the fire at the beginning of a very cold northern winter writing at the five o’clock hour, just when the horizon begins to darken and the whole world seems taken up with the quiet rituals of twilight; taken completely with the very adult necessity to unwind, to pour a glass of wine, to begin the leisurely cutting and chopping that leads to dinner. I like also to think of the qualities that made the day a good day, to which I am indebted. Nothing else is happening now but five o’clock on a beautiful winter Sunday afternoon and it seems that nothing else is more appropriate than this for the entire world. But of course this is not a full perspective. Someone reading this is at the beginning of a summer’s day in sunlit South Africa. Someone is feeling the freshness of a new beginning even as I soak in the beautiful perspective of a particular ending to a very good particular day.
I speak of these parallels because it seems as if the developed western world has entered an extended twilight, as if it has for a moment lost its way or doesn’t want to find the way or is too tired to find the way or as if it needs a good glass of wine and a good lie down to catch up with itself. It is as if it has no time for bravery or new beginnings and as if it is ending a very awful, bad day indeed, its sole perspective a pervasive indebtedness; a profound buyer’s remorse.
The high summer noon of the west seems to have been the fall of the old Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall and all the rest might be seen to have been excess and disillusionment, as if, once triumphant it was then collectively tired of itself and considered its job done. The litany of moral and fiscal failure from the Dot Com boom through Enron to the manufacture of fictitious weapons of mass destruction that has lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq is not anything to which one wants too readily to turn one’s mind. I wrote in Sweet Darkness:
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.
At present the west is indeed tired and would like to turn its eyes away from the world. The current dire, debt-laden circumstances are magnified by the horizon of disappointment that stares everyone in the face. It was all the more remarkable then, to find that in Shanghai, China, where despite a chilly October, a psychological spring was everywhere in the air - the sense of optimism, boundless energy and the will and energy for this new century were a shock to my system. I walked the riverside among throngs of ecstatic sightseers on the highest public holiday, but I did not see it with rose-colored spectacles, I know very well the dark side of a China just emerging from totalitarianism. But I realized, walking along the magnificent façade of the Bund, I felt as if I had been living with someone with depression for a long time and had not realized its accumulated effect on me. That someone of course is the developed west.
There are reasons for that depression. Europe is contorted in preserving its union: Dublin and London sit shamed and shattered by a new undeserving aristocracy of moneymen, still raking in their bonuses. In North America, George Bush became, through fiscal deficits and foreign adventurism, the first annunciation of the end of the American Century and then the final nail in the coffin of a sane Republican party. The time after the tragedy of 9/11 could have been a turning point for America to take its place in the collective affections of the world and instead it managed to corrode its reputation deeper even than its foray into Vietnam. That regime over, Barack Obama quickly disillusioned a whole generation of young people whom he had successfully invited to participate and vote for the first time in recent history. From being seen as a change agent he now looks like nothing but the trapped insider, surrounded by other trapped insiders. Even innocent Canada, an early advocate of green policies has lost its moral compass, becoming one of the worst polluters in the western hemisphere through a brutal, uncompromising exploitation of shale oil. On top of all this disappointment we seem to be sinking further, under a sea of debt helpless before our own past excesses.
China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia may be in springtime but their shadow side is as large as the developed West; China indeed, may implode through its own home grown property bubble, the difference is their attitude to the future where all is now possible. There are great swaths of the world at the beginning of this new dawn, and not just a fiscal, economic dawn, but a dawn where financial independence can bestow the dignity of good work and the forward looking enthusiasm granted by opportunity. One of the difficult, hall marks of depression in an individual human being, is the imprisoning sense that there is no way out of present circumstances, and those circumstances are often defined by a sense of lack; many a good man or woman has leapt from a bridge despite having a home, a loving spouse, a precious son, a loving daughter, or a good circle of friends. We often have a very strange idea as to the sources of our future happiness.
It is striking to think that the particular source of power to which we feel indebted defines our own sense of personal power. If we owe a great deal of money, we are vulnerable to feeling powerless, to feeling a lack of choice about how we work and what we have to do in order to earn it. Our source of power is often, therefore where we owe our debts. America is so powerless in the world at present and particularly with China because it owes so much of its sovereign debt to that world and especially to that particular country. America is powerless against the funding of terrorism because it owes so much good will to Saudi Arabia in order to fuel its never-ending need for oil. It is indeed American money that is funding terrorism, through the private sources in Saudi Arabia that make their money from an overheated, oil based economy fed by our unending need for carbon based fuel.
If however, we are indebted to other sources, our power may emanate in a different way, we may owe our safety to a good friend, our sense of compassion from a loving grandparent and our insight to a fine teacher, we may be beautifully indebted in a different, far more merciful and generous way, to philosophers, thinkers and poets or to our great artistic and contemplative traditions; we are all deeply in debt to the natural ecology that surrounds us and sustains us from generation to generation. We are in debt to all these sources, and what we owe is to be prized.
