www.montereycountyweekly.com march 21-27, 2024 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY 19 One can consume the work of David Whyte in many different ways, from reading—his books of poetry (11 of them to date), essays (he is working on his second volume) or prose—or by tuning into online events to watch and listen, including to his frequent guest appearances on podcasts or his TED Talk, or attending in-person events (such as an upcoming March 29-31 workshop at Asilomar in Pacific Grove). Let’s start with poems. They are simple and sometimes abstract, if occasionally as readers we find ourselves transported somewhere more literal—on a transatlantic flight or pondering the nature of a soap dish. There are seasons in this poetry, also of life, and big universals such as failure, regret, hope, love. The poems are addressed to a universal “you,” also the you in the mirror. Occasionally appearing as “we,” the poet is somehow removed from the first plan. Instead, he is a voice trying to reaffirm itself and others, to meditate, to bless himself and others, to give the world a sermon. His words seem like prophecies of the kind the ancients used to travel to the Oracle of Delphi to heal, where a high priestess closes her eyes and starts speaking in the language of a god, and not just any god but the master of poetry, Apollo. The poet’s “signature move” is the use of sparse but effective repetition for emphasis—in the beginning, the end of the culmination of a poem. It works miracles. If you haven’t encountered any of Whyte’s poems, start with “Everything is Waiting for You” from the volume of the same title (2023), or perhaps “Sweet Darkness” from The House of Belonging (1996). Intelligent more than intellectual, this poetry doesn’t compete in the eternal competition of poets. It is philosophical, and indeed some refer to Whyte also as a philosopher, one who is not afraid to speak of phenomenology—not in the sense of the known trajectory from Edmund Husserl to Martin Heidegger, but as a general study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience that his readers can relate to. Whyte’s philosophy is about “the conversational nature of reality,” a definition he repeats often in interviews about his work. That means realizing that our desires are thrown into the real world, which will do with them whatever it wants—and, at the end of your life, it will kill you. This is not a dark framing, but a wakeup call. Basically, Whyte is using poetry as a practice. “Poetry is about paying attention to something other than yourself,” he says. Whyte is as introverted as poets tend to be, and as extroverted as any good public speaker. In practice, he is both, but prefers to see himself as a poet, not a guru, and definitely not a “spiritual guru.” He doesn’t like the word “spiritual.” One is allowed to be more of a sinner as a poet, Whyte adds. “But if you are a serious poet you will have to do the writing. Everything else is just an addition,” he says. Sharing his words with people was a natural consequence of a longtime habit—Whyte’s need to memorize poetry and recite it, hear it out loud, during solitary walks. Before memorizing his own poems, he had done the same with traditional Irish and English poetry. He started to write seriously at age 13 or 14, inspired by a good English teacher. He was “abducted” by poetry as a boy, he says, by voices of poets such as Ted Hughes. He came to see poets as adults who preserve access to their original imagery of childhood. But then, he learned about French explorer and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, and life as a literal adventure became all he wished for. Whyte got his degree in marine zoology and took a break from writing throughout his 20s to work as a guide on the Galápagos Islands. That experience was a face-to-face meeting with the poetry of the ocean and wildlife. Looking at animals for hours, ironically, brought him back to writing, forcing him back to poetry. That’s because the language of science was not enough to contain all this poetry. So he returned. Only then, in 1984, he published his first volume of poetry, The Songs for Coming Home. Home has long been Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, but Whyte was raised in West Yorkshire, England, the region of the moors and Emily Bronte, and also the cradle of the world’s industrialization. “Oh, I’m afraid there was a woman involved,” he says about his current homeland in the Pacific Northwest. “My first wife, the children. But Whidbey Island is very good for me. It’s my base.” A frequent passenger on the direct flight Seattle-London, Whyte gets to spend a lot of time in England and Ireland, in addition to working all around the world. A rock climber and lifelong explorer (the Himalayas, the Amazon, the Andes), a father of two, now on his third marriage, he holds American, British and Irish citizenship. His third book of prose, published in 2010, is titled Three Marriages, Reimagining Work, Self & Relationship, but contrary to expectations, Whyte means one’s marriage to your work, your spouse and oneself. When Whyte started doing poetry readings, it was to a room of six peo- “Poetry is about paying attention to something other than yourself.” A conversation between the sea, the Earth and the sky. Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove is a place of an annual pilgrimage for poet David Whyte, as well as of his daughter, singer Charlotte Whyte (shown here). They both return for a weekend workshop this month. David Whyte David Whyte walking in the Asilomar dunes. He loves all coastal regions, from the Irish and English coast to Whidbey Island, Washington, where he lives. Courtesy of David Whyte