When you think of areas of life that speak to the soul, and elicit poetry, you likely think of things like romantic relationships and natural landscapes. You probably don’t think of office work and cubicles.
But my guest today says that the soul is involved in every kind of work, and poetry is an essential vehicle for examining what your work is doing to your soul, and for learning to bring more soul into what you do. His name is David Whyte and he’s a poet, a philosopher, and the author of multiple books of both poetry and prose, as well as a corporate consultant who uses poetry to help companies with their organizational leadership. We begin our conversation with David’s background in marine zoology and how his experience being a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands influenced his ideas on the conversational nature of reality. We discuss how the amount of time you spend at your job is greatly shaping who you are, the way we lose youthful idealism for our work, and the importance of inviting the right kind of danger into your life. David then unpacks what the ancient tale of Beowulf can teach men about having hard conversations both personally and professionally, and bridging one’s outer and inner lives. We talk as well about the importance of men having good friendships outside the office. Along the way, David reads a few short, stirring poems that speak to these themes.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How and why David went from marine zoologist to poet and philosopher
- The poetry of the office
- On allowing people to be themselves
- How Beowulf can help men explore the fear of bringing our soul into our work
- Men and work; men and friendship
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- 20 Classic Poems Every Man Should Read
- Our Disembodied Selves and the Decline of Empathy
- The Best Way to Find Your Vocation
- A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling
- Understanding the Wonderful, Frustrating Dynamic of Friendship
- Understanding Male Friendships
Connect With David
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When you think of areas of life that speak to the soul, and elicit poetry, you likely think of things like romantic relationships and natural landscapes. You probably don’t think of office work and cubicles. But my guest today says that the soul is involved in every kind of work, and poetry is an essential vehicle for examining what your work is doing to your soul, and for learning to bring more soul into what you do. His name is David Whyte and he’s a poet, a philosopher, and the author of multiple books of both poetry and prose, as well as a corporate consultant who uses poetry to help companies with their organizational leadership.
We begin our conversation with David’s background in marine zoology and how his experience being a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands influenced his ideas on the conversational nature of reality. We then discuss how the amount of time you spend at your job is greatly shaping who you are, the way we lose youthful idealism for our work, and the importance of inviting the right kind of danger into your life. David then unpacks what the ancient tale of Beowulf can teach men about having hard conversations both personally and professionally, and bridging one’s outer and inner lives. We also talk about the importance of men having good friendships outside of the office. And along the way, David recites a few short, stirring poems that speak to these themes. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/whyte. That’s W-H-Y-T-E.
Alright, David Whyte, welcome to the show.
David Whyte: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are a poet, philosopher, writer, lecturer, and you’ve written a lot of books of poetry, poems, and we’re gonna talk about some of that today. But before we do, just talk about how you got to be doing what you’re doing today, ’cause you weren’t always a poet and a writer. In fact, you have your degree in marine zoology. So how did you go from marine zoology to writing poems?
David Whyte: Yes, actually, it’s more accurate to say that I always have seen myself as a poet from when I was very little actually, or however seeing yourself as a poet is configured in a very young mind of a 7-year-old or 8-year-old. So sciences were really a kind of excursion for me. I was very influenced by the lyrical articulation of a wonderful mother, an Irish mother, growing up in the North of England, and her beautiful singing voice as well as her storytelling voice. And I think early on, I always saw poetry as a secret code to understanding, and I felt quite early on when I was young that the adult world was living in a kind of amnesia of this basic code of the priorities of life. And I always felt that in poetry, in a sense, the original powerful innocences of childhood were kept alive into adulthood, so I was very happy in my initial disappointment with listening to the conversation of the adult world. I don’t know if you ever had that experience, Brett, of listening to adults when you were a child and thinking that these people were actually quite insane.
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ve had those moments.
David Whyte: As to what their priorities were and what they were interested in. So I was quite relieved to find poetry kept… It was possible to keep what I felt was really precious and really alive, to keep it vibrant into what we call adulthood, or into being an adult male in my instance.
Brett McKay: But then you did poetry. You always saw yourself as a poet, but then you decided to go get a degree in marine zoology. What happened there?
