Inside everyone is a great shout of joy waiting to be born.
These lines from the poem "The Winter of Listening" provide insight into poet, writer and lecturer David Whyte. It's not enough for him to move through the day completing one chore after another. In everything he does, he strives to be aware of his deeper connections to the world. He challenges himself and others to have real conversations, and to participate in what he refers to as a "poetic engagement" with the world. Author of four books of poems and "The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America" (Bantam Doubleday Dell, $13.95), a nonfiction book that encourages creativity in the workplace, Whyte encourages us to claim our unique, poetic self and to recognize it as our vital link to the world.
Originally from England, Whyte travels extensively from his home in Washington state to deliver his message of poetic reflection. On March 3 and 4, Whyte visits Richmond to present his lecture "Through the Eye of the Needle: Life, Work, and the Poetic Imagination" at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
Whyte's aim, however, is not to make poets out of us all. Too many poets, he says, would make "a boring tedious world." When he speaks at conferences or meets with corporate clients, his agenda is twofold: to be useful, and to get as many people as possible to understand how the poetic imagination is essential to living. Though he recites poems his own as well as those of Blake and Keats he does not ask that his workshop participants write poetry. Instead, he uses poetry to get people talking about real issues.
"Almost any company from around the world that's worth anything, that's asking any real questions, they're trying to understand the dynamics of adaptability and vitality and passion," he says. "... Poetry can speak to these issues in a way which does not allow people to manipulate other people into their creativity. ...You create a conversation that is an invitation to these astonishing places that people want to get to, but don't know to get to themselves."
Whyte visits a multitude of workplaces and sees time and again a tendency toward alienation alienation from oneself, one's boss, colleagues and customers. Success, he says, is more than ensuring that profits stay ahead of losses. Success must include emotional and spiritual well-being.
You start your road to true success, he says, "by beginning a courageous conversation with yourself." You ask yourself, "Why am I here? What do I want to do in my life? And how do I get there?" If the conditions of the workplace aren't conducive to a more engaged life, Whyte recommends making "three good-faith attempts" at trying to implement change. "If there's no possibility of you actually living a life that you can call your own, then you should go elsewhere," he says. "... It's not disloyal. It's actually giving the company great feedback because they start losing their best people."
Though he has been writing poetry since he was 8 years old, Whyte was formally trained as a biologist. Like any child educated in England, he was forced to choose between an arts or sciences curriculum. He chose science, a decision helped by the inspiring adventures of Jacques Costeau, which he watched regularly on his black-and-white television. Eventually, Whyte worked as a marine biologist in the Galapagos Islands.
His work there also rang the death knell for his scientific career. "I felt as if I had fulfilled all of my ambitions in marine biology," he says. "... I had lived in one of the most incredible places in the world. There was no way I was going into some fisheries department counting plankton under a microscope. I realized in a more philosophical way that scientific language wasn't specific enough for the kinds of things I wanted to speak about. The real precision that unites the intellect and the imagination is poetry." After spending a few years roaming through Asia and South America, Whyte ended up writing poetry full-time and working in adult education while he was simultaneously drawn into the corporate world.
"I have a commitment to being at the frontier, wherever that is," he says. "... It's where life is effervescing and boiling and evolving and surprising. ... I often say that life is a continual fall of humiliation, so get used to it. But in a good way, because humiliation comes from the old Latin world, humus, which means soil, ground. So when you're humiliated, you actually return to the ground of your own being in a simplified form."
Whyte's ground is poetry and creativity and participating in the conversations that open the heart and mind. It's there that fulfillment lies, and he wants to make sure many people share that awareness and can lift their dialogues out of artifice into
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