Breaking Through

Poet David Whyte Invites Us to the Edge of Discovery

Breaking Through

This article first appeared in the November/December 2008 issue.

Imagine yourself scurrying through a typical day, innocently following your all-too-familiar routine, when suddenly everything begins to unravel. You find yourself sitting in blank-eyed stupor at a desk piled high with papers needing immediate attention. You hold the phone receiver to your ear, but can’t make yourself listen to or care about what the voice at the other end is saying. You bite your tongue with a client so as not to snarl, “Quit bitching and get a life!” You look around your office and wonder wearily how you’re going to get through the next project, the next day, the next minute.

What if the fuzzy, gray blur of your life were suddenly pierced by a series of jarring questions emerging from nowhere? Like an amnesiac coming to in a strange city, strange office, strange body, you hear yourself asking, “How did I get here?” “Who the hell am I?” “Who did I use to be?” “What happened to the last 15, 20, 30 years?”

Anyone wise in the ways of convention and common decency would surely suppress those unsettling questions, do the adult, prudent, responsible thing, and soldier on. “Grow up!” you might scold yourself. “Get a grip! Quit whining! This is life! Whoever promised you a rose garden? You’ve got kids, a mortgage, car payments, health insurance, college tuition, and a 401K to think about, so suck it up.” You tell yourself this because, if you pay any real attention to these little gremlins, you’re in serious trouble. Give them a few minutes of your undivided attention and you may come to the visceral realization that, ultimately, everything and everybody you care about will come to an end, including your precious self. You could actually die before you decide that you’ve never allowed yourself the opportunity to truly live your life.

Twenty years ago, poet David Whyte had one of those sudden moments of existential turmoil and clarity, but instead of swatting those troubling thoughts away like a sortie of mosquitoes, he found himself absorbing their subversive message and radically adjusting his life. After a youth spent traveling the world and even serving as a wilderness guide in some of the most spectacular spots on the planet, he’d decided to give up his unrealistic, bohemian daydreams of being a poet (how many openings for “wandering bard” were there in late 20th-century America?) and embrace pragmatic necessity (after all, he had a young child to support). He’d taken a job with the good guys at a nonprofit environmental organization on an island in Puget Sound, one of the most gorgeous places in North America. It was an eminently reasonable, mature, nonbardic decision.

As in most nonprofits, the pace was unrelenting, the frustrations considerable. The more he did, the more he saw what needed doing—which required him to work even harder, revealing even greater needs. The job was so all-consuming that he never had time to look out the windows at the georgeous view. As so many people do today, he found that his busyness itself was becoming an addiction. He’d become a stranger to slower, more human cycles of existence, he says, and begun to resent people who weren’t traveling at the same velocity.

Then one day at work, rushing as usual from desk to photocopier to fax machine to mail room and back again, he was seized with the idea that there was somebody he very much needed to talk to. Careering down a hall, he opened the door to a meeting room full of his colleagues. Not seeing the person he was seeking, he asked in a loud, urgent voice, “Has anyone seen David?” There was a moment of stunned silence, then loud guffaws all around at the joke, because there was only one “David” in the organization, and that happened to be the perplexed character standing in the doorway posing the question.

Whyte recalls that he forced himself to laugh, too, but inside he was dying of humiliation: the question had burst straight from his unconscious and out of his mouth. As he was to write later, “I was looking for a David who had disappeared under a swampy morass of stress and speed. . . . As I stood in the doorway of the meeting room, I felt the energy flow out of me for this work, like an aspiring actor who’d been continually painting, not a character, but a portion of the background scenery. I knew all at once, I couldn’t stay backstage anymore.”

From that moment, Whyte turned himself to the project of “looking for David.” He chucked his job for the much dicier, far less secure vocation of full-time, poet, speaker, and guide for those who, like him, are interested in the quest for soul in a society largely indifferent to such an unprofitable and distracting preoccupation. He explains: “The soul is that part of the human being attempting to belong to the largest story it can. The soul is not interested in success or failure and doesn’t care two cents about your career, your successes, or even the latest medical breakthroughs. It only wants to know if it was your failure, your experience, or were you trying to imitate someone else—your mother or father, your teacher. The most terrifying discovery of all is to discover at midlife that you are not living your life, but someone else’s life.”