David Whyte: Well, I was caught by the image of Jacques Cousteau, the great French marine zoologist and the inventor of the aqualung, and he had a series on the television that was worldwide, really back in the ’60s, where he traveled on the good ship, Calypso, and made documentaries of what he discovered in the oceans, and particularly under water, which was quite revolutionary. And so I was so moved by that life that he led that I just thought it was astonishing that you could have work like this. My images of work were all the images of a young boy, which was being a fireman, being a soldier, being a train driver, you know of those. And my father was a skilled electrical jointer of the large cables that go into power stations, so that was part of my imagination too. And then suddenly, to see that you could have work that would take you over these blue water horizons was really quite incredible. So I was completely and utterly taken apart. I remember standing with my mouth open in front of the television. And so just a year or two later, when I had to specialize, I made a kind of vow there, I suppose, in front of the television that I would follow the life of the dolphin aboard the good ship, Calypso, or whatever equivalent I could find.
And in the British system, in Yorkshire, in the North of England, where I grew up, you had to specialize at 15, you had to choose between sciences and arts. And so, I chose sciences because even though I was writing poetry from quite seriously in my early teens, I always knew I could pick up a book of Wordsworth or Emily Dickinson myself. I wouldn’t be able to pick up a book on ecological genetics myself. So I didn’t think it was that great a sacrifice actually to do sciences. I just found it much harder than my more scientifically-inclined mates, friends. I had to work twice as hard they did to get the same results, but I did. I did get the results to go to university and study marine zoology. And then, luck of the Irish… It was luck, it was a series of incredible circumstances, I got this job in the Galapagos Islands as a guía naturalista, I learned it was called later when I learned Spanish, a naturalist guide, and it totally transformed my world and my young adulthood, my young manhood. I think I was 20, 22 when I went out there, 21. So really quite an astonishing opportunity for a young man to have.
Brett McKay: Well, how did it change? Because you’re not doing that anymore.
David Whyte: How did I change from marine zoology?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
David Whyte: Yes. Well, after over a year there, a year-and-a-half or so, the islands had completely transformed not only my understanding of what I thought was a scientific world, but it had completely transformed my identity as a person. I went there with the unconscious sense that your identity depended on what you believed, and your inherited beliefs, especially. And really, Galapagos didn’t care about what you believed at all. And it was really inviting you into this deep, fierce, almost warrior-like sense of attention and intentionality. And I realized in very short order that my identity actually depended on the depth of attention that I was giving to things that were other than myself: Animals, birds, plants, landscapes, seascapes. And that the powers of attention I had using all my five senses, the deeper sense I had of myself.
So really, I came to understand human identity as a kind of live conversation, and when you weren’t meeting anything other than yourself, you had nothing in the way of a real identity, really. So you were just making proclamations to the world, mostly defensive proclamations because you were so unconsciously afraid of it. So part of paying deep attention to the world is to become, first of all, consciously afraid, because there’s no way of really meeting this incredibly powerful set of elements we call life without being terrified by it. And Galapagos did terrify me. And then finding the part of you that has the same kind of terrifying elemental nature as the world, and so getting beyond fear in a way by being fully in the conversation. And I had plenty of opportunity to be in those terrifying conversations, diving with all kinds of very powerful creatures under the water. Six or seven different species of sharks down there and Orca whales and angry male sea lions at times, and almost drowning caught in a mini-tsunami one day, and having various life-threatening adventures on the sailing boats, on which we traveled from island to island. So it was a great old adventure for any young man or woman to have actually.
Brett McKay: And I imagine that fear you experienced and just all those experiences. The language of science, it can only go so far in describing it, and poetry probably does a better job of capturing that, that experience and those emotions.
David Whyte: Yeah, I mean, science is marvelous to give us, especially around Linnaean nomenclature. You know Linnaeus, the great Swedish classifier who gave Latin names to everything and which caught on around the world. So it was a way really of overall being able to talk about the same thing and know what we were talking about. But it certainly didn’t mean to say that the name we had given to an animal or a bird or a plant was actually accurate, and that the world actually speaks back to you in its very, very own, very, very particular voice. All great scientists actually discover that themselves, that whether it’s a set of numbers and data that you’re looking at, the data starts to speak back to you instead of you trying to manipulate the data to what you want the numbers to show you when you first started. All scientists have to get beyond themselves.