From my own perspective I feel a very personal, almost intimate debt to good thinkers and artists: for their perspectives; their simple needs, their faith, indeed, often for their courage, their appreciation of the mere privileged fact of human incarnation, their bravery in the face of the machine of society or the craven nature of endless human consumption; I owe them also in the case of a Mandela or an Anna Akhmatova for their sacrifice when they made difficult individual choices that made our collective lives less difficult now, living in a future they bequeathed to us.
It is a sobering but instructive question for each of us to ask, at the end of a day, with or without a glass of wine in our hands, with or without a fireside, at the beginning of winter or on the first day of summer, to what or to whom I am indebted for my present circumstances?
The answer itself affects the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Perhaps we should shift our focus to a different source of indebtedness; feel the tidal movement of a different sea, another currency in which to work that ennobles us rather than diminishes us by what we owe and in this way find a better future. At present our sources of indebtedness are killing us psychologically and enervating our energies, forcing us to view the future with fear, we need other, more primary sources of funding; sources that makes us braver, more courageous, not as now, cramped and constrained by a present perverse sense of poverty, a poverty inherited strangely, from the very way we have assessed our wealth.
©2010 David Whyte
Letter from the House
It has been a year in full creative flood: an essay series which has sharpened my mind and created a new and live relationship with a close readership, a novel that I have worked on, thought upon and waited upon until I can just begin to sense the depth in that form, a recent unstoppable surge of new poetry which has been like drinking from a well of fresh, clear water and then on the road, growing, sell-out live audiences around the globe that feel like a crystallization and a culmination of long years of travelling, speaking and reading.
It is strangely disconcerting to be part of a world that seems to be in the throes of a full economic and psychological breakdown while my own work, and the demand for that work seems to be at a flood tide. I have the sense of a privilege, not fully earned, of a gift not deserved, and an intuition that it can only be the result of visible and invisible help and unidentifiable dynamics; dynamics that I have not contributed to properly, that seem to have blessed me and the endeavor, allied to what I have to offer, but independent of and sometimes even despite that strange bundle of contradictions that goes under the name of David Whyte.
This dynamic of circumstances or success in an endeavor having been loaned to us, almost under sufferance, is ancient and familiar and in almost all our inherited cultural mythologies. In the artistic traditions, the unconscious temptation to begin impersonating oneself, to lose sight of the innocence that first set us on the path; to take one of the many doors of self-destruction available to each of us and the possibilities for increasingly less subtle forms of egomania are manifest. In the ancient world, associating oneself with powers that belonged only to the gods, or to God - a very common temptation in the poetic tradition - was always a prelude to psychological disaster, to alcoholism, to addictions of all kinds and to the sweet reflected prison of narcissism.
It seems to me that any path followed with sincerity always has its own particularly beautiful and austere form of despair, but that necessary heartbreak is exactly the axis of vulnerability and humility we must travel to stay true to a course; and it is this very dynamic that keeps our feet on the ground illuminated by the work itself. I have certainly felt a close relationship with that vulnerability and humiliation over the years. Most humbling of all, I now seem to have a circle of enquiry, a readership and a listenership that by listening to me and reading me; by the intentionality of their participation and by their concern in following the maturation of my voice, help me to understand the larger world of which my work is only a contributing part.
I am lucky to have a métier that is self-revealing, humbling, constantly reminding me of the actual contact point with reality that makes a life worthwhile. It is a work full of friendship; friendship with those who wrote before me: an Akhmatova, a Wordsworth or a Neruda; with those who write now: a Jeremy Reid, a Seamus Heaney or a Mary Oliver, but also friendship with the uncounted paths of others represented by their work, and coming full circle, with those un-enumerated millions around the world who are friends of poetry itself.
I am twice blessed to have a first love as a work, but also, ultimately, to see it as no work at all, but as a way of being in the world; a way of holding the conversation of life that is enlarging, generous, deeply satisfying and a full reward in and of itself. Having lived with and understood the privilege and gift of the art, I would write and read and even recite poetry out loud to myself whether I had a single reader or even listener in the world, I would follow the discipline and its attendant triumphs and humiliations whether my name was known or not in any circle large or small, and I would write in the cold of an unheated room and in poor rags just to warm myself by the hearth of revelation and to re-clothe myself in the beauty of self understanding.
In the end, we all come to live in the very humble abode of our own making, and in the end everything has to be given away so that what is real can return. This letter, I realize, is an attempt give away the many manifest gifts that have been given to me over the years, not least by you, a reader and perhaps a listener, to clear the ground for a new season and to have what is real in the work returned again, in a yet to be imagined summer, out of the pale hard ground of this winter’s day.
