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David Whyte is the author of six volumes of poetry and two bestselling books of prose. The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America was published by Doubleday/Currency in 1994, and Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity was published by Riverhead Books in 2001. His latest poetry book, River Flow: New & Selected Poems 1984-2007, will be published in March 2007. His previous five volumes include Songs for Coming Home, Where Many Rivers Meet, Fire in the Earth, The House of Belonging, and Everything is Waiting for You. He holds a degree in Marine Zoology, and is an Associate Fellow of Templeton College and the Said Business School at the University of Oxford. He has traveled extensively, including working as a naturalist guide and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Galapagos, the Andes, and the Himalyayas. A sought-after speaker whose client list reads like a Who´s Who in international business, he brings a unique contribution to our understanding of the nature of individual and organizational change. He lives with his family in the Pacific Northwest. For more information, visit his website: davidwhyte.com.
Interviewer: Lee Rossi
LR: You were born in England, I believe.
DW: Yes, Yorkshire, in the north of England. I make the distinction because it´s a very different place and culture from the inherited sense that people abroad have of the English. People in Yorkshire would have a distinctive world view from, say, the southern English.
LR:: But there´s more to you than just Yorkshire. Your mother is Irish, and you live in the United States. I guess my question is, do you think of yourself as an English, an Irish, or an American poet? Another way of asking that question is, how do the three traditions feed into your poetry?
DW: That´s a very good question, interestingly. I see myself as being an English poet, an Irish poet, and a Northwestern poet. Perhaps even more interestingly, I´m not sure I would ever call myself an American poet, I think the first two disqualify me. But certainly there is a body of my work which would make me out as a Northwestern poet. My latest book of poetry is deliberately laid out in flows or poetic themes, some of which are definitely Irish, some English, and some Northwestern, depending on the landscape and cultural inheritance in which they are set.
It´s very similar to the dynamic in which I grew up–working class Yorkshire, very near to where the BrontÃ« sisters grew up, in the shadow of the moors, with a very strong local dialect and a very strong local culture, which is very grounded–you would say, very concrete. Sometimes concrete to the point of surrealness. But existing invisibly, but powerfully, in the house where I grew up, there was this other inheritance, the Irish, imaginative world, where names change according to the story you´re telling. Where, as Oscar Wilde said, "No amount of exaggeration will do justice to what actually happened."
I grew to maturity in that house where these two worlds collided. But I actually remember being about seven years old or so and making a conscious decision that I wasn´t supposed to choose between these two worlds. I was supposed to actually live in both. And in many ways you could say that the poet´s path is to be able to assign names to things which are large enough to leave them alive and movable, so that the name doesn´t kill off what you´re describing. So that it can, if effective, announce its own name to you. So you could say that Yorkshire´s very powerful in naming, whereas in the Irish tradition–at least the Irish tradition my mother came from, (there are several, often clashing Irish traditions)–names were very movable, very changeable, and always allowed the thing itself to speak for itself.
I suppose you could say it´s an analogy of my taking poetry into quite hard-nosed places such as organizations and executive boardrooms and corporations around the world, of bringing this movable, live conversation into quite often immoveable systems.
So I´d say that I lived between all those worlds. I still have a very powerful connection with people and places in Britain and Ireland. I spend a good portion of the year there and always have throughout the years. The Irish poets and the Irish inheritance and the time I´ve spent in Ireland have influenced me greatly. That´s a very powerful stream in my work. A bust of Yeats gazes arrogantly and disdainfully over my desk to keep me humble, and a volume of Patrick Kavenagh is almost permanently open to keep me honest. In parallel, I also feel very powerfully connected to the Pacific Northwest, but also to the sense of the wonderful, clear vernacular sense in West Coast American poetry. Somehow, I live between all those worlds.
The title of my latest book, River Flow: New and Selected Poems, in many ways points to all those different streams which live within a person, and if we choose between them, we impoverish ourselves. I do believe we are supposed to live in the whole ecology, the whole watershed of all the different flows that are meeting inside of us and making up our rivers, our riverine identities.
LR: I noticed in that book that there are groups of poems that deal with different geographies, different ecologies in your life.
DW: I´ve always felt when I´m setting down in the midst of a new book of poetry that I´m carrying on with themes that I´ve dealt with in previous books, that there have been antecedents, poems that have led up to this point. I always wanted to put together a book that would throw these poems together in the themes, according to the building insights with which they work. I was very excited when I got the opportunity finally, having reached a stage where I could do a "New and Selected" and put them together in that way. So the poems are arranged unusually, thematically, in River Flow, although there is a very solid chronological set of contents too, if you want to look and see what order the poems were written in.