But I was really interested in speaking to this conversational identity where the world starts to talk back to you, and when it talks back to you, it finds a much larger person than the one who first began the journey into that world and it’s someone who, what you might say in the old Catholic tradition, has been shriven. The outer casing, the outer complications of being human have been shriven away, have been taken away and what you’re left with is this radical simplicity, which to begin with, you don’t know what to do with at all ’cause you were used to all the complicated names you’d given yourself and what you were good at and what you weren’t. And this radical simplification, this elemental conversation actually puts you into a frontier conversation with the unknown, where to begin with, you’re actually not meant to understand what you’re working with. It’s a bit like when you’re at the beginning of a romantic relationship and you’re so shy and you don’t know what to say or how to say it or what to wear. [chuckle] So it’s the same at the beginning of a passionate relationship with the world.
Brett McKay: And your work is exploring this conversational nature of reality, you spend a lot of time, not a lot, but quite a bit about our interaction with work. Particularly, you wrote this book a decade ago, two decades ago, called The Heart Aroused, about bringing soul back into the corporate world, into the office space. And I think that’s really interesting because I think most people, when they think of poetry, they don’t think of poetry speaking to office work. They might think of poetry maybe speaking to artisanal work or farmer, like a Wendell Berry, but for some reason we, for me at least, maybe this is just me, we often think, “Well, poetry, arts, literature has nothing to say about 21st century office work.” Why do you think there’s that disconnect? Why are we able to say, “Oh, yes, we can have poetry about farms and agriculture, but not spreadsheets and sitting at a computer all day.”?
David Whyte: Yeah. Well, the intuition is a good one because the language we tend to use in the office is so deracinated. It has been taken away from the racines, from the roots, of real human experience so we use euphemism, we use jargon, we use words to cover up what’s actually going on because we don’t actually face up to a lot of the hierarchical imperatives that, until now, have steered relationships in the workplace. I think they’re being broken apart now. So it’s very hard to use the language of the office. You will see none of my poetry uses the language of the office really. You have to bring the greater human language to bear on the dynamics of the workplace, whether it’s in the human resources department or in leadership, or on the shop floor, on the line where people are working, actually doing physical work.
So it just seems very, very evident to me that it’s not a passive process to work. You can’t work 40 hours a week in the classic sense and be someone else than the way you’re made and not suffer from that covering over of who you are. The understanding, whether it’s in physical work or whether it’s in the offices is, “Well, I’ll recover myself at the weekend or on holiday.” But actually, you’re actually practicing at being someone when you’re in your workplace. Imagine if you played an instrument, Brett, for the number of hours, the same number of hours that you do your work. So say in a classic sense, if you practiced six, seven, eight hours a day at the piano, at the saxophone, at the violin, can you imagine how good you would get, and you wouldn’t even have to have any musical proclivity. If you practiced so many hours a day, you would get incredibly good.
So it’s interesting to think that when you’re in the workplace, or on the phone, or in the meeting room, you’re actually practicing at being someone. And because you’re practicing at it so much, seven or eight hours a day, five days a week at least, and if you’re in leadership, it stretches into the weekends, there’s no one else you’re going to become than that person you’re practicing so much at. So it’s a very beautiful and disturbing question to ask yourself, “By the way, I am in my work where I spend most of my time, who or whom am I practicing at becoming? Do I even want to become that person?” Almost always because of the manipulations, and coercions, and besiegements of the workplace, we almost always start to actually cultivate a defensive personality in the workplace, rather than an invitational one.
So a lot of my work, as far as talking about the soul in the workplace, is that simple movement from a defensive to an invitational identity. You can look at our definition of the soul as being that part of a person, and we don’t need to attach it to any religious inheritance. But to my mind, the soul of a person is that part of the person that’s trying to belong to the world in the biggest way they can. And the soul can be quite ruthless in breaking down defenses that you’ve set up actually. Sometimes we look on the outside and realize that we’ve sabotaged the work we were doing actually, and it looks as if you’ve actually inflicted self-harm but to the soul, it may have been something, it’s been quietly engineering for years so that you could break out of this imprisonment. Being fired or being made bankrupt may be a disaster for the personality, it may be something your soul has been quietly preparing you for for years, so that you could break out of something that is incredibly deleterious and incredibly threatening to what is most precious to you, and that’s the one life you can lead that no one else can lead in your stead.