©2011 David Whyte
Letter from the House
Perhaps it is my Irish mother’s world still living and breathing in mine, but I have always seen All Soul’s Day, that day in early November where we remember the departed, as the mark of the new year and a time when promises are made for that coming year, perhaps even emboldened by those we have known who have now gone and left us. In the old Irish imagination it was seen as the final end of summer and the beginning of the winter, a time when people and things were to be let go and let alone, when what we had held in our hands was to be appreciated and remembered but without interference, to be let go and to be let go where it wants to go; to rise and come again in its own time.
For my part, it has indeed been an extraordinary year from last year's All Souls to this, a long, indeed, a year-long summer of accomplishment and creative alchemy, a year in which a tide of poetry given the title of Pilgrim was written and brought out into the world, when the Readers' Circle cycle of essays came to a culmination and a close, a year in which I travelled from one end of the earth to the other, speaking and reading and thinking and writing all the time as I went with a seemingly inexhaustible internal tidal flame giving out heat, inspiration and not a little revelation, and it is only now, I realize, that I can face up to the ebb of the tide, the withdrawal of a certain blessed dispensation and the drawing in of a veil over what was once living and real.
The door first opened to this last Annus Mirabilis, this year of wonders, almost a year before, in a back street restaurant of a French city. The restaurant was in an obscure part of town but with a reliable cult following. I had arrived at the door without a book or newspaper or a device to connect me to anything other than myself. I stood looking into that inviting, warmly lit dining room and then almost turned back to my hotel; this establishment was no place for a quick bite and I would have no scintillating company to see me through the very long, very French meal. The moment passed however, and I took my seat at the table determined instead to take the time to take stock of things and ask myself, as I enjoyed the food, what I always ask others to ask themselves, that is, a few disturbing and beautiful questions.
One of the most beautifully disturbing questions we can ask, is whether a given story we tell about our lives is actually true, and whether the opinions we go over every day have any foundation or are things we repeat to ourselves simply so that we will continue to play the game. It can be quite disorienting to find that a story we have relied on is not only not true - it actually never was true. Not now not ever. There is another form of obsolescence that can fray at the cocoon we have spun about ourselves, that is, the story was true at one time, and for an extended period; the story was even true and good to us, but now it is no longer true and no longer of any benefit, in fact our continued retelling of it simply imprisons us. We are used to the prison however, we have indeed fitted cushions and armchairs and made it comfortable and we have locked the door from the inside.
The imprisoning story I identified by the time the entree was served was one I had told myself for a long time. “In order to write I need peace and quiet and an undisturbed place far from others or the possibility of being disturbed. I knew however, that if I wanted to enter the next creative stage, something had to change; I simply did not have enough free space between traveling, speaking and being a good father and husband to write what I wanted to write. The key in the lock turned surprisingly easy, I simply said to myself, “What if I acted as if it wasn’t true any more, what if it had been true at one time, but now at this stage in the apprenticeship I didn’t need that kind of insulation anymore, what if I could write anywhere and at any time?” One of the interesting mercies of this kind of questioning is that it is hard to lose by asking: if the story is still true, we will soon find out and can go back to telling it. If it is not we have turned the key, worked the hinges and walked out into the clear air again with a simple swing of the door.
By the time I had confirmed the reputation of the restaurant, been gratified by how reasonable the prices were and reached the very good cheese tray, I decided just to act as if the story was no longer true, knowing I would be put right if it still was. The intention worked like the parting of the literary Red Sea, almost immediately I started to write everywhere and under every circumstance, on trains, buses, planes, in dentist’s waiting rooms, on mountainsides and even, just to keep myself honest, in the peace and insulated quiet of my writing study. I began in fact, right there, in the restaurant over coffee asking for some paper, and starting a list of themes I wanted to write my way into. A list, of course, is meant to be thrown away in the face of what actually has to be done, but it was the intent that counted and the intent was suddenly a very live thing in me.
Walking through the doorway of that radical question started me on a writing odyssey beginning appropriately enough with the essay: Regret. I soon had a half-dozen little essays all beginning with a word I felt needed to be rehabilitated in the contemporary imagination. I found it very pleasurable to put a little blog-like paragraph at the end saying where and under what circumstances it had been written. As the months went by and I committed to the faith of those who had subscribed to the Essay Series I found the constant need to write to meet my commitment a marvelous discipline for keeping my mind and my thoughts and the acuity of those thoughts alive. Travelling meant a constant vigilance for the moment, the corner, the nook, the little Inn of literary hospitality at the side of the road where I could sit down and think and write. My mind began to open, to grow fiercer, clearer and a certain kind of take-no-prisoners approach to reality and to my work took hold.