LR: I thought that thematic ordering was useful, and unusual too.
DW: It was meant quite consciously to illustrate these very powerful currents in human life that seem to flow with a kind of seasonality, a powerful seasonality that has us revisiting old themes in deeper ways, themes and conversations that we started when we were actually first troubled or nourished by them.
LR: Let me ask about a couple of individual poems. Your poem "Seven Streams" seems to be quite popular with readers. I´ve seen it on the web in a couple of places, and maybe in a couple of your books. One of the things I notice about it is that it evokes that wild west-of-Ireland landscape that Yeats was in love with. And though you don´t mention him in the poem, it seems to be filled with his spirit.
DW: I´d say it´s very hard to write a poem that includes any Irish themes without there being at least a speck of Yeats blowing around. He´s such an enormously influential gatekeeper to the ancient springs that you drink from when you´re writing in that tradition. I mentioned earlier the bronze bust of Yeats, and though, as I said, he gazes imperiously with monocled eye over my writing, I don´t often consciously think of him or think of the bust–I´m so used to seeing it. But he´s certainly there in very powerful ways.
You know, his early work had everything to do with drinking from those ancient sources, you could say, and bringing people to those streams, and so there would be a very powerful unconscious parallel to Yeats´s work, although the style is very different.
But the names there, Slievenaglasha, for instance, that´s the "hill of grass" in the north Burren in County Clare. And Mulloch Mor means "great mountain," "the big mountain." Those are very well-known places. And, in fact, Slievenaglasha is a place where one of the great myths of Ireland took place, the sacred cow who gave everlasting milk from that grass. Themes of nourishment again. The "seven streams" is actually a place called the Seven Streams, which is a low limestone cliff from which issue these seven sources of water. Traditionally, a place of healing, visited and drunk from since ancient times.
So the theme of that poem: "Come down drenched, at the end of May, with the cold rain so far into your bones that nothing will warm you except your own walking." That has a sense of internal heat to it, and being in that landscape, those outer parallels leading you to this inner symmetry where those springs you see on the outside, if you´re paying enough attention, find an echo and parallel in the equivalent spring inside your own body. And so the last lines are: "Stand above the Seven Streams, letting the deep down current surface around you, then branch and branch as they do, back into the mountain." That´s the whole sense of those flows leading not only into the Yeatsian terrible beauties of the world, but also leading inside yourself. The sources that you might not have drunk from before or for a long time.
LR: I love the way you´ve explained that poem. And it reminds me that another important strand in Yeats´s work is its sense of a spiritual quest. Poetry is a spiritual quest, and in works like "A Vision" and in his fascination with séances and the paranormal, Yeats was definitely looking for some contact with the spiritual world. I wonder if that´s something you seek in your own poetry.
DW: I do, but certainly not in the way that Yeats was looking for it. Through that outer, late Victorian séance world. Or through people speaking in tongues and channeled voices. What I love about Yeats is his ability to live in that strange world and also to be fiercely and practically political at the same time. He combined his fascination with the wilder edges of human belonging with a fiercely political presence at the center of Irish life, and I might say, unlike most spiritual practitioners, with writing of a high order.
I am interested in the spiritual–though the word is too vague for good poetry–but in a different way. I´m interested in the created identities of individual human beings and the bridges they build from that identity to things other than themselves. As I say, I rarely use the word "spiritual" because as a poet I feel it´s a word that´s been corrupted by lazy usage, and doesn´t say what we mean it to say when we use it. But if you were to use that word, I´d say it´s an attempt to combine the sense of a person´s unspeakable identities or the search for them with all the spoken, named things they have to be in their work or in their society on a daily basis.
LR: I also have a queasiness about words like "spiritual," but it seems you have to use them at certain key points in your life as you search for yourself.
DW: Yes, as long as you don´t try to use them in a poem. They´re very hard to use in a poem.
LR: You mentioned the BrontÃ«s earlier, and that got me thinking of the Lake District, which is not too far from where you were born, and of Wordsworth and Coleridge and their book The Lyrical Ballads.
DW: One of my favorite periods in history.
LR: It seems that way. You write so movingly of Wordsworth in your book Crossing the Unknown Sea. Is it from the Romantics that you get your sense of nature and the sustaining quality of nature in a human life?
DW: I think I´m just made that way in the conversation of life. I think it was more a recognition in the Romantics: in Coleridge, in Wordsworth, in Keats, of a certain conversation with the natural world that I was already having, though, as a child, I hadn´t articulated it yet. There´s always that wonderful sense of discovery when you find other like souls in the world speaking things which have not yet been fully formed in your own heart and mind.