Brett McKay: So you said the soul’s idea, it’s the bigger thing that wants to connect and engage with the world that’s bigger than us.
David Whyte: Yeah, it’s the faculty of belonging in a human person.
Brett McKay: The faculty of belonging.
David Whyte: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And then you said personality. Is that like the ego, the self?
David Whyte: Yes. And it’s what I call… I call it the strategic mind. It gets called all kinds of things, and in the Eastern tradition it’s the monkey mind. William Blake actually called it Satan. [chuckle] But it’s only Satan when you put it first, when you think that the thoughts you have are you or the names you’ve given to your wife, to your children, to your intimate partner, to your work, are real. And instead of letting your wife speak back to you in her own voice instead of the one you’ve thrown into her body through a kind of psychological ventriloquism, when you let your child speak back to you as the person they are rather than what you’re trying to shape them into, when you let anyone speak back to you in their own voice, this is a big thing around gender nowadays, to just allow people to be themselves, whatever they call themselves and however they… What does it have to do with us how they see themselves? Except in the sense that we should be curious about it in a real foundational way.
In an invitational way, who is this person coming into my life now? Let them announce themselves instead of my naming them. Let my work start to name itself. Almost always, we find we enter a vocation with certain very simplistic goals and ambitions, and we find that it leads us in a… Through the trials and humiliations of a career path to its true essence. We almost always come to understand the true essence of a work through through humiliation and through a certain kind of outer failure.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And I wanna talk, dig deep into that, ’cause you have some great pros and insights about that. But also, you mentioned that people go in with simple and sometimes pure ideas of why they started their career. It’s very soulful. But then eventually, for some whatever reason, personality can take over. You forget that soulful reason why you joined. I know this happens to a lot of attorneys. Some attorneys, they go to law school thinking, “Well, I’m going to do some sort of social justice, environmental justice. I’m gonna help the elderly, I’m gonna help… I’m gonna do a cause.” But then they get to law school and they realize, “Oh my gosh, I have so many student loans.”
David Whyte: Exactly.
Brett McKay: “I can’t pay them off working as a public defender. So I might as well take that corporate gig ’cause I gotta do that.”
David Whyte: Yes, yeah. George Eliot, the great 19th century writer, was brilliant on this the slow process of disbelief and disappointment and giving up on what was not just an ideal, but was something that lived in a very real way inside you. So keeping your soul alive is incredibly important. It’s very difficult in the American system. French doctors, if they qualify, and it’s very hard to qualify even to study to be a doctor, but if you make it, it’s all paid for. So you appear in the world and you don’t have to pay off all of these loans. So idealism in the French system is much higher, which is a turnaround from the way we usually see the French. So part of it is the systems we’ve made and the burdens we place on young people, and we’re starting to realize that societally.
I know there’s a movement to forgive student loans just because of the way it’s just crushing a whole generation, but also the way it’s actually holding our economy back at the same time. There should be a way of letting yourself loose on the world in your 20s, where you’re able to invite what I call, “To invite the right kind of peril.” Everyone, in order to find their way has to invite the right kind of danger into their life. We all know what it’s like to invite the wrong kind of danger into our lives. And part of the difficulty of the path, of the human path, is finding out what dangers you’re supposed to call that are germane to your future work.
So Galapagos, I thought I was going out there as a scientist who would impress everyone by taking people, lecturing around the island, that was the job of a naturalist guide, was to be a policeman or woman and an educator at the same time. But mostly, the basic youthful image was of you being this immortal boy-god scientist who would tell everyone what was going on. And it wasn’t long before I realized I knew very little of what was actually going on, and that this place not only was way beyond what I could understand, but it also terrified me. It terrified my scientific naming identity, and it terrified me as an immortal young man because I was put in physical touch with death on a daily basis there, whether it was above water or below it. And many times, because we were living on this death-dealing medium called the ocean, day after day after day, where things go wrong on a regular basis, I felt that threat against my physical person too. But I had unconsciously I think taken myself to that place in order to emancipate myself into the understandings and qualities that would actually make me a decent poet, and out of that, a philosopher to a human philosopher.