Perhaps it was the culmination of this intentionality that led me, the following summer, to the experience I had looking into the enormous waves that came ashore beneath the cliffs of Thoor Anu, on the Atlantic shore of County Clare. As if in witness to the maelstrom of power arriving in front of me I suddenly found an equivalent and internal tide coming out from some source in me to meet the outer horizon of power. It was one of the most physical and profoundly religious experiences I have had and as I stood there surrounded by overhanging cliffs and wheeling birds, I asked myself, out of nowhere, another question. “What if everything had changed?” The question came out in the wind more like a shouted declaration and I did not need to identify exactly what had turned with this incoming tide, but from that moment I began to write poetry day and night, as if I had been touched by something unspeakable, as if I had become newly youthful again, as if I had fallen head over heels for someone or something I had been searching for all my life. The nearest experience I can point to is in Pablo Neruda’s La Poesia.
And something ignited in my soul,
fever or unremembered wings,
and I went my own way,
that burning fire,
and I wrote the first bare line,
bare, without substance, pure
of one who knows nothing,
I saw the heavens
- translation by David Whyte
Except that this is actually the symmetrical reversal of what I felt, because I began with the oceanic, heavenly waves opening and then felt the internal burning tide coming to meet it from within.
The tide kept arriving all through the coming Autumnal season all through last All Soul’s Day, all through the holidays, through winter, through my travels and through my home life. I wrote at the kitchen table, in the chair by the fire, in coffee shops, and once for five straight hours in seat 64A of a British Airways flight from London to Seattle. By coincidence, getting up to stretch I met one of my more faithful readers on the stairs of the jet and I read the new poem to him over a glass of wine. We clinked the glasses together as if celebrating the arrival of a new child.
But every child grows, every tide turns, firstly in January, I got up in the middle of the night in a remote Cotswold cottage in England and wrote a wild revelatory poem in a completely different voice, called Fintan. Here was the intimation of a new style, more profoundly, a new voice, saying in effect, the pilgrimage is coming to an end. The king is dead, long live the king. I wrote quickly after that to fill in the parts of the poem cycle If felt the book needed while I still had the energy and the power to do it, but now it was the sense of coming to a harvest, a sense of completion, and the beginning of the secondary, strategic wave that would get the book out as a completed physical package and into the world.
I can only describe the next stage as a kind of grief at no longer being in the alchemical depths of the cycle, and of covering it successfully with other endeavors while all the time finding another satisfaction in beginning to memorize the poems and integrate them into my talks. There was a lovely last hurrah when I found myself marooned for three days in a flooded Yorkshire village and recorded a double CD of all the Pilgrim poems with interpretations and stories, realizing, in effect, when the sound engineer broke down crying on the second day, what I might just have accomplished through the astonishing wave form that arrived at Thoor Anu and travelled through a year of my life.
Now at last, at the threshold of the season, just after this last All Souls' Day, I feel the peace of coming to rest and of letting go of the necessity for that creative intensity, and more subtly, a willingness to let go of the grief of that particular sweet cycle being over. Time to go into the night again, the internal sweet darkness, the horizon further than we can see, where we must learn one thing, that this world was made to be free in, whether we are in the white heat of the creative endeavor or no. Every different seasonality of our lives calls for a different form of freedom, whether the tide is coming in or going out, or whether it is at that hardly seeable subtle juncture where it is just about to turn.
I wish you all well in this great tidal imaginative endeavor we call life, welcome those who are new to my work and to the powers of the poetic tradition, and thank those who have given me a close readership and listenership over the years, and hopefully if I stay with the run of the tide, for a few years to come.
©2012 David Whyte
Letter from the House
Bringing home the fruits of our preparation, our thought and our labor at the right time has always been one of the very great necessities of a human life. As any harvest time approaches, and what we have worked for so diligently begins to ripen, the stakes rise dramatically. The forces and the elements of nature and weather become magnified in their effect, and as the appointed days arrive, everything suddenly seems to become fully allied to our hopes or a mortal enemy to our future happiness. As things approach ripeness the rest of the world, human or animal, also takes notice, and moves in for a share of our bounty. Just being present at the right time is perhaps the most important thing of all. This year saw me bring in a very good harvest of walnuts to dry by the fire, put on the table and see me through the holiday season, mostly because I was able to stay at home during the crucial week. Other years, missing that one stretch of five days in some foreign place, the Squirrels, the Blue Jays and the Crows have left me only a desolation of empty shells scattered from one end of the garden to the other, as if to say, “we were here, and you were not, and so who deserved the bounty?”
Being present is one thing; acting at the right time is another. Whether walnuts or apples or wheat, a new business set in motion, or a relationship deepening after its exciting romantic inception, we seem to spend an enormous amount of time in thinking, imagining, preparing, working and worrying things into fullness. Our great difficulty is keeping alive an attentive identity that knows firstly, how to be present and then secondly, to recognize when the season has come to its apogee, when the commitment must be made and the harvest brought in. Often the busy identity that set things going and kept them going is too overloaded and besieged to be able to get its head up from the work and win the fruits of our long hours, or too caught up in the early version of the story, to recognize how the story is reaching its conclusion and must be acted upon, and then at other times, to know when the season of our interest has fully turned and it is now time to move on to other fields of endeavor, no matter the price we get for what we have achieved so far.