I´m also fascinated by a much longer Romantic tradition than the one that´s represented by the English Romantic poets from the 1770s through to the 1820s. I think they were actually part of a much larger lineage and tradition. It was a stream that bubbled to the surface in a very powerful form at that time. But, in all the poetries that I read, I see that stream going right back to the beginning of time, back to Homer or the ancient Chinese dynasties.
There´s a very powerful parallel between Taoism and the Taoist poets and Wordsworth in particular, I would say, a tradition of insights and articulation, of a human identity trying to belong to something much larger than itself, that is, natural creation.
LR: I hadn´t thought of the Chinese or Japanese Zen poets forming a pre-Romantic tradition, but it makes a lot of sense.
DW: Yes, and the way your identity is honed and shaped by your ability to pay attention to that world. Dogen Zenji in the 13th century said, "If you go out and confirm the 10,000 things, this is delusion. If the 10,000 things come and confirm you, this is enlightenment." Wordsworth in The Prelude said, "I made no vows, but vows were then made for me; bond unknown to me was given that I should be, else sinning greatly, a dedicated spirit." The self-same thing.
It´s when the world comes and announces its name to you that you have the possibility of a real conversation. That´s my definition of enlightenment, not a heavenly safety net but a real conversation. There are definite parallels in the two traditions.
One very personal parallel I found is the fact that Wordsworth´s family was originally from Yorkshire and moved to the Lake District only in the previous generation before he was born. As with Wordsworth, the Lakes became the playground of my childhood, and then of my teens when I became a rock climber. It was an absolutely entwined part of my growing. To have another poet who was in love with the Lake District in the same way that I was describe his own growing and shaping by that world in The Prelude, it´s a wonderful companionship to me. I read good portions of The Prelude every year. Especially when I´m there.
LR: It´s a wonderful poem. I love the cadences and the loftiness of the vision. I have an incredible feeling of spaciousness when I read that book.
DW: You know, they were all great walkers. Walking was not only a wonderful activity in itself, but it was a cipher for untrammeled freedom, away from the confines of society. You can actually get the sense of a walking rhythm in much of Coleridge´s poetry, but especially in Wordsworth´s. I often feel I´ve had a good spacious walk in the mountains after I´ve read Wordsworth.
The version that´s still my favorite is the one he wrote when he was younger, the 1805 version. As you probably know he worked on it for the rest of his life. It wasn´t published until 1850, posthumously by his wife. He worked on it for the rest of his life, and the 1850 version, of which I have an original copy, is very good, but I love the raw confrontation that´s there to be found in the 1805 version.
LR: I had the good fortune of studying with Meyer Abrams, a wonderful scholar of the Romantics. He had a passion for Wordsworth, and he had us read the 1805 version because it was filled with that rawness and energy of youth. Speaking of which, there´s a quality about your poetry, I won´t call it a "barbaric yawp," but maybe it´s something akin to that, a bardic quality that emerges at times. I´m wondering if that has been part of your formation as a poet, that pre-literary tradition that one finds in Beowulf and the early Anglo-Saxon poets, and also in ballads like "Sir Patrick Spens."
DW: I suppose I have two very distinct streams in my work. One is in the shorter, clearer poems, poems of immediate insight. An almost physical clarity in a particular experience. The other stream would be these bigger, narrative, story-telling poems. I could say that I do feel the hoof-beat of the bardic tradition in me when I´m writing those narratives. The rhythm of the epic encounter. It´s there, for instance, in a poem called "The Hazel Wood," which is a title that definitely makes a bow to Yeats, and which tells the story of how I was caught in a lightning storm in the hills of north Clare. There´s definitely an homage to both Yeats and Wordsworth in that poem.
LR: I´ll definitely have to read it.
DW: Just as a point of information, "The Seven Streams" is a new poem in River Flow, so it hasn´t appeared in any previous book. Before, you said that it had. I just wanted to clarify that.
LR: I guess I meant that I´d encountered it several times on the internet.
DW: Interesting. I did take it as a compliment, though; if it´s a good poem, you should feel that you´ve encountered it before.
LR: Let´s talk about American poetry for a moment. Which American poets do you feel most in sympathy with? When I look at your work, I get the sense that Robinson Jeffers or Mary Oliver might be fellow travelers, but are there others?
DW: Oh, there are dozens of American poets I love. When I first came to these shores, I really fell in love with the easy vernacular manner in American poetry, which wasn´t accessible to me growing up in the thicket of the English and Irish literary inheritance. I loved the ease and clarity in Gary Snyder´s work. And particularly also in Robert Sund´s writing. He died just a few years ago, quite young. But he´s a very good Northwestern poet, very clear, very influenced, as many poets on the West Coast are, by the Taoist and Buddhist traditions coming across the ocean.
