LINDY ALEXANDER: I have to say, I find starting conversations the hardest part. What about you? What’s the hardest part about conversations for you?
DAVID WHYTE: I think the hardest part of any conversation is paying attention to something other than yourself, creating a real-life frontier. The hardest part is giving up the name you are going under, the story you’re a part of—giving up your idea of where the conversation is going. That’s the crux of it: the listening ear.
I certainly went through this giving up early on in my twenties when I worked as a naturalist in the Galapagos Islands. I got to those islands in freshly-minted scientific arrogance where I soon found that none of the animals had read any of the zoology books I had read. They insisted on having lives of their own. It was quite terrifying as a young scientist. I wanted to go back to my comforting books, but Galapagos would not let me go from its gory and passionate embrace and I was forced to look, forced to have the conversation. My time in those islands led me back to another passionate embrace: poetry—a language, to my mind, far more accurate in describing the human relationship to reality.
So it’s about relinquishing the belief that we have control over everything?
Yes. Relinquishing belief is actually just coming to the truth of the matter. The reality.
But just as importantly, whatever the world demands of you will not occur either. And what happens is this actual conversation, this meeting place.
One of the merciful and perhaps beautiful things about conversation is that by definition we don’t have to have the whole conversation at once, we only have to begin it and then the conversation itself seems to create its own flow and buoyancy. Of course, some people only begin it on their deathbeds. But wherever you are, the conversation feels real, and it feels real to everyone around you. There’s an authenticity to you taking the only step you can take.
That’s true in life and in art.
Yes. And there’s also this necessity in life and art to radically simplify, to get back to innocence. You can get very developed as an artist. You can start impersonating yourself, and so everything you start doing becomes tedious to yourself and everyone else, even though it’s done at a great level of competency. Innocence is not something that should be replaced by experience.
If you look at the way real craftspeople work: they spend a third of their time preparing, a third of their time working, and a third of their time cleaning up. So the ‘doing part’ is just one portion of our lives, the harvest part. But it takes a lot to lay the groundwork properly—both in the outside world with material work and in yourself with an art form such as poetry, painting, sculpture or dance. You have to have this willingness to give yourself over to it and humiliate yourself in the ‘doing part.’ Then you start to understand, as you practice the art, where your nourishment is coming from, and eventually you feel the nourishment in every portion of the cycle, even the part at the beginning where you don’t know what you’re doing.
It is lovely to hear you talk about welcoming the humiliation. I think we often try to avoid that pain.
Well, it’s impossible. Humiliation has that beautiful root of humilis, meaning ground or soil. So both the ground that you come to and the soil from which the new harvest is grown. On every path you take in life, whether it’s an intimate relationship, the relationship to a child, the relationship to your work and vocation, or the relationship to yourself, you will have your heart broken.
We spend enormous amounts of willpower trying to find a contour to follow where we won’t have that imaginative organ broken apart. So life seems to have one question it asks us over and over: will you have your heart broken with something you care about?
When you experience that heartbreak and humiliation, are you able to make it useful in your work?
I would certainly say so in poetry, and I hope it’s so in human relationships too. I’ve learned there’s a cycle of grief in every art form and relationship. When I finished my last book of poetry, Pilgrim, I realised the tide was about to turn, so I started writing furiously.
There’s that great line at the end of As You Like It, where Shakespeare says: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” The songs of Apollo have poetry and lyricism, and Mercury is the messenger god who is getting the work out in the world—through printing it and reading it. I remember when I suddenly wrote a poem in a very different voice and I knew that particular tide was over. There was a kind of a beautiful, poignant grief to it. At the same time there was a sense of completion and harvest, and a sense of thankfulness.
If you read the great German-speaking poet Rilke, around the Duino Elegies, he had an experience of this visitation—of an enormous tidal current of creativity and presence and then the sense of suddenly being left. This feeling of being left is just the fact that you don’t recognise the new territory. You’re meant not to know. I think one of our great tasks as human beings is to find the part of us that is big enough for life, that can put its arms around the part that finds things difficult, that wants life to be different.
I’m just thinking about this idea in therapy where people write themselves a letter as if it was from a compassionate friend.
That’s a good example of the beginning of an internal conversation. The interesting thing is that as you get more and more mature in that particular conversation, you should be able to take judgement, otherwise you’d never write a decent line of poetry. You’d just write a journal which no one else wants to hear. So the judgement, discretion and discrimination—the powers of the empirical mind—are brought in to finish the article or poem. Without the judgement at the end, you don’t have an art form. I think it’s the same in life. So listening without judgement is just the beginning part, and a very necessary part. If you did talk to your real friends like you talk to yourself, you’d never have another friend in your life. So much of internal conversation is coercion, threat or punishment. We’re basically just giving ourselves a good telling off all the time.