Brett McKay: Let’s dig into this idea more about finding the right kind of peril. Because in your book, The Heart Aroused, you have this great chapter where you do this mythopoetic exploration of the poem Beowulf. Now, I’m sure a lot of people who are listening, as men who are listening to this, they’ve read that poem and it something that… It resonated with them. What was not to like about it? You got these monster slaying monsters. You do this exploration of how this poem can be used to help men in particular, I think, explore the fear of bringing soul into their work. So what do you think? What insights can we get from Beowulf on how to bring more soul into whatever work we have?
David Whyte: Well, the particular story I work with is when Beowulf is called to the Court of King Hrothgar of Denmark. Because at night, after the feasting is over at 2 o’clock in the morning, after the gold and the silver and the horses and the land has been given out to all the champions and families that are loyal to the king, something awful, green monstrous, and dripping comes out of the local swamp, breaks down the stockade gate, fights off the guards, shatters the doors of the hall, makes its way into the hall, and carries off a young man and young woman every night back into the swamp where it eats them alive. So very, very powerful image here. And Beowulf invites himself to confront this monster. So here’s this warrior that’s this received understanding of what it means to be a man. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. This is a John Wayne of the 6th or 5th century AD, but it’s also the threshold whereby Beowulf is now going to step into his inner life.
What rises out of the swamp is everything that has not been confronted in the upper world, and it’s really interesting that the story is quite specific that this monster who is known as Grendel carries off a young man and young woman into the swamp where it devours them. So, whatever has not been phased, whatever you have not spoken to, as you said, you start off with this beautiful precious idealism as a young doctor or a young lawyer, and the weight of the world comes down on you and you say, It’s not possible for me to have that conversation, and in fact that conversation makes me feel uncomfortable and I don’t know what to do with it, therefore, I’m going to push it away, I’m going to ignore it. That’s all very well during the lighted hours of the day when you can use your willful strategic mind to keep those powers underground, under the water, but at 2 o’clock in the morning and this is very specific in the poem that it’s in the early hours of the morning, which is from a medical and scientific point of view is when your system and your… Your psychological system and your immune system is at its lowest ebb. That’s when this powerful monstrous form comes up and devours the young man and young woman in you.
In many ways, it’s devouring your youthful innocence. So we tend to think of innocence as something that is supposed to through the processes of maturity be replaced by experience, and we pride ourselves on once having been innocent but now we’re experienced, and so we don’t get into so much trouble anymore. But a sharper understanding, say, William Blake’s understanding. He saw… William Blake, the great poet and the engraver of the early 19th century, the early 1800s, he saw innocence as a kind of faculty that was never supposed to be replaced by experience, actually. Innocence was supposed to take on experience as a good servant to its initial understandings of how it could perfect itself in the world. And so this is what is most precious coming up from the swamp, breaking in through our assiduously joined defenses on the surface, and carrying off the young man and young woman inside us. And the way we feel that is we lose our joy, we lose our sense of humor, we lose our ability to kick our heels together and dance. We’ve all seen the difference between a young calf in the field, or at least I have, having spent a lot of time out in rural England and Britain, or a lamb, and then seeing the stolid cow that it becomes, or the stolid sheep, just chewing, looking vaguely off into the distance. That happens to so many of us as human beings.
The fire that you had has been extinguished, but actually, you are the one who has extinguished it as much as any dynamic you’ve run into it in the world, and part of it has to do with the closing off of our vulnerabilities. I do think that the ability to understand that vulnerability is to live in them physically and not close them off is intimately connected to our sense of robustness in the world. When you’re just an armored personality trying to be right all the time, and trying to smash everything that tells you that you might be wrong, we close off this innocent invitational intimate instrument, which is able to bring so much joy not only into our own lives but into those that we meet, and poetry is meant to speak to this part of you and create a kind of divine discontent. And I have a piece where it’s addressing and inviting this part of ourselves. It’s called Start close in.