Bringing in what we have worked for seems to get more difficult the less it has to do with what is recognizable in the outer world and the more it has to do with a hidden harvest of inner possibility. We would often rather stay in false impossibilities that look good from the outside and that we set for ourselves in the early abstract than choose a really possible happiness in the ripening and very real now. In work we keep on working because it keeps what is seeable in place, meanwhile our ambitions and our interests may have taken a different axis of possible fruitfulness. In relationship we may choose a man or woman who represents an original but impossible ideal, but who has no actual chemistry with our real and particular life and who does nothing but bring us into an intimate encounter with frustration, rather than choosing a possible and reciprocal intimacy with a real chance of future happiness.
All the more difficult then for us to recognize those internal opportunities that present themselves when no outer harvests seem present or possible. We look out at the wintry landscape and feel as if nothing is happening, no growth or fullness is occurring and fail to see the subtler gifts that arrive inside us in times of darkness or disappearance. In the natural world we might be comforted to see there are improbable winter harvests all the time: a late and perfect apple hanging above the frost, the proverbial winter rose, comforting root vegetables, brassicas and even from that most sun associated harvest of the grape, ice wine.
It takes patience, time and attention and perhaps a proper friendship with silence to understand the gifts of winter that make themselves known only to begin with, far inside us, or to properly harvest a metaphorical inner darkness that might be experienced, even at the height of an outside summer. In winter, the outer world may seem to have come to a halt, but inside there is a beautiful hidden intelligence, which left to itself creates its own new birth and arrival, even in the most difficult times. This winter harvest depends on stillness, a learned patience, a radical letting alone of the self, a radical simplification of that self, a giving up of the old light filled certainties and a willingness in the midst of it all, to start again, even when we do not know exactly where to place our feet in the faint light.
All around our world many people experience the fearfulness and uncertainties, the invasion of individual lives by vast abstract government and commercial entities, and the ecological losses of our time as a great besieging darkness, a winter of the individual human soul. It might be that one of the great and beautiful questions we can ask ourselves in times of loss, confusion or exile, as individuals, as citizens of a slowly coalescing planetary imagination, irrespective of national boundaries, irrespective of how we actually would like things to look right now: What is coming to light, far inside us, even in the deep winter of our discontent, and where is the point where our sense of presence, our insight and our understanding, will coalesce far inside us into outer action?
©2013 David Whyte
Letter from the House
A DEEP BUT DAZZLING DARKNESS
The house from which I write this year sits deep in a glen in the heart of Connemara, where it spends most of the hours of this December day and night veiled in darkness, until by morning and in the short hours of light given to it, looks out onto a vast, wind-ruffled lake; it is surrounded, almost overwhelmed by mountains and on this particular morning, veiled with mist and rain. The shadowed lines of the hills appear and disappear in that mist and the light over the lake changes moment to moment as the scene is arranged and rearranged for human eyes depending on the source, the power and the veiling of that distant source of illumination we call the sun.
What is seen and not seen or even half-seen has always of been of elemental importance for human beings. We are impatient with hours of the night and with darkness, we want to see the horizon, we want to know where we live with regard to that horizon and we want to know the possibilities of the future we can glimpse through that distance. Many times, especially here in Ireland, an imaginative mind wants to come upon, through all the appearing and disappearing, an elemental re-imagination of our past. We want to know, in other words, the conversational threshold on which we dwell, we want to know how we can hold the past the present and the future together.
With regard to the future, every hour and every day and every year of even the most average life is a threshold crossed into a new and beckoning life, and all of our great artistic and contemplative traditions are bent toward this understanding. We are invited into the great sense of the now to understand that we are living conversation between what we thought was the past and what we could only imagine as the future. We are creatures made to hold past, present and future together, but in every human life there are those thresholds and those hours that seem to carry within them a very specific invitation; sometimes even a beckoning portent and many times even the actual pattern of what is about to occur. A time when events seem soul-sized and where the individual intuits that everything that is done has enormous significance, that somehow a future life is being delineated and determined by what is said, done and acted upon, on a daily or even hourly basis.
I have had that magnified, almost haloed experience, hour by hour and day by day for more than a year now, a sense of being right at the center of things, walking through a very personal, private, letting go and grief but through it all settling onto a very firm ground in that interior darkness: a new ground that is creating an equally new dimension in my work, and a new sense of territory with my writing, it has informed not only my writing but my speaking on stage and even the way I cross the actual territory of wildness, walking as I am now, in the heart of Connemara. It as if this personal interior unraveling has been a necessary inner correspondence to an equally powerful outer raveling, a making of meaning through creating an almost overpowering sense of absence at the center, an invitational mystery, through which something central to the pattern can be invited in to reorder everything that had previously been so well arranged in the outer world.