Reading into Gary Snyder and Robert Sund were new worlds for me and offered new possibilities. When I came here and read more deeply into them, I wanted that easy vernacular manner in my own writing. And hungered for it, you know, and in many ways, wrote myself into it. If you look at Songs for Coming Home, my first book, it´s really all about establishing a clear, simple, descriptive voice. As Coleridge said, "no poet begins in philosophy, or they write very bad poetry. But every poet should become a philosopher." There was very little philosophy in that first book. It was really all about getting the sounds right.
LR: Let me read from another poem of yours, because it leads to another theme I´d like you to discuss. Your poem, "All the True Vows," is very clear and has an almost philosophical tone. I´m not sure when you wrote it. You say,
Time almost forsook me
and I looked again.
Seeing my reflection
I broke a promise
for the first time
after all these years
in my own voice,
before it was too late
to turn my face again.
What were you seeing in yourself when you wrote those lines? What was that promise you had to break in order to speak in your own voice?
DW: Well, it was written in mourning for my first marriage, I suppose. It´s really also about all the marriages we make that we have to leave behind, perhaps in fear, all the compacts we make which are honorable and real, but which have to be seen in a much larger context and re-imagined. I do think that the experience of revelation in an individual life is always one of being gifted and violated at the same time.
In the ancient Greek world, if you met the god on the mountain, it was always an experience of violation as much as of revelation. In fact, the revelation came from the violation; it´s your sense of identity, your present sense of identity, which you´ve built so assiduously over the years, being washed away by the great tidal flow of your life, uncaring about any particular, individual, atomized human being who´s trying to make himself discrete and whole from the rest of creation.
That poem is really about how difficult it is for a human being to make the transition from a powerful early vow he made into the larger vow it has now lead him to; and about how you can die at that door (you can stay a faithful companion to something that´s far too small for you); and the grief involved, the necessary grief involved in keeping the conversation large enough and real enough for yourself.
LR: That sounds so true to me. I´ve had a couple of failed marriages myself. But what you said about meeting the god on the mountain reminds me of those lines in your poem "Yorkshire" where you´re describing the experience of reading Ted Hughes´s book The Hawk in the Rain when you were a young boy, and the image you use–you say you were "caught in those written claws…and whisked into the sky." That image reminds me of the figure of Ganymede in Greek myth, the cupbearer of the gods who was snatched up by Zeus in the form of an eagle and taken to Olympus. That´s another metaphor of what happens to us when we enter into a larger conversation than our life currently includes.
DW: Exactly. When I pulled those books down by Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn and I read into them, I did feel as if I had been abducted, as if I´d been stolen by the Gypsies. I had been, I´d been kidnapped and abducted by poetry.
LR: I think a lot of people, especially poets, have felt that. And while we´re talking about the vocation of the poet, you have an intriguing poem called “It Is Not Enough" in which you seem to be talking to spiritual seekers. In that poem you seem to say that it´s not enough to know the truth, to, as you say, "gaze on the unborn or follow the inward road." The seeker has to give voice or expression to the secret, you say, "even one will do, one word or the palm of your hand turning outward in the gesture of gift." Is that why you´re a poet, that need to express and go beyond just the insight?
DW: Yes, I think that´s true, whether you´re a poet or not. I think the whole sense of an incarnation for a human being has to do with becoming visible in the world and of holding this conversation, this particular corner of creation, that no one else can hold. If you just hold one pole of it, which is your own interior revelation, then it´s no conversation at all.
If you look at the disciplines in the Zen tradition, for instance when you go into the dokusan room with the teacher, that testing is all about seeing whether those internal revelations are alive in the world or whether you´re just one hand clapping, which is no clapping at all.
You know the question–what is the sound of one hand clapping?–is really the question, what´s it like to live in exile, what´s it like to travel through space meeting nothing other than yourself? So the testing in the dokusan room is to see whether you´re actually present for anything other than your own spiritual attainment.
You could say that your presence in front of the blank page or the blank screen is exactly the same.
LR: Are you a Zen practitioner?
DW: I have been for 20 years or more, 30 years actually. And even though I don´t overtly sit in sesshins and retreats anymore, I feel that all those years are inside me, walking around with me. It certainly has been a big part of me. It´s one of those parallel traditions of which I´ve been a part.