One of the dynamics I’m working with at the moment is the art of asking beautiful questions, and I think you can ask beautiful questions of yourself as well as of life and of circumstances. I have this under the heading, “Solace”. You find solace, which is not only comfort but also a place in the greater scheme of things, when you ask beautiful questions in quite often un-beautiful circumstances. The asking of the question itself emancipates you into a much larger understanding of self-compassion and compassion for others.
For me, beautiful questions are pretty rare.
It’s like wanting to meet a beautiful stranger. We just want one beautiful question every now and then [laughs].
Yes! Because when you meet those questions you are bowled over.
If only we could meet a beautiful stranger who has a beautiful question.
Then you know you are made for each other! I’m really interested in what people’s reactions are when you tell them you are a poet.
[Long pause]. Well, sometimes I don’t tell them.
I do the old Irish thing from my mother and turn sideways into the light. Sometimes you can be an hour or two with someone, have the greatest conversation, and then leave, realising you know nothing about the person you’ve spoken to. I either say matter of factly, “I’m a poet.” I know that will always lead on, so sometimes I just say, “Oh, I’m independently wealthy.”
Which is actually how I feel. That has another kind of accuracy.
I was listening to one of your recordings where you were talking about crossing the American-Canadian border, and one of the officials at the checkpoint looked at your immigration card because you’d written “poet” in the occupation box.
Well, I say it at borders. Because that is what I am. Sometimes I say “poet and philosopher.” If you ever want to smuggle anything through a border, just say you’re a poet. They will be so fascinated they will never think to look through anything! Sometimes they say, “Give me a poem.” You recite one for them and you’re on your way. But it’s remarkable, the differing effects of saying that word in different cultures. In certain cultures the poet is seen and celebrated, and in some cultures it’s just a source of puzzlement. In Ireland it’s a big, ballsy thing to say because the standard is so high. Whereas in many cultures you could say you are a poet and no one would know or care if you were a good poet or not. If you went to Iran or China, the word “poet” has enormous resonance. In Japan it would mean that you had spent decades and decades apprenticing yourself to the art. But almost everyone has an imaginative relationship to the announcement that you are a poet. It’s as if it represents something quite magnified in the human imagination. Somewhere there is someone who is attempting to speak the truth. There is a kind of foundational sense of intrigue and curiosity. That’s what I’m working with in all the different audiences.
Now my fame goes before me quite a bit, although I find myself, especially in the corporate world, in rooms full of people who have no idea how a poet or poetry can be useful to them. My job is to put that right in the first minute [laughs].
I always felt that people needed to choose between a strong creative and a pragmatic, strategic life. But the more I read your work, I realise it’s vital that we have both.
We all have imaginations. We all have bodies and empirical, intellectual minds. It’s just a hierarchy of use. First you have the body, and then you have the imagination in the body, and then the intellect and our strategies. As long as you get it that way around then you can be a good scientist or a good artist, or both. There are many periods in our history where there was no real split between the two. If you were an educated man or woman in England in the 1600s you would be expected to be interested in natural history as well as writing sonnets. The same in Confucian China. This is a recent split that came with the Industrial Revolution.
There’s a difference too between good work and a good career.
Yes. Some are lucky enough to bring them together, but quite often it’s because you’ve got great help from circumstances or the time or culture you live in. It may be that your chosen art form has no outlet that gives you the sense of vocational satisfaction. Therefore you have to find a way of practicing it while doing other work. But that doesn’t mean you have to choose. Just use the rhythm and stability of an everyday working life to create a few hours in the day where you practise it. I have a good friend in Oxford who is a brilliant calligrapher, I’d say one of the best in England, but he’s just kept it alive while being production manager for a large global corporation.
I do think one of the dynamics of human life is that we’re constantly trying to choose too early in the process, before things have come to fruition. We’re leading the strategic mind, which is terrified of the world and whose job it is to ascribe temporary names to quite a scary universe. That part of us, from an evolutionary point of view, is actually supposed to keep us worried and fretful. It is what helps you survive, but it doesn’t grant you any happiness. So you have to go to this other faculty of belonging, the imagination, and even deeper than that, what in our religious terminology is called, “the soul.”
