Catching Up with David Whyte

Catching Up with David Whyte

On what poetry is all about

Editor’s note: is posting written interviews with some of today’s more interesting spiritual teachers, as well as the great podcasts with Rabbi Rami. Here’s an excerpt from Elizabeth Marglin’s conversation with poet David Whyte, which we’ll join with the question:

Just why are poets so marvelously destabilizing?

In the Irish tradition, there’s always the use of destabilizing language. It undermines the context you think you are inhabiting in a good-humored way. In Irish conversation, whatever context you are inhabiting, there’s always another context that makes your context absurd. That’s in the Zen tradition too. They are constantly asking you to get out of yourself, go against yourself, get over yourself, to the point you get beyond yourself. That’s also the discipline of poetry.

So what’s the core of your poetry?

My work ultimately seems to be about getting poetry to as many people as possible because it is such a life saver. Such a life saver. At the core of poetry is the art of asking the beautiful question. Something that brings solace to human beings walking through the darker vales of existence. I work in so many different worlds. But in all of them I’m practicing this intimate, invitational form of speech. It’s speaking to a part of us that quite often hasn’t had much of an opportunity to speak in our everyday surface lives. It’s one of the difficulties of writing poetry, especially in the beginning. You think the invitation is to be articulate right away, but the difficulty of poetry is that you have to write and speak from the part of you that can’t as yet utter a word—that’s the place from which you write poetry. Which is why it is so very difficult.

Good poetry requires a friendship with the body—an intimacy with your own body. We are so abstracted from our physicality at present. There’s so much pain that is abstracted through not fully being here, in this mortal frame. Half of our conversations are mediated through difficulty and loss, so there’s always been an excuse not to be in this body, not to be in this life—to create an abstracted secondary life in which we are not quite there, and where we therefore don’t quite feel the pain and grief in the same way. Add to this the magnification of this abstracted self, with the Internet and our addiction to our tiny screens, and there is an unspoken societal permission to look as if we are there and not fully show up at the same time.

I think the physical invitation back into the body is in every true art form. The strange thing is, when you invite yourself back into the body, you actually find new ground and thus create a different, more real horizon for the future. A full inhabitation of the body puts you in the proper relationship with the far horizon of your life. It takes you out of yourself and into yourself at the same time. The poet’s discipline is to put the voice fully in the body, and then fully on the page, with all its pain and difficulty as well as its triumphs and joys.

What’s the biggest shift in your poetry?

It’s getting simpler and yet with more unseen layering at the same time. The last dozen or so poems in the last year or two shift toward a presence that’s here and not here at the same time. It’s you and it’s not you. It’s your life and what lies beyond your life. It’s this invisible frontier which only occurs when you are actually in the meeting itself. That’s my edge. I’ve been attempting to inhabit it for many decades now, but it seems very close at the moment. It’s a new voice speaking from that place. There was a huge transformation that occurred in the writing of Pilgrim, and a particular form of coming home, and coming to ground, in the writing of the poem “Santiago.”

What is the deepest distortion you see in spirituality today?

What I call the tyranny of the “now.” People speaking of the now as if it’s the only thing that exists. A mature human being is able to live in all three tenses at once: the past, the present, and the future. They all exist at the same time, as the Irish will tell you. So to be in a conversation between the past, present, and future, to be fully in the present yet just as much looking at the horizon that draws you while standing on the foundation from which you’ve come. This distortion on “nowness” has confused a lot of people.

What is the most common trap of the spiritual teacher?

Seeing yourself as a spiritual teacher, thinking too much of yourself—becoming too brittle and humorless. Becoming so tight because you don’t want to make mistakes in front of other people. I do think life is just one humiliation after another and you should just get used to it. No matter who you are, circumstances will humiliate you. But in the theological sense, it means they will return you to the ground of your being.

Growing up in Yorkshire, or in Ireland, any fancy ideas about yourself are soon shorn away: The dominant message is that you are not as great as you think. It’s nothing to do with negative self-esteem, it’s asking you to be real. Yes, you are bigger than what you think you are, but you can only negotiate that boundary between smaller self and larger self by being on the sure ground of a real conversation with the world.

What practice do you recommend?

The one that you are most drawn to, the invitation to the way you are made. It could be reading Jane Austen. It could be sitting on a black cushion in the zendo. It could be walking in the mountains. It could be gardening. It’s the one thing that makes everything else makes sense. It’s the one thing that gives you a sense of spaciousness and gets you out of yourself, to the place where you start asking more and more beautiful questions, not just about your world, but the next world that’s waiting for you. The next dispensation.

What’s your biggest surprise?

The world exists independent of my participation, and may be quite relieved to see me go!


The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
hiding then revealing the way you should take,
the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall,
and the way forward always in the end
the way that you followed, the way that carried you
into your future, that brought you to this place,
no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,
no matter that it had to break your heart along the way:
the sense of having walked from far inside yourself
out into the revelation, to have risked yourself
for something that seemed to stand both inside you
and far beyond you, that called you back
to the only road in the end you could follow, walking
as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice
that by night became a prayer for safe arrival,
so that one day you realized that what you wanted
had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place
you had lived in before you began,
and that every step along the way, you had carried
the heart and the mind and the promise
that first set you off and drew you on and that you were
more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way
than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:
as if, all along, you had thought the end point might be a city
with golden towers, and cheering crowds,
and turning the corner at what you thought was the end
of the road, you found just a simple reflection,
and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back
and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:
like a person and a place you had sought forever,
like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;
like another life, and the road still stretching on. 

—David Whyte

From Pilgrim ©2012 Many Rivers Press

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