Philosopher poet David Whyte on using lockdowns to rediscover a sense of self, his friendship with Spielberg and what he’s learned from hunkering down on a small Pacific Northwest island
“Human beings have an extraordinary ability to go through the most remarkable experiences and learn absolutely nothing,” says poet David Whyte with a warm laugh.
“As a friend of mine in Co Clare says: ‘There’s some people you can boil and boil and boil them, and they’re never done.’ There’s that part of ourselves that refuses to learn, but if you are open to understanding what has happened, what has been presented to us in this pandemic, it is an opportunity.
“What’s going on is really a multiplier of both your sense of aloneness, which is necessary for deepening any conversation in your life, and the way you’re bound, hand and foot, to everyone else in the world.
“As human beings, we don’t get to choose between these, and a lot of my poetry and essays work with the dynamic of being unnaturally alone and completely connected. We will never, ever be able to separate the two and that’s why life is so difficult, but also what’s so marvellous about it at the same time.”
Whyte is talking on Zoom from his home on Whidbey Island, on the Pacific Northwest coast of America. Located just north of Seattle in the Puget Sound, Whidbey is less than 100km in length and is a living, working island with a population of about 70,000 people, connected to the mainland by a short ferry ride.
It’s not a romantic poetic island retreat, Whyte explains, though he lives in the more rural south. However, you could say Whyte has been marooned on Whidbey for the pandemic.
He might have been one of the world’s best travelled poets pre-2020, always on the move to work as a speaker, as an artist, or to lead one of his poetry walking tours in Tuscany, Japan and Co Clare.
A close friend of the late poet John O’Donohue, Whyte has for a long time spent a portion of the year in Co Clare, and even introduced Steven Spielberg to the area on a walking tour.
“Is that my claim to fame?” Whyte answers with a laugh when asked about Spielberg. “It was his wife who insisted on coming on the tour, and he was just tagging along, but he became a convert – to poetry, to Ireland. He’s great and we’ve become close friends.
“We had a great old time and caused a bit of a stir when he turned up in various places. He’s a real mensch, and he discovered in Ballyvaughan that he could have a pint in peace but, say, as someone was going out the door they’d put a pint down in his place and say, ‘thank you for your work’. It was lovely. He loves that kind of freedom in Ireland.”
Does Whyte miss Ireland?
“Oh, Jesus, I do, yeah,” he says, a strong dose of soft Irish consonants in his accent, a legacy of his Co Waterford-born mother and all the time he has spent here.
Whyte, a Yorkshireman in his sixties, has achieved that remarkable thing with his work: accessibility. It’s not so much that he writes work that is accessible in its quality, but he makes it available in many ways and to as many people as possible.
His chief theme, in his own words, is “the conversational nature of reality”. He has written several books of prose, including the best-selling The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of The Soul in Corporate America. He is concerned with creative leadership and the idea of conversation as the embracing of change and vulnerability. Through the pandemic, his essays on despair, loneliness, closeness and anger have enjoyed renewed interest.
As humans, he says, we use up so much energy fighting the conflicts of existence and, in the modern world, killing ourselves to be the best at everything. The notion of work-life balance is a particular bugbear, as it is an unwinnable battle and a divisive view of one’s existence.
These themes of Whyte’s works were what he brought all over the world until last year he, like the rest of us, was suddenly going nowhere. It was a shock, he admits, to suddenly be stationary on Whidbey, where he is chatting in his book-lined study, a fiddle on a shelf behind him.
“It was quite a shock to my system to start but it was the best thing, really, even for my health. Initially there was a sense of consternation, but we pivoted, as they say. I discovered I have this worldwide following, probably the fruit of all that travelling through the years, and we had a massive sign-up for my ‘Three Sundays’ series, which happens every two months, for three Sundays in a month.”
This is all online, obviously, and while Whyte says he has also written quite prolifically through the pandemic, his adaptation to the virtual way of working was something of a pleasant surprise.
“I didn’t expect to be very good on Zoom but I seem to have been made for it. It’s remarkable, when you think about it. Coleridge, for instance, he would have given his eye teeth for Zoom.
“He was forever killing himself trying to get out his pamphlet, The Watchman, to a circle of subscribers. So it’s a remarkable privilege, for someone who’s got something to say, to be able to get it to people who want to listen and hear it.”
Tomorrow evening he will appear online with Rev Nóirín Ní Riain, as part of the Bealtaine Hedge School Spiral. Long-time friends and collaborators — you can find a beautiful short film featuring the Co Clare landscape, the music of Ní Riain’s son Owen Ó Súilleabháin and Whyte’s recitation of his poem Blessings on YouTube — they will be talking about ‘Risk and Resilience’ tomorrow night.
Whyte says it’s an interesting point in the pandemic, as we hope to begin emerging from it.
“There’s a lot of evidence that many of us will be wanting our lovely pandemic back when it’s gone, when we suddenly realise we’re caught in the enmeshment of responsibilities and the necessity to meet invitations we don’t necessarily want to fulfil.
“I mean, who knows which way it’s going now we have the terrible events occurring in India, but we could also be coming out of this quite soon and there’s an invitation to harvest the possibilities of the pandemic while we still have the excuse.
“Part of the magnified dynamic is living with the unknown. None of us know what’s actually going to occur and when we are going to be able to come out.
“We are all paying this amazing attention and getting ready to be ready. Yeah, one of my poems says that readiness is all, and the great existential question for everyone right now is: ‘What am I getting ready for?’
“I remember a great phrase I heard in Ireland a few years ago. I was in Co Clare and it was an incredibly hot summer, and talking about the heat someone said to me: ‘Jesus, you wouldn’t know yourself.’
“That’s exactly how we are in the pandemic right now. You wouldn’t know yourself, so there is this lovely invitation to get to know yourself again.”
David Whyte will be taking part in the Bealtaine Hedge School tomorrow, a global learning community to make sense of our times; thetrailblazery.com. His book ‘Essentials’ and his online ‘Three Sundays’ series are available at davidwhyte.com