This internal doorway to the unknown has, like the veiling of mist on a mountain, always held both a deep fascination and a fear for human beings; Meister Eckhart, the great thirteenth century Dominican mystic, said, “God is pure absence,” an astonishing and spacious nowhere that allows everything to be oriented in its pull.
Henry Vaughan, the seventeenth century metaphysical poet, called this interior portal of unknowing, “a deep but dazzling darkness”, dazzling in the sense of alluring and treasure-like, but dazzling also in the sense of being reflective and overwhelming of our powers of perception, almost a warning about the consequences of seeking a real sense of inner truth. Uncovering the truth has always involved a living relationship with the great interior and exterior unknown, it is not the act of revealing a new fact but the joining of a conversation that previously we could not understand, or did not think was possible or more commonly did not think we deserved.
This deep and dazzling darkness lies, whether we want or no, inside every human being, whether struggling to make a living in the mountains of Connemara or struggling to make meaning in a corporate glass and steel structure in central London. All human beings need a relationship with the unknown, with what appears and disappears and reappears inside and outside of them, to place them in a proper relationship to the seasonal changeability of the natural world or even, in the corporate world, the unceasing movement of industries and production. We are a frontier, a conversation, between what is known and what is not known, we are mortal creatures, no matter our success with Lambing or with Bond Dealing, we each of us have waiting for us our own very personal experience of death and dying and all lighted known successes in the visible world must be put in conversation with that ultimate veiling.
To live at this frontier, between what is seen and what is not seen, and what is a true center and what is a periphery, is to live in our true indigenous inheritance as human beings. Mortal creatures who, shaped by the geography of our physical and psychological inheritance, cannot choose between living in the everyday outer light of appearance and its internal unknown source, the place from which we both anchor and make meaning of a living, lighted world - that beautiful, disturbing, not to be ignored, deep but dazzling darkness.
©2014 David Whyte
Letter from the House
THE SEA IN YOU: A HIDDEN HARVEST OF LOVE
Bringing in a full harvest from human effort has always been difficult, because what is worth bringing in is almost always hidden from us: think of the hard, protected kernel of the wheat amidst a waving sea of gold, or the walnut nestled in its dense, unyielding skin of green and white, think of how common a much-wanted, simple understanding is needed, hidden by our complex thoughts; or the attempt to fully forgive when even forgiving a little seems to be the last thing we want to do; and lastly, the wish to love and to be loved, when loving is what we are most afraid to do.
Falling in love magnifies our sense of time, falling in love magnifies both the gifts and difficulties of time; falling in love magnifies the seasonality of the moment: what is available now may never come again. Love, like the gift of harvest itself, reminds us of our mortality and that we are subject to greater powers than the ones we want to command and control: that what is given to us grows out of the untouchable powers of the tide, the moon, the sun, the wind and the weather, and that what is offered out of this tidal movement may never be offered again. Love is a mirror to our own passing possibilities; love is a summons from the outside to an equally moving, emerging, inner sense of self. Love is a test of self-worth: I may not believe I am equal to what is, or who is, about to come into my life. Love like arrival, is a form of disappearance. The worker must stop working to enjoy the fruits of their labors. The seeker must stop seeking, and the lovelorn, eventually allow themself to be loved at last.
There is no greater and more fearful harvest in a human life than the possibilities of happiness through falling in love, and through that falling, the full commitment and everyday comforting practicalities loving another can bring. But what calls us to fall in love is not the outer stated gift in another, or any fully understood written contract, but the hidden, tidal, moon-influenced, invitational and mysterious sea in them, calling us to join its equally moving and unstoppable coming and going, and through joining with them, and out of this mystery, create an actual, practical everyday that neither we nor the object of our desire could fully understand through practicalities alone.
Without this invitational mystery and the sense of mutual calling to a shared sense of the unknown, with only the practical, unmoved by any mystery, all relationships are merely transactional. Requited love is not the giving back in equal measure of what has been given, but the meeting of an inner indescribable sea, joined to the receiving shoreline of another, which grants depth and satisfaction to the ones committed just by the act of giving and receiving itself.
It is this constant wish for human happiness through falling in love that makes up the ebb and flow of my latest book The Sea In You: Twenty Poems of Requited and Unrequited Love - my very personal experience of the way love magnifies and outlines what we want, and most especially envelopes us in a keenly felt drama of how to bring it about; it looks at the way we are deeply afraid of what we want and even more deeply afraid of it actually occurring, and how in the midst of these fears we are still able to make brave, moving and (through marriage), public commitments that defy in a very beautiful way, time, space and often, what others call, looking from the outside, common sense.
The Sea in You looks at the way it is possible, in the midst of all this changeability and movement, to be bravely tidal and seasonal ourselves, and that when we are not, we hold things too tightly or conversely refuse to receive what is naturally flowing toward us. Many of the poems look at the way every receiving in relationship is a giving away and every giving away a form of giftedness returned, and that both make up the in-breath and out-breath of every intimate, physical or spiritual sense of closeness; it looks at the fearful sense of powerlessness in “falling” toward another and the deep unalloyed pleasure and unbearable pain of being seen or not seen, wanted or not wanted.