Start close in, don’t take the second step or the first, start with the first thing, close in the step you don’t want to take. Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing, close in the step you don’t want to take. Start with the ground you know, the pale ground beneath your feet, your own way to begin the conversation. Start with your own question, give up on other people’s questions, don’t let them smother something simple. To hear another’s voice, follow your own voice, wait until it becomes an intimate private ear that can then really listen to another. Start right now, take a small step you can call your own, don’t follow someone else’s heroics, don’t follow someone else’s heroics, be humble. Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing, close in the step you don’t want to take.
Brett McKay: And going back to the Beowulf, that’s what Beowulf did, he… Something about that, before that entrance, before he gets to the lake, he’s given armor, a helmet, from the king, “so here, this is gonna help you.”
David Whyte: Yes.
Brett McKay: And he has to get rid of it ’cause it’s no use down there when he goes to kill Grendel. And any weapon he had, it was given, no use. In fact, he had to find a weapon down there that ended up slaying the monster.
David Whyte: That’s right. Yeah, yeah. And yeah, so it’s this radical simplification and this going down to the place where you feel you can’t breathe, and it’s interesting how the people of Denmark… We missed the part of the story where Beowulf actually confronts Grendel when he comes out of the lake, defeats him, and Grendel stumbles back into the lake leaving a bloody wounded trail behind him, and then they hear his death cries there. So they think they’re all free, and there’s this great party starts up and they celebrate Beowulf and his great feat and all his previous feats. And the party goes on all night and then Beowulf and his men go to another room, they sleep all the rest of the night, they sleep through the day, and they come back and they find the hall has been devastated again. Something else has come out from the swamp, fought off the guards, broken down the door, carried off another young man and woman. Grendel’s mother.
It’s not the thing you fear, it’s the mother of the thing you fear. So when Beowulf decides to go down to the lake, he’s going down to wrestle with the very root of the problem, not just the way that it displays itself on the surface, but the very actual jointure and foundation of where this dynamic has come from. And there’s an interesting dynamic because the people of Denmark don’t want him to go down into the lake. They say, “You’ve done your work, it’s been great. Here, take your horses, take your gold, take your land. We don’t need you to go down there. Thank you very much.” Well, this is a very common dynamic for consultants when you go into a company and you’re asked to come in to deal with a presenting dynamic. And you work with that and it goes away because almost everything does when you go away with it.
There’s lots of research that shows if you just change the lighting in a room, then a lot of difficult things will go away temporarily. As soon as you start to get towards the original dynamic that’s been causing trouble in the company, everyone gets really nervous and almost always the management will say, “That’s great. You’ve done your work. I liked those little changes. We don’t need to actually address this.” It’s too scary. It’s in the psychological area where quite often, managers do not know how… They don’t know how to navigate it. They have not had the psychological apprenticeship to the vulnerabilities and difficulties of the human beings trying to work together to do something difficult. So I work… When I’m in the workplace, I work a lot with what I call the phenomenology of conversation, which is just a fancy philosophical way of saying, “What happens along the way when you try to have one, when you try to deepen it?” Well, these things happen, these five things, these seven things happen.
And when you run into it, and particularly when you run into any of these frightening milestones or phenomena, there’s nothing wrong with that, and I have hundreds of poems memorized. So I bring poetry, and that illustrates in a very real, very physical way in the room, what this looks like and why you’re scared of having the conversation. And it’s incredibly liberating for people. It’s actually incredibly liberating for men because women have more of an innate understanding of how conversations work. It’s just that the inherited hierarchy quite often doesn’t allow them to display that knowledge. But men, in the classic sense, have this inherited sense that, “Yes, women are better at conversations, but I don’t know what they do when they’re doing them much better than I am.” [chuckle] So men think having a real conversation is all vague and woolly. So it can be incredibly invitational to men when they discover, “No, actually, you can understand the whole process by which you deepen a conversation and here are the illustrations.” And so Beowulf is a very magnified representation of what it’s like when you get down there into the difficult place.