For two decades now, Whyte has offered his dashing presence, his performer’s flair, and his idiosyncratic fusion of poetry, myth, story, anecdote, insight, and perception to audiences all over the world, whether at universities, religious institutions, government agencies, or nonprofit organizations—anywhere people are trying to find their bearings in the age-old quest to discover how to inhabit the entirety of one’s own life. With clients at American Express, Boeing, and Toyota, he may even be the first poet to infiltrate the belly of the beast and take on what he calls “the impossible task” of bringing the “dangerous truths” that poetry reveals deep into the heartland of the corporate world. This coming spring, therapists will discover what he has to offer them when he delivers the opening keynote address at the 32nd annual Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, “Seizing the Day: Therapy and the Art of Engagement” (see page 13).

So what does a poet have to say to an audience of psychotherapists? It could be argued that poetry and psychotherapy have much in common: both seek to encourage people to begin taking steps out of their small, barren rooms into a wider, more satisfying world. But from the perspective of a poet and storyteller like Whyte, psychology and psychotherapy don’t go far enough. Their focus is concerned primarily with individual human biography—good for a start, but, according to Whyte, too small an enclosure for the capacious human soul. “There’s something beyond your biography in the mythological view of the world, a soul-based view, that helps you make sense of your individual life, even helps you prepare for it in a way that psychology can’t do,” he says.

To drive home the point, Whyte describes Manolete, one of the greatest bullfighters of all time, who, as a child, was too scared of the world to venture beyond his mother’s skirts. According to the psychological view, his career as a bullfighter was merely a way of compensating for his shameful fear—a “reaction formation” in Freudian terminology. But in Whyte’s view, this is entirely too reductionistic a way of seeing Manolete. The mythic perspective would be that he somehow knew he was going to face the greatest, most dangerous bulls in Spain and, in fact, would one day be gored to death by one. “With this intuition of his own destiny, why wouldn’t he hide in his mother’s skirts?” asks Whyte.

In his poetry and stories, he suggests that someone like Manolete may have had a more realistic worldview than we do, with our faith that science, technology, good health insurance, and a fat portfolio will purge danger and tragedy from existence, eliminating doubt and uncertainty. Poetry is a grand antidote to this fond illusion, because, if it’s any good at all, it can’t offer false comforts or false hopes, even if the poet himself would prefer them to the truth. “As a poet, you overhear yourself say things you didn’t know you knew about the world, and things you didn’t want to know,” says Whyte. “Poetry isn’t about something, it’s the thing itself: it enunciates things that ordinary language can’t address; it’s human speech at the edge of revelation, at the edge of discovery.”

More than we like to think, says Whyte, we all find or put ourselves in small, limited stories, barely vignettes really, the “plot” pretty much limited to keeping safe and secure, doing what society’s rulebook mandates. Soul doesn’t figure largely in these narrow, puny tales. How do you get into the Big Story? If you’ve curled yourself up into a tight, anxious little ball to squeeze into a narrative that’s too small for you, how can you unfold yourself and straighten up so you can breathe, walk, and run?

You must learn one thing.

The world was meant to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds

Except the one to which you belong.

(from “Sweet Darkness”)

As a poet, and therefore by long history and ancient custom a soul’s physician, Whyte offers the deepest resonance of language and the power of the imagination as guides to the journey of the soul. Through poetry and stories, enhanced by an actor’s mastery of tone and tempo, he shows you the far more spacious, bountiful, and mysterious world beyond your bleak cell, and makes you understand that you belong, and have always belonged, to this vast and magnificent world—-you out there in the 10th row from the front, 17th seat in from the left. You are enfolded in the whole of nature, connected to your family, your ancestors, and your ancestors’ ancestors, all the way back to the origins of human history and before. You are heir to an endless, fathomless sea of imagination—a word that comes from a Latin verb meaning ‘to picture to oneself, to make images’, and with them the visions, dreams, ideas, myths, poems, stories, plays, songs, and art that have flowed from it for thousands of years. You receive and can use this heritage in a unique way, unlike any other being in the universe—if only you have the faith and courage to claim it. “The rest of creation is waiting breathless for you to take your place,” writes Whyte.

It isn’t that he promises to make you the star of your own drama, that tiny, tinny show, which bores even you; besides, too many people already subscribe to the delusional belief that “it’s all about me.” As a poet, he prefers to shake you by the shoulders, jog you awake, and say “Open your eyes! Watch! Listen! Smell! Pay attention!” or you’ll miss this glorious, astonishing, terrifying, tragic creation that’s the source of your existence. Give up your foolish attempt to impose order, predictability, and control on existence! It won’t work, and it robs you of what’s most precious about life. Don’t try to know everything in advance, or act only when you’re assured it’ll all work out all right. You don’t have to quit your job (necessarily), abandon your loved ones, change your name, and move to another continent: all you have to do is go to the edge of your old, known world—and then, maybe, take just the tiniest step forward into the dark.