LR: Can we jump to another topic? I´d like to explore your ideas about work. You use the image of the pilgrim to explain the process of finding and pursuing good work. You arrive at one stage in your life, you pursue a particular kind of work, and then you move on to something else, as your sense of what´s important in your life expands. You point out that it´s an inner as well as an outer journey, this pilgrimage of work. What do you think are some of the inner signposts of true work? How do we know when we´ve found "true work," and how do we know when it´s time to let it go and find something else?
DW: I´d say that one of the central diagnostic features is an experience of timelessness; where you feel in work that time is actually radiating out from the experience itself. One of the signs of work that´s debilitating is when you feel constantly besieged by time, when you are constantly trying to fit your work into a schedule. Now there´s no work that is immune to the sense of deadline or of being limited. But if you don´t have a cyclical visitation of the timeless in your endeavors, I´d say that´s a pretty good sign it´s not your conversation, it´s not your work and you should be elsewhere. Or you should move on from something that perhaps once brought that into your life but no longer does.
The whole idea of pilgrimage is not necessarily moving on from a particular form of conversation, but finding–and I do think work is a kind of out loud, visible conversation–it´s keeping that conversation real, and in order to do that, finding new forms appropriate to it.
LR: Here´s a different kind of question, maybe not totally unrelated. Fifteen years ago, Dana Gioia wrote a very famous and controversial essay entitled "Can Poetry Matter?" In your book The Heart Aroused you say that "he challenged American poets to climb out of their self-referential world and bring their talents back into the mainstream of American society."
DW: Yes, The Heart Aroused was published partly as a consequence of that challenge.
LR: How much progress, if any, have American poets made in the intervening time?
DW: I don´t know really. You see it in flashes. You probably know of Poets Against the War, that was catalyzed by Laura Bush´s invitation for poets to come to the White House and read at the time when America was gearing up to invade Iraq. I thought that was a very powerful and challenging response.
Personally I don´t worry about it too much because I do think that the act of writing poetry, the discipline of actually following that art, is a political act in itself. Which doesn´t mean to say that individual poets have an excuse not to participate in society. But the particular form of attention that poetry demands of you, and it´s ability to have individuals and society look at qualities and elements that the mainstream is refusing to confront, is a powerful political act in itself.
At the same time, I really do think that the mainstream world is crying out for artists of any stripe who can build a bridge between the imaginative and the strategic worlds that human beings live in. I know I was made for that, I was built for that conversation because, as I say, I grew up in a very practical Yorkshire world with a very imaginative Irish interior to it. I lived at the bridge between those two worlds growing up. I love both sides of it.
There are certain poets who are the geniuses of the interior imagination and its ability to renew the world outside through articulation. They may not be known for a couple of generations. There are probably poets writing who are socially inept, up in their garrets, who may become the brilliant voices of the 22nd century. In my mind they´re just as relevant as I am, who´s out there striving amongst the money lenders.
LR: One last question related to the practical world of money lenders, and their literary equivalents, publishers. You´ve worked as a publisher, I believe.
DW: Only with regard to my own poetry.
LR: I´m wondering why you chose that route as a way of getting your work out and do you think that´s a good idea for other poets?
DW: Oh, I definitely do in today´s world. Both my first two books had publishers. But the first one I got back by accident when the publisher went bankrupt. I found I could sell not only that printing but a series of printings. With regard to the second one, the day before I was supposed to send the manuscript down to San Francisco for publication, my conscience and the bedroom ceiling told me that I should do it myself. Partly because I already had quite a few good poet friends who had good books of poetry that were out of print. And although they´d been published once, and although they could sell their books at their readings, the publisher was refusing to reprint them. Even very good first-line poets have had that experience. I saw that because I was doing so many public readings and was in effect on a permanent publicity tour, this was exactly the way I should go.
I have always loved design too. I´ve got a fierce eye for the visual. I´ve always loved doing the books, though my assistant, Julie Quiring, has become quite the brilliant designer to whom I now only contribute. It started off very small, and it´s grown organically, and now we have full distribution for all the poetry books across the States and Europe.
The sales figures for these books of poetry have been quite phenomenal. People would be very surprised how many books of poetry you can sell if you´re out there in the world reading to large audiences. Being out in the world helps a lot. On the other hand, for a poet who doesn´t want to be bothered by that world or who finds it a distraction to his core literary conversation, then he or she would be better off finding a publisher who would take care of all that. Assuming you are good enough to attract the moths to your lantern.
LR: Assuming that there are any of those brave publishing souls still out there. At any rate, thanks so much. I´ve really enjoyed our conversation.
DW: A very good interview, thank you. It´s nice to be questioned so closely about the poetry itself.