There’s an incredible translation from the 1960s from a man called Burton Raffel that describes the hard place where you have to go to have that conversation, and it’s in the image of this pool where Grendel and his mother have lived for centuries. “They call the huge one Grendel. If he had a father, no one knew him, or if there were others before them, hidden evil before hidden evil, hidden evil before hidden evil, they live in secret places, wolf dens where water pours from rocks then runs underground where mist steams like black clouds and the groves of trees hanging out over their lake are all covered with frozen spray and wind down snake-like roots that reach as far as the water and help keep it dark. At night, that lake burns like a torch. No one knows its bottom, no wisdom reaches such depths. A deer hunted through the woods by packs of hounds, a stag with great horns though driven through the forest from far-away places, refuses to save its life in that water, prefers to die on that shore. It is not far from here, nor is it a pleasant spot. It is not far from here, nor is it a pleasant spot.” I always say, “You see the English were into understatement even 1,200 years ago [chuckle] [0:39:15.3] ____ being recited.” But there’s the image of that stag dying on the shore, refusing to save its life in that water.
That’s the image of masculinity, which refuses vulnerability. There’s nothing more masculine than the image of the stag with the great tines against the sky. This story is saying, Whatever powers you have in the outer physical world, their writ will not run below the surface of this lake, and the deer will… You will die on the shore, pursued by hounds. But Beowulf has something else. Beowulf goes beneath the water and wrestles. There’s this other image which I found incredibly puzzling to begin with, and then incredibly useful, and that’s this image of the trees around the lake feeding darkness into the water, and I remember it was a beautiful image when I was first reciting this poem. I remember I was working at AT&T actually out in New Jersey, and they had a lake there with a fountain in the middle, and after I’d worked with this poem in the morning with these executives, ’cause they had a difficult conversation to have, so this was a way of teeing up that conversation. I took myself around that little lake with the fountain, and I said, “What is this image with the roots feeding darkness down into the lake?” I said, “What’s above the lake?” We’re above the lake.
Quite often, when we don’t want to have a conversation, we will actually feed darkness down into that theme to give us the excuse not to go down, and we do it by saying, “If I have this conversation, this will fall apart. If I have this conversation, I won’t be able to make a living anymore. If I have this conversation, these people won’t respect me. If I have this conversation, I won’t have the same answers that I have now, I won’t know where to go with it. So we actually feed a kind of obscurity down there to give us the excuse not to go below the surface. Somehow, Beowulf has this mature form of masculinity we track. He’s actually the masculine joined with the feminine, of being able to make a friend of the unknown and make a friend of the darkness and go down there to wrestle with Grendel’s mother.
Brett McKay: So another thing that’s hard for men with work, so right there, there’s that fear of those hard conversations is the fears. You have to just take that first step, go towards it. But then another thing you write about too with work, particularly for men, is that a lot of men, they tie up their identity in their work, because that’s what you’re just kinda told from… You are what you do. Whenever you meet some guy for the first time, it’s like, “Well, what do you do for a living?” But there’s a lot of men who can reach mid-life or even in their 10 years into their career and they realize either, “I haven’t accomplished that much as I hope I wanted to, or it’s been a complete failure, or I’m even in the wrong career.” And they’re figuring this out in their 40s, 50s. Do you think poetry can provide men who have that sort of heartbreak or that realization that the aspirations they had didn’t work out the way they thought, or actually they’re doing the wrong thing?
David Whyte: Yeah, very good question. I think, first of all, we have to contextualize this image of the classic male and work and labeling themselves because it’s actually very magnified in North America, way beyond many other cultures. If you’re in Ireland, it can be sometimes impossible to find out what a person actually does, they won’t mention it actually, and it’s seen as being very closing a conversation down to do it or to name things too much. So there are lots of conversations around work that are not held in the way they’re held in North America, but what you’re describing is very North American male, and I think it just had to do with the way that the psyche was formed over the last few hundred years and the struggle that was involved, and I think the armor that had to be put on psychologically in all of the dark things that were done to make a new society in North America. So all of this has created a kind of isolated masculine identity in North America that I do believe is breaking apart now, and I do think this elevation of this malign form of masculinity into the White House is like a last Ghost Dance of that masculinity we’re seeing…
We’re seeing our flaws crystallize, we’re seeing what is what we don’t want written across the heavens so that we can recognize it. And so the ability to have friendships outside of the workplace is really, really important, is representative of a much larger musical chordal ability of the masculine soul. One of the things I noticed coming to North America from Ireland and England was that American men mediated their emotional life. I’m talking about heterosexual men now, but American heterosexual men mediated their emotional life through their wives or their girlfriends actually, and though they had close friendships when they were growing up at school with other men and close friendships in college, it seemed to be something that was discarded once you went into the workplace. This is not the same dynamic that you find in Europe. There is a much more powerful thread of adult male friendship in Irish and British society, and probably in a lot of other European societies and other societies around the world, I’m just speaking about the ones I’m really familiar with. So out of that comes a kind of isolation for the American male. The Canadian male too, I’d say too. A necessity to keep reinforcing this perimeter that they’ve made around them.