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

(from “Start Close In”)

Our society strips us of soul, says Whyte, because it takes away the human sources of soul-nourishment—the sense of ancestors still present in our lives; the sense of being deeply rooted in the community, culture, and chronicle of a particular place; the sense of deep connection with the natural world. By these measures, Whyte’s childhood was steeped to the gills in soul.

The son of a down-to-earth, practical English father—an electrical engineer—and an imaginative, storytelling mother who loved to sing, Whyte was born in West Yorkshire, England, a moody landscape of hills, fields, moors, and fast-flowing streams. The region was a palimpsest of cultures—neolithic, Bronze Age, Roman, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman. As a boy, Whyte could walk to an old Celtic stone ring, the ruins of a Roman fort, and the 13th-century nunnery where, according to legend, Robin Hood was murdered and buried. He roamed the same moors and brooding landscape as did the Bront’ sisters.

When he was about 7, he pulled a book of adult poetry off a library shelf, took a look inside, and voila—a vocation was born. It probably contributed to his literary future that he had an inspired English master (teacher) at the local free grammar school, who took literature seriously and made sure his pupils did too. This was a teacher, Whyte remembers, who saw literature not as a cultural abstraction or an intellectual pursuit, but as living flesh and blood, with the power to transform lives, societies, whole cultures—also the power to get you jailed or shot. You should perhaps be a little afraid in its presence. One of this teacher’s pedagogical techniques was to lift up a student by his shoulders, push him into a corner, and say with fierce intensity something like, “Colin, you’re going to meet people in your life who hate you, and they hate you for no other reason than the cut of your face!” then release the pale, shaky boy and continue, “Now we’re ready to talk about Iago, and why he destroyed Othello’s life.”

Whyte’s early attachment to poetry was eclipsed by his first sight of Calypso, Jacques Cousteau’s ship, sailing across the tiny black-and-white TV screen in his family’s living room. Cousteau was just achieving worldwide fame for his oceanographic research voyages and mesmerizing underwater films of ocean life. For Whyte, it was love at first sight. “I was astonished by this man, by the beautiful life he led, following the dolphins through the oceans, and I suddenly realized that this could be the way I belonged to the world.”

In college, Whyte abandoned the pleasant meadows of art and literature for the “salt mines” of biology, chemistry, and physics. A few years later, he emerged blinking into the daylight with a university degree in marine zoology, ready to embark on his oceanographic career. Unfortunately, thousands of other young people, also inspired by Cousteau, had the same idea and the same kind of degree, and were looking for the same kind of work on the same kind of ship. The jobs just weren’t there. “Not only were there not enough Calypsos to go around,” says Whyte, “there probably weren’t enough dolphins—about 1.5 per graduate, I guessed.”

Within a couple of months after graduating, Whyte serendipitously snared one of the two openings (there were 500 applicants) for a job as naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands. For the next two years, he lived on sailboats plying the rough and dangerous waters around the islands, getting to know an intensely beautiful but disturbing and overwhelming world of wild, teeming creation. The Darwinian struggle for survival was laid out in all its primordial grandeur right in front of him, not as a stage-managed tourist attraction, but “nature red in tooth and claw”—and he wasn’t exempt from its unforgiving laws.

“It was an incredible place, very scary and fierce for a young graduate trying to order nature according to Linnaean taxonomy,” he says. “I was so bloody frightened of it all, the daily intimations of mortality. You witnessed creatures dying all around you. Humans were only recent interlopers there and had never taken dominion, and you were forced to realize that most of creation operates in a way not ordered according to human mercies. Nature was not going to take care of you in the way you had become used to. It all made the name you might have given yourself seem small: you were like everything else, and you could die very easily.”

The Galapagos experience overwhelmed him, but in return it gave him a sense of inner expansiveness, of belonging to something infinitely grander than his tiny, individual self. “The beauty of the Galapagos is constantly tripping you up—the sea lions leaping up at you, the hawks blinking right down at you, the blue heron walking right up to you. You cannot stay caught up in your own problems; you have to start noticing. The creation is simply there, and it’s fine being simply there, and fine in its magnificence, just as it is. And when you accept the idea that this creation is fine in itself, you must entertain the possibility that you are also fine as you are. You, too, fit exquisitely in the creation. This involves a sense of humility—you have to be open to it; you can’t control it—but also a kind of self-confidence and compassion for yourself. You realize that you belong in the world, that you’re a son or daughter of this creation.”

