Friday, 18 July 2008

Watershed 2: A River Runs Through It



An Irish Yorkshireman living near Seattle, David Whyte has earned a certain reputation as a corporate seer, challenging business people with a poetic stance. With a youthful sweep of black hair he looks a little like Ted Hughes. At Limerick Poetry Festival in 2005, Jane Hirschfield asked me if I knew of him. I did not and looked him up on the web. Her question stuck in my mind. Perhaps she was suspicious of this English soothsayer? Or didn’t quite understand where he was coming from? What special talent does he have to hold an audience of financial services managers enrapt for an hour or more?

His ‘reading’ at the Burgage Hall in Ledbury provided answers.
(By the way if anyone knows why the Burgage Hall is called the Burgage Hall please let me know…)



David Whyte is a charismatic presenter. He holds an audience and the audience holds him – in reverence, anticipation, expectation. He performs or ‘reads’ with an evangelical passion. He invites us to consider our lives, advises us on strategies and values:

‘Half of life is disappearance.’
‘Creation was born to be free.’

He has much in common with the coach or the motivational speaker, types or functions the English, I think, habitually look down on, judge. He comes over as 'worked out', as having answers, but encouraging us to question. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling that there’s something about him that would close down questioning even at the very same moment that he is expounding its virtues. Like all powerful men he's a mixture of paradox.

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


David Whyte began his presentation at Ledbury by reciting this - Shakespeare’s Sonnet 24 - followed by a run through of its nested contexts, from the almost self-pitying author to the potential deity of the ‘thee’ the poet ‘haply’ thinks on.

‘What questions do you need to ask yourself?’ He asks.
What questions am I not asking myself? I ask myself.

He then recites some of his own poems from memory, ‘learnt by heart,’ he says, ‘with a memory that’s physical.’ It’s an idea that appeals to me, as if words have innate physicality, linked internally into the body’s own geography, but also externally into place. But where’s the proof for my particular take on this. Isn’t it more that, as actors tell me, if the words are good they contain the motive power for the action? Speaking the word brings to life the act?

Whyte’s reading style is riverine. He meanders, tracks back, takes another run at a line or a section. He leaves oxbow lakes of meaning, detached from the main flow. But this approach – although it has the potential to be irksome, did ‘work’ for me. He argues for the benefit of the meander. His live ‘reading’ is an attempt to reproduce the quality of ‘sight-reading’, where our eyes chase around the poem trying to help our explanation, our understanding. We don’t get the first two lines so we run them past our comprehension one more time. We get the next three but we need to see them in the context of the three that follow so we reiterate a complete section to absorb it and aid digestion: comprehension of a poem as a small intestine.

And the river is present in the titles of two of David’s books - River Flow and Where Many Rivers Meet - as well as in the name of his website and the umbrella organizations for promoting his work: Many Rivers Press and Many Rivers Company.

I could argue his style is alien to English audiences, but his audience at Ledbury waited on every word. Whyte is a consummate showman (that’s a compliment by the way) and poses a challenge for lesser poets whose poetry is inaccessible. Although he frequently quotes from the traditional canon (Dante, Shakespeare, Keats, The New Testament) he has more in common with performance poets than poets of the page. He has the cathartic energy of a preacher, but he can sound as if he’s sermonizing and so has the preacher’s handicap. His words and phrases are memorable, but, curiously, less trustworthy for all that.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
- from Sweet Darkness The House of Belonging

The danger is that this is a poetry of answers.
Is a poetry of answers really poetry?

He is different. He does take poetry into areas where many poets fear to tread, into the capitalist workplace, into business. But I remain sceptical. Feel uneasy. Questions nag. Has he opted for the comfort zone, earning a good living providing quasi-religious feelgood homily, poetic humbug as a balm for those with stunted conscience? Does he pedal poetry as rentable conscience, hireable secular religion? F. R. Leavis would be proud.

Or is he one of the most innovative poets around, transforming lives and letters with visionary zeal, supporting ‘poetry as a unique art form embodying courageous speech and the magnificence of the human imagination’?

As Shedman I use the strapline ‘Open the magic door…’ to suggest the potential any creative space offers – whether a physical location like a shed, an imagined destination or the head space of a creative endeavour. Specifically, however, I intend it to refer to the protecting, authenticating and transformative space that is poetry. More generally, it's an encouragement to do something different.

David Whyte discusses the same issues in more detail on his website, positioning the poet on a border like a shed : ‘The poet lives and writes at the frontier between deep internal experience and the revelations of the outer world. There is no going back for the poet once this frontier has been reached; a new territory is visible and what has been said cannot be unsaid. The discipline of poetry is in overhearing yourself say difficult truths from which it is impossible to retreat.Poetry is a break for freedom. In a sense all poems are good; all poems are an emblem of courage and the attempt to say the unsayable; but only a few are able to speak to something universal yet personal and distinct at the same time; to create a door through which others can walk into what previously seemed unobtainable realms, in the passage of a few short lines.’

Sheds are temporary structures, but it's very easy to imagine they are permanent, to forget that frontiers move internally and externally. David Whyte is an entralling and engaging reader, inspiring and thought-provoking. If you get a chance to hear him, do, and see what you think and feel. Shaman or not, his journey is fascinating.

1 comment:

  1. serendipity led me to this page. I have been repressed with War crumbs for years. No more. And at 60 it is time to write. I feel as if I am approaching 30! When repression is perfect you cannot find it. Poetry found it, and kicked its ass out. Be back,soon. Mike/USMC/Ret.

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Thanks for dropping by Shedworld.