One of the invitations in a really good friendship is to a kind of sense of mutual humiliation. When you have a close friendship over years, you will always humiliate yourself before your friend, and you will always have to pick yourself up and reconstitute the relationship. And they will do the same thing. The other thing is, in a long friendship, you will always insult your friend, you will actually say something to them that they didn’t want to hear, almost always accidentally on purpose, something that you’ve wanted to tell them that you haven’t been able to tell them, and then they get insulted and they walk off. But because the friendship has lasted for years by definition, they came back actually, and they forgave you, and you would have had to have done the same thing to them. A really close male friendship keeps you connected to your sense of forgiveness, of mercy, and of vulnerability in the world. When we lose that sense of comradeship, and we all know the way… One of the great things about… Men come under a lot of pressure and a lot of criticism right now, and it’s just our time to take it in history ’cause the shoe is on the other foot now so we just have to take it.
But one of the great things about masculine company and companionship is this beautiful, when it’s done right, not in a sense of hazing, but this beautiful sense of mutual humiliation, of having to have a sense of humor about yourself. But the people who are humiliating you, if they’re good friends, have your best interests at heart at the same time, they are doing it because you’re getting far from yourself, you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, you’re getting above yourself, and they’re trying to bring you back to a more grounded relationship. They are also trying to bring you back to what your gift might be that they haven’t yet received yet, that they intuit is there. So one of the great things about male friendship is robustness, the ability to take knocks, to be humiliated in one another’s company and to forgive one another at the same time through the natural difficulties and distances of friendship over the time.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like one of the ways you build robustness into the inevitable setbacks, failures, heartbreaks you experience at work is to foster, to nurture those friendships outside of work.
David Whyte: Yes, exactly. And that’s representative also of a greater friendship with the natural world too. One of the great tragedies and diagnostics of a narrowed work life is when you stop sailing, when you stop going out and climbing or being in the mountains, when you stop enjoying the sky or the trees, when you stop adventuring because you don’t have time for it or you can’t find that person inside you. So friendship with another person, if we’ve lost those friendships, it’s almost always I feel representative of having lost a greater friendship with natural creation at the same time.
Brett McKay: You’re going back to this idea of you’re exploring the conversational nature of reality, and it’s hard to have a conversation with just yourself.
David Whyte: Yeah, and as we’re coming towards the end of our conversation here, a real conversation always ends up with your physical and psychological breakdown. I always say no one survives a real conversation in the manner to which… And it’s why men won’t have them in a relationship or marriage when they’re young, because their identity is so connected to the perimeter they’ve set up, saying, “This is me and this is not me,” partly for evolutionary reasons. But the journey of a male into maturity is learning how to be broken down, how to have a good sense of humor about it, how to know that there’s always someone waiting for you on the other side of that atomization on the other side of that pulling apart, there’s someone calling to you and inviting you into a deeper understanding of what it means to be fully male, which of course, has to do with understanding the deeply feminine parts of yourself that you’ve kept at bay.
Brett McKay: That’s what Beowulf had to do?
David Whyte: I’d say so, yeah.
Brett McKay: Well, as we end this conversation, is there a poem or a prose that we could end with that you think touches on the themes we’ve been hitting, talking about today?
David Whyte: Yes, there’s a poem called The Bell and the Blackbird, and this really has to do with the unification of the inner and the outer world, the bringing together of the masculine and the feminine in many ways. And The Bell and the Blackbird is actually a kind of meme in the Irish tradition, it comes from the story of a monk standing at the edge of the monastic precinct back in, there’s a really remarkable form of Christianity extent in Ireland between the 5th and the 10th centuries, it was called the Irish Church or Celtic Christianity, and they had a really incredible relationship with both their inner world and the natural world outside. They didn’t see the