In Greek mythology, it is said that the first human being ever to fall in love was Endymion, who by his unfailing night observation of each delicate phase of the moon, became entranced by and then fell in love with, that celestial deity and her travels through the heavens. The moon in turn fell in love with Endymion because of his unfailing and faithful seeing. The myth speaks of vast distance and intimacy combined, of light patiently working with darkness and darkness waiting for light, of fascination and an eventual and beautiful gifted familiarity, and most triumphantly, the sense of at last being truly and utterly seen: all of which is a precise and ancient description of our own looking, our own searching, our seeking for a moving outer representation of our own inner moveable self. A beautiful possibility, a real and touchable everyday harvest that can emerge when two astonishing inner worlds meet: the sea in you and the waiting, grounding, receiving shoreline in me.
©2015 David Whyte
Letter from the House
HALF A SHADE BRAVER
The Poetic and Political Implications of Our Time
The foundations of good poetry lie firmly in the invisible and the unspoken,
and through the tending of what seems at first just a whisper, through our breathing and then speaking from that inner source, we reestablish ourselves at the surface, verbally and consciously on a new frontier, a frontier that strangely, an essential part of us has already been inhabiting for years. This is the foundation of political ‘Free Speech,’ this is ‘healing’ in the true poetic sense, the reconciliation of what has long been known in some far inward reach of the psyche with the new political and seasonal changes occurring in the outer world.
As each succeeding cycle of change approaches its end we almost always realize that the very changes we have long been attempting to make, stop or delay all actually happened earlier than we care to admit, and are firmly and irrevocably in place. Part of the reverie we engage in after any escape from a confining relationship, an imprisoning job, a place we should not have made our home, is finding on reexamination, just how early the early signs were, how loud the voice was, telling us we needed to leave or resign or move. We simply would not allow our selves to hear or speak the truth to dreams that once held such promise, struggling as we did to live out our hopes and arrange and secure our lives on the surface.
These hidden and unspoken dynamics can break through to the controlled surface in difficult and destructive ways if held down through too many seasons of an individual or societal life, desolating and destroying any firmly held views of what we thought was good, right and true. It is the adolescent’s way of making changes, breaking the surface lock through trauma, drama and disappointment, but an adolescent dynamic we all can carry through into our mature years if we do not learn to speak from what Wordsworth called, “A dark invisible workmanship, that reconciles discordant elements and makes them move in one society.”
In many ways the last election represents this adolescent breaking through of hidden unspoken forces through a locked and repressive exterior form. The gridlock was not just in Congress, but in the whole bankrupt almost oligarchical political process that had served its time, and the way all of us have been sustaining the lock though our self-referencing communities of mutual agreement. The representative who has ridden the wave of those forces to the presidency may exhibit many of the characteristics of an adolescent himself, but the forces and necessary conversations his emergence represents are no less real and are something any mature mind should consider. His emergence points toward a chaotic turbulence followed by a new order, an order we need to be extremely vigilant in helping to shape no matter whether we have called our selves liberal or conservative or something in between. One thing is certain, those who elected him will be just as disappointed and sometimes horrified as those who now oppose him, while those who voted against him will be surprised and sometimes a little disorientated by the dismantling of previous imprisoning norms they are glad to see gone.
None of us know what lies ahead, we could be in for four bumpy, very disturbing but at times, strangely gratifying years, we could also be seeing the attempted rise of Fascism in America, with all its disdain and oppression of individual rights and the rights of minority communities. This is a crucial threshold that requires all of us to be in the conversation, all of us to be just half a shade braver, half a shade more willing to meet the ‘other’ in our societies, including a previously middle American society that now itself feels marginalized; half a shade more willing to speak from emerging uncertainties into public forums, rather within our familiar communities of locked-in demands and dogma.
American or not, no matter where we live, we are all on this planet tending to live and converse in our own self-reinforcing echo chambers on all sides of the political equation, we all act as if our version of the future is the only one that should prevail. Dominated by the very gadgets and social media platforms that are supposed to facilitate communication, none us have been having a real conversation. Otherwise we should not have been so surprised, as we were on both sides, by this result.
We live in a time where each of us will be asked to reach deeper, speak more bravely, live more from the fierce perspectives of the poetic imagination; find the lines already written inside us: poetry does not take surface political sides, it is always the conversation neither side is having, it is the breath in the voice about to discover itself only as it begins to speak, and it is that voice firmly anchored in a real and touchable body, standing on the ground of our real, inhabited world, speaking from a source that lives and thrives at the threshold between opposing sides we call a society.
