When your eyes are tired
The world is tired also
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
It's time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own
By: David Whyte
(an extract from Midlife and the Great Unknown)
From David Whyte's book, The House of Belonging.
When it feels like the world has become too small and too dark, Whyte’s words come straight through and hold that experience. They communicate the numinous and the ineffable. They bypass our practised intellectual mode of hearing, and are accessible in a visceral and palpable way on a gut level.
Managing editor Sue Spencer recently interviewed David Whyte. This interview is based on his audio book Midlife and the Great Unknown—Finding Courage and Clarity Through Poetry.
SS: Midlife involves a kind of birthing process to a more authentic self. What do you think are the questions that tend to present themselves during midlife?
DW: The question of death moves from an abstract to a real physical presence. I must drop beneath all surface entrapments to find the foundations of my life again through a different experience of timelessness than the one I encountered naturally in youth. In the light of my disappearance, I must now make a space, an opening, I must especially make a friend of silence in order to have a sense of presence and aliveness, and I must treat this necessity as a discipline or the tenor of my days will be marked by anxiety and a sense of life passing me by. The foundational questions are the ones that represent the particular conversation I as an individual hold with the rest of creation. As I age I must paradoxically not retire, but become more disciplined because the consequences of losing that conversation become larger and more consequential.
SS: Reading your work it is as if you transfer to the reader essential permissions about relinquishing control and embracing formlessness. You do this through your prose and, it would appear, because you have faced these things yourself and experienced the hardness of the journey. What are you hoping to give the reader or listener when you put it out there in the world?
DW: I am first and foremost a poet and my first priority is to get good poetry or the poetry of good speech to as many people as possible. Poetry, like most true art forms, has a central truthful dynamic from which all the explanations and phenomenology of existence proceed. But poetry is also beautiful and satisfying by and of itself and opens up a door to the timeless and the untrammeled. In the timeless is the door to human freedom.
SS: You speak of tensions and disappointments that occur in relationships, when we “retreat into some kind of crusted interior of yourself”. We hear in these words the rawness of being human. What did or do you draw on to process and find meaning in your own narrow and calcified places?
DW: No human life is exempt from forgetting or from the cyclical visitations of exile and difficulty. It is the task of poetry to pay as much attention to and to have as much faith in these difficult disappearances as all the appearances that can grace a human life.
SS: Jung suggested that religion is an “instinctive attitude peculiar to man.” Could you comment on the role of religion or spirituality in your writing?
DW: Because I attempt to speak to a very broad constituency, including at one end of the spectrum, theologians, psychologists and contemplatives and at the other end atheists, hard bitten cynics, and the part of myself that grew up in no-nonsense Yorkshire, I try to work with a language that is equal to them all. The marvelous dynamic about the poetic tradition is that almost none of our great poets set themselves up to be spiritual teachers. The implicit understanding is that they were standing and writing on the exact thresholds that all human beings have stood on since the beginning of time. The difference is that poets explicate and grant a language to difficult underlying dynamics that normally lie beyond our articulation and therefore beyond our power.
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