If writing poetry requires the ability to focus intently on the world, to pay attention, then the foray to the Galapagos was, as Whyte says, “part of my apprenticeship into the adult epoch of my life.” But before getting back to poetry, there were still years of detours—other travels, other jobs, other places, including the sojourn at the nonprofit on the island in Puget Sound. Part of the reason for delay was fear. As he’s written, “Poetry tugged and beckoned to me to move in its direction, but I hadn’t the faith for the final step of making myself visible. How was I to make a living at it, for God’s sake? The question seemed to stop everything in its tracks. If you want to meet terrifying silence, tell the world you are going full-time as a poet.”

Despite the pronounced lack of enthusiasm from the outside world, it does seem to have been Whyte’s own mythic destiny to write poetry, but more specifically to share it with large audiences, in the way that bullfighting was for Manolete. As a young boy looking out over the Yorkshire countryside, Whyte had often had the recurrent, odd fantasy of himself on stage speaking to a large group of people for a long period of time. “I was really fascinated by this image as a child, and I used to ask myself, what would I be talking about that would interest people enough to give me the time to talk about it?”

In a sense, Whyte seems a throwback to the poets and storytellers of ancient, preliterate societies, who not only transmitted culture from generation to generation, but knitted people together in a particular time and place by giving them a shared history and sense of identity. In our atomized, flattened, often anonymous culture, populated by isolated little monads sitting alone in front of computer screens typing mostly crude messages to other isolated little monads in front of their computer screens, Whyte does seem to have something of that same bardic talent for joining people together. Poetry spoken aloud seems to draw on a wellspring of deep, almost indefinable, feelings, perceptions, and meanings that flow through both poet and audience. “Every poet needs a listening ear,” he’s said. “You’re not just speaking to yourself: you’re speaking to another person—a spouse, a lover, a child, a society, to future populations.”

In front of an audience, Whyte doesn’t recite poems so much as live them through his voice—and then, carried along on the same vibrating airstream, they live in us. In one poem, “The Hazel Wood,” he contrasts the lovely, comforting warmth of a crowded, firelit kitchen, hot cup of tea in hand, with a near-death experience from which he’s just returned, the terror of being caught high up under a cliff in a violent thunderstorm, with lightning and hail and two angry falcons harrowing him as they defend their young.

Such a poem reminds us that nature at its rudest can take us to the knife-edge of existence, to the frontier between life and death, where being fully alive can mean being fully terrified. That we’re coddled and swaddled and kept from life’s harsher realities may help explain why so many of us cruise through our days on autopilot, but we lose something critical to truly living—perhaps the most vital part of ourselves—when we just dog-paddle through the years toward the safe faraway shore of retirement, looking neither to left nor right.

When so much of the language we hear every day is cliched, formulaic, incoherent, or downright meretricious, poetry—particularly when spoken with the mesmerizing flair that Whyte brings to it—can break through the grimy crust of debased verbiage to something fresh and genuine beneath. Good poetry by its very existence breaks the malign spell of language cheapened as an agent of sale: whether to make us buy a product or a politician, it hardly matters. Poetry as propaganda is an oxymoron, because a good poem can never be anything other than “true” at a deep level.

Whyte has often spoken of the subversive quality of poetry: its power to undermine received truth and even assumed ideas of what truth is. In “Loaves and Fishes,” he writes,

This is not

the age of information.

This is not

the age of information.

Forget the news,

and the radio,

and the blurred screen.

This is the time

of loaves

and fishes.

People are hungry,

and one good word is bread

for a thousand.

“I thought the first line of the poem was such a wicked line that I wrote it again—it was wonderful just to say it, an act of freedom,” Whyte said a number of years ago. As a society, we’re subject to “an astonishing barrage of information, which is attempting to give us coordinates as to where we are, but places us in an entirely two-dimensional and false map of the world.”

Words can starve and words can nourish; words can imprison us and words can set us free. Poetry does the surprising, subversive work of helping people break through the thick screen of received wisdom, the conflated “facts” of predigested reality, the endless stream of “news” that contains nothing new, and feeds them something fresh and good. Its power passes right through the public, smiling, agreeable persona we present to the world and goes directly to the private, yearning, inner self, which meets it with just this small, vital shock of recognition: “Yes, this speaks to me as I truly am. Yes!


Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.