The work of poet David Whyte was recently featured in an unusual place: the business section of the New York Times. Whyte, who grew up among the hills and valleys of Yorkshire, England, is one of the few poets to take his perspectives on creativity into the world of business. He holds a degree in marine zoology, and is the author of four books of poetry, as well as two nonfiction books on the transformative power of poetry, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America and Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work As a Pilgrimage of Identity. We recently spoke with David Whyte about poetry and how it can help us face the “adventurous frontier” of mid-life.
Sounds True: On your new audio course, Clear Mind, Wild Heart, you explore midlife and midlife crisis in depth. What is it in the language of poetry that speaks to the issues and challenges of middle age?
David Whyte: I believe that poetry speaks to the thresholds or frontiers that we find ourselves on. Poetry is one of the places to go to restore meaning to your onward trajectory; to the cycle of continual exploration and revisitation. It has the ability to move you toward a deeper understanding of things you've already experienced in your life.
There seems to be a juncture at around 40 or 50 in which everything comes up to be re-examined. Partly, I'm sure, it's the confrontation with our own mortality. A real understanding in our bones—not just an intellectual understanding—that we're not going to be around forever. In the light of our own disappearance and demise, some of the things we think are so important give way to much larger questions, much larger dynamics.
Sounds True: Reaching such a frontier raises difficult questions and the need for self-examination. What happens if we ignore what you call the “fiercer edges of life?”
David Whyte: Well, the image I use is that human beings are constantly making homes for themselves. And one of the great triumphs of being human is being able to make a good home for yourself at any particular place in the journey or epoch in your life. There may come a time when you've fully inhabited that house, and you have to leave it and move on—either literally or metaphorically. And if you don't leave the house when you're supposed to, then you may still be in the house, but you're not living in it—you're haunting it. It's really an older incarnation of yourself that's attempting to stay alive beyond its own dispensation.
That's why keeping a physical connection with what's real for you in your existence takes constant attention. One of the crises of midlife is that you know you have to change, but you don't know if you have the energy or the wherewithal to even do it, because you seem to have to look elsewhere than all the places you've been looking so far.
Also, I do think that older people have more necessity for silence. That necessity becomes incredibly important after 50. Almost all of our great traditions and native cultures acknowledge this. Older people are actually encouraged to go off into the woods, into a kind of hermitage, and are allowed more time alone as their thoughts naturally turn toward a more silent understanding of what their life is now, and also toward what they're facing in terms of their own mortality.
Sounds True: At the center of what you teach is the idea of the poetic imagination as a tool for spiritual growth. But for many, poetry seems like such an inaccessible source for inspiration.
David Whyte: Poetry, in the way it's been taught, has been so abstracted. As an actual living art form, poetry is human speech at the edge of revelation, at the edge of discovery. The rhythms and diction and imagery of poetry, at its best, are very close to the way that human beings speak when they are in extreme situations of loss, of love, of revelation, of expansion, and even of contraction and disappearance. Good poetry always uses images that belong to everyone.
So I'd say that poetry is an incredible lifeline to anyone who's looking for a community of understanding. Poetry helps to place you into a larger context. It can help you overcome parts of you that are static, that are different, that you yourself are fed up with. It can also help to “emancipate” you into the next phase of your existence.
Sounds True: What does that mean?
David Whyte: A poem can often articulate something that you've only intuited, but haven't been able to say. And, as soon as you say it, you're in that new world. Just as in a relationship, when we're stuck in one, we often cannot move on until we actually say out loud to ourselves or to the other person in the partnership the exact manner of the dynamic.
Sounds True: This act of actually listening to poetry, it seems a very different experience than reading it from a book.
David Whyte: That's right. If you spent a lot of time with poetry, you can put the voice to the page. But to have it spoken and told in a story-like fashion and to have it explicated and celebrated—I think that is really a marvelous way of discovering parts of the poem. Both for the poet, who's forced to say things that he didn't know he knew, and for the listener, who is caught in the atmosphere of telling and listening at the same time. I love to listen to other poets. I love to listen to their poetry and to the whole background experience which gives a foreground to the poem itself. Poets give me inspiration both for my own writing but also for my own living. And hopefully Clear Mind, Wild Hear will do the same, especially for people who find themselves at the fierce edges of their lives.