I’d say the soul of a human being is the ultimate faculty of belonging, it’s the part of you that is trying to belong to the biggest world it can—physically, materially, relationally and imaginatively. That’s the place where the foundation of our conversations should come.
There is such focus, isn’t there, on what and who we will be. We ask children when they are four and five: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Yes, but human beings in general don’t let things ripen. They are constantly trying to go left or right. You find, actually, at the crucial moment there is no left or right. You almost always have to go between things. We’re not meant to choose. You’re actually meant to become the conversation of what you thought was a left or a right. You’re actually going to go left-right!
You can tell I spend a lot of time in County Clare, can’t you?
But there is incredible pressure. It’s such an uncomfortable spot to be in.
Only if you have no forms of corroboration. But once you start apprenticing yourself to that world, the experience itself becomes corroboration. If you start seeking it out in great poets, philosophy, the best religious thought, your experience gets reinforced and lyricised and even celebrated— all by reading the great contemplatives. If you can understand any of it! [Laughs].
Everything that is worthwhile puts you into a state of disorientation to begin with, because you can’t recognise it, you’re not big enough for it. “You’re not able for it,” as they say in the west of Ireland. That’s why it’s uncomfortable and that’s why it’s worthwhile.
It sounds like the romantics and the contemplatives have been friends to you. I’m also really struck by the presence of friendship in your work—and in particular, male friendship. It’s not something we are often exposed to—this idea of men sharing, of being with brothers.
Yes, I have a great circle of very intelligent, robust and relational male friends. Most of them are in Europe but I’ve got a couple over here in the States. This has been very, very powerful in my life. Including when I was a rock climber—when our lives were literally in one another’s hands. I’m thankful for that initiation into the male world. Being 1000 feet off the ground on a vertical rockface tends to sharpen your faculties! It teaches you to be attentive to yourself and to the art form that is climbing. I thought it was remarkable.
But one of the great joys in my life now, in mid-life, is cultivating these wonderful male-female friendships. That’s come as a harvest at this time of my life. I’ve had female friendships, but not at the depths I’ve had with men. It’s wonderful to have this doorway open. Funnily enough, one of those female friends feels exactly the same way. She had really close women friends all her life, and suddenly she has a male Anam Cara, which is from the Irish, meaning “soul friend”.
My partner is a climber too. The way he sees the problem of each climb, the sequence and the way it fits together when you get it right, is interesting. Is that how you view poetry? That when everything falls into place you know you’ve got the right sequence?
Well, I’ve never thought of it, but I think it’s very, very close. You usually climb right at the edge to make the route a challenge. There’s a lot at stake, so you have to pay tremendous attention. If you’re off balance then you can climb very badly and write very badly. If you’re not in your centre, if you panic, you might let your strategic mind lead the climb instead of this other presence inside you.
When you’re climbing there’s always lots of excuse and temptation at the periphery to panic. The more experienced you are as a climber, the less you panic, and the more panic-stricken the circumstances become, the more centred you actually are. So you could say that’s very close to the dynamics of beauty that occur in poetry when you are trying to find the central image that will hold all the thousands of besieging images at the periphery together. It’s what Coleridge and Keats called “The Primary Imagination.” The ability to think up new things is only the secondary imagination, but the primary imagination is this dwelling and contact with the centre of the pattern. That’s exactly what you’re trying to do when you’re on what looks from below like an impossible route on the cliff.
How has your work been influenced by your mother? She was working really early on in her life, wasn’t she?
She was, yes. The church broke her family apart, and she had to flee to England when she was 15. When she started working in the mills in Yorkshire, she was so young she’d work a full day and then go out to play in the park at the end of the day. When my daughter reached 15, I looked at her and couldn’t believe that my mother had been out in the world by herself at that age.
My mother did those difficult jobs all her life, until later on when she got her dream job, which was working with older people in a care home. She was so great with people. They all loved her to death. I stay in hotels all over the world and I pay a larger-than-you-should tip for the women who clean the rooms, because that’s the kind of work my mother did all her life.r life.
It’s unseen, isn’t it? That kind of work.
Yes. There’s lots of unseen work, done by men too. Only certain kinds of work are celebrated in the media. You have this vast invisibility of necessary work by people in coal mines, water engineers who are getting clean water to people every day. One of the greatest determiners of human health in any community is whether or not you have access to clean water. Yet we’re fascinated by Hollywood.
So if you are a doctor you get together with other doctors and talk about the foundations of what you’re doing. Don’t stay at the periphery of the conversation, no matter what you do, because your vocation will wither in your mind and imagination if you fail to visit its wellsprings.