Over the years, searching for and learning about great writing, the person I have the most to say about where remarkable poetry is concerned is David Whyte. He’s one of those writers whose work I find myself returning to over and over again when I need something to unearth my vocabulary, someone whose lines help me when I find myself stuck or without energy to write.
Now, writing about David is no small endeavor, and I have no interest in trying to be critical of his work, instead, I want to write about poets in the broader sense of the personality, using David as a compass. To estimate his writing for context, I’ll say that he is a poet of remarkable depth, and his work begins close in. Born of an Irish mother and raised in his father’s Yorkshire, England, you can hear distinct traces of both of those ancient personalities deeply ingrained in his work and his voice. He works with universal themes; identity, home, sense of belonging, et al. His attention to the detail of his prose is infectious to the point that every person I’ve ever heard speak about him does so as if he was speaking for them. He has this ability to unearth a vocabulary in people that they did not know was there. Only in listening to David’s work does a person then have the ability to find the words to describe him.
I was introduced to his poetry when I was a boy, at an age when I was encountering the things that poems are about: the notion of ‘home’, moments of embarking and later homecomings, and the young unraveling of identity and ego. These are foundations in his work to this day though he, too, grows and changes. I recall being a teenager and listening to his recordings, reciting poems committed to memory, and bringing them to bear on whatever subject was at hand. As a child, I was astonished to find I identified with this person, more than I had ever identified with a speaking, storytelling personality. He seemed to be humming at the same pitch as me.
When I saw David speak, years later, it was in the mountains of southern California, at a meditation retreat somewhere in a recreational park of some unknown conservation. This trip was a gift to me from my mother, who was the person who introduced me to David’s poetry in the first place, and she insisted that I go and hear him speak in person. It was my mother’s idea, and I was not yet 20, and therefore, this did not interest me. She spent the money, and I went because my mother does not have the privilege of frivolity.
I have done a great deal of listening in my life, it is how I have learned everything that I have learned, and I also was required to do a great deal of memorizing in growing up as a performing artist. One thing I have learned is that recitations of things recorded or written down and then later presented in a live public performance rarely carry the same gravity, or personal resonation that made them valuable in the first place. At least, that was often my experience. I expected to meet David Whyte, and hear him speak, but despite my expectations, and prejudice about performance, I found his ability to engage with his audience absolutely floored me. For all the gravitas and ability he possesses as a speaker, and for every devastatingly concise new perspective and beautiful thing that he might have said during that three-day lecture, I missed many pieces of it. I had gone to see David, and instead, I was watching the people who had gone to see him.
In learning about identity, which to writers is called ‘voice’, emulation is a necessary first step in learning about yourself and your sound. Many people have said this before me, but I didn’t understand much about the significance of voice until I watched David speak to a room. There were, let’s say, two hundred people in attendance with me. I was nearly twenty, and nearly twenty years younger that the youngest person after me, who was, most likely, not quite forty. They were all people well into their own developed identities, who’d had decades to learn who they were and how they sounded, and after day one, every last one of them sounded just like David.
It’s a thing that poets must have; an identity, a voice, a unique quality about themselves that is so striking in whatever variety it manifests that when we hear them, we cannot help but be absorbed into the mind of the person telling us that poem, at that moment, and understanding what they felt when they wrote it.
That was poetry as I had never understood it before. I had always wondered why I liked David’s work, when I typically had no use for versed, metered, or measured writing. (This was mainly because writing was difficult and scary enough for me at that age without considering the use of a proverbial ruler.) Then I wondered, might poetry be more like music than like writing? I understood perfectly well why I loved music: music places you, inescapably, wherever it wants to place you. That is its function, that when music plays there is at very least some part of you that can’t help but understand what it’s about. Poetry, fundamentally, shares this physically commanding nature, and when wielded by a poet, it is remarkable to watch.
Whyte embodies this definitive poetic trait. He speaks with such carefully affected poise that those listening are taken to an alternate world where they stop being themselves and start being simply a piece of the man talking. He remains the only person who I have ever seen who can speak to a full auditorium of such a range of people and personalities, and by the end of, though a thousand people sit before him, David is the only personality who has not changed. The rest of them have been enveloped by his experience, his frequency, his skill with and attention to words and their use and pronunciation, and those people speak, and out comes David’s voice, because that is how deeply they heard him. And, of course, it fades out of you after you leave, and you are yourself again before you realized what happens, but the shadow of a broader ability to listen now exists in you.
I think of what other kinds of people possess this quality and in what other situation this kind of deep listening occurs. It happens when people are inspired by their ministers or their monarchs, or when children are first learning to speak by hearing their family and emulating. You see that to find an apt comparison for the power of reaching someone through speaking we speak about Gods and Kings and Ancestors in the same breathe.
Poets teach us how to speak. They teach us how to articulate a great number of things, but most importantly they teach us how to listen in a way that opens a door to an often overlooked, internal conversation that’s waiting to take place. And, if you are going to sound like someone else before you learn to sound like yourself, you might as well sound like a poet. David Whyte taught me that.
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