©2016 David Whyte
Letter from the House
I write this at Thanksgiving, looking toward the winter holidays when the early descent of the night and the lighted warmth of the kitchen always recall childhood to me - but there seemed to my child’s eyes, in those early days, an aura of expectation to the onset of winter that was beyond excitement about the holidays. The summer was my own, but winter seemed somehow communal, not only between people but between times. The past, medieval or ancient, seemed to run outside our house in a dark parallel with our interior family gatherings, and I felt instinctively close to others not only around our particular Yorkshire fireside, but with my winter-bound Irish relatives across the water, and most especially with all those before us, generation after generation who had struggled through the same cold northern winters of epochs past.
I recall this image because I feel as if humanity itself is at present sheltering from a psychologically cold winter, the wind and the rain beating at its window, all of us enduring round the dying embers of a fire that seems to be giving off little heat, and very aware that any spring or summer seems very far off.
As a poet I like to eschew political commentary, and always try to speak to everyone and their central humanity: hip or conservative, atheist or deeply religious, conservative or progressive, but this is a time to speak out and to speak loudly about the outrages of our time. The world at large is in deep trouble. Most particularly, in the United States, our news and politics is dominated by billionaire funders attempting to create a civil war between once fellow Americans, while at home and abroad, our political systems are headed not only by lacklustre and incompetent leadership, but are shot through with a kind of stark malevolence. We are living in an epoch of political and planetary chaos, with chaotic or repressive leaders inhabiting not only the upper echelons of the United States, but also those of China, Russia, North Korea, and with many regimes large and small following their terrible example.
At the center of this tragedy is the sobering way in which The United States has lost its reputation as a beacon for other countries: its much vaunted constitution lies in reputational tatters, a document that seems to undergird mass public shootings, money as free speech and a Supreme Court that stretched the judicial imagination to choose their political friend, George Bush, as president, instead of having the people vote again, precipitating the ugly era that led to the trumped up invasion of Iraq and the subsequent and unnecessary deaths of at least a million people in the Middle East. We are all living with this loss of integrity, reputation and consequence, and to cap it all, are now presented with the spectacle of a sitting president who is not only a self-confessed sexual predator, but who flaunts and whores his hotels, resorts and businesses as if they were profit-making government branches. These are not anti-Republican sentiments; I would love to see the moderate, fiscally sound, historically aware, Republican party of old reform itself into the future and help create a robust conversation with the left to help us all forward. But for now, it is astonishing to see we have lived to see a time when someone who acts like a first class bully, with a classic circle of a bully's lieutenants, has somehow taken over the reins of government.
As those in America gather for Thanksgiving and the holidays thereafter, its thinking citizens must ask themselves how this present dire situation has come to pass, and face not only the difficult truths of the present but their own contribution to the circumstances. The constituencies that elected Trump did not necessarily bargain for everything he has brought, but they certainly felt neglected by and terribly diminished, both economically and psychologically, by the politically correct, the better off and the supposedly better educated who ignored their increasing sense of powerlessness. They were also, like the Brexit voters in Britain, overwhelmed by the interconnected complexities of race, gender, social class, environment and widening socioeconomic discord. The new American conversation needs to be like the best of Thanksgiving dinners, where everyone is fed, and each guest sees the humanity of the other before they see the name or the tag they are tempted to give them, creating not only understanding but a sense of humor and insight into what lies beyond our narrow insults and names.
Communal celebration meals or no, we all still live out our own personal forms of happiness and unhappiness amidst the wider drama. It is strangely disconcerting to be part of a world that seems to be in the throes of a full political and psychological breakdown while my own work, and the demand for that work is at a flood tide. I travel the world over, being hosted in the most remarkable places by equally remarkable people, doing work I love and cherish, representing a tradition of speech and insight that is beyond anything I can fully represent. I have the sense of a privilege, not fully earned, of a gift not quite deserved, and an intuition that it can only be the result of visible and invisible help and unidentifiable dynamics that seem to have blessed me and my endeavour, allied to what I offer, but independent of and sometimes even despite, that strange bundle of contradictions and individual waywardness that goes under the name of David Whyte.
Each of us lives at this very private, very personal frontier between what rises astonishingly from within and what seems to overwhelm us from without, and every day and every year of even the most average life is a threshold crossed into a new and beckoning future. Poetry most especially is bent toward this tidal and seasonal understanding of life, speaking from the not fully known and just about to be articulated edge of what we call a self. We are invited into the great sense of the now to understand that we are a living conversation between what we thought was the past and what we could only imagine as the future. We are creatures made to live in all three tenses at once, to hold past, present and future together, but in every human life there are those thresholds and those hours that seem to carry within them a very specific invitation; a time when events seem soul-sized and where the individual intuits that everything that is done has enormous significance, that somehow a future life and a future society is being delineated and determined by what is said, done and acted upon on a daily, or even hourly, basis. We live in that time now, and our voices, our artistry and the courage to bring the necessary inner qualities into the outer political conversation are the litmus test of our presence in a world that sorely needs our voice.
©2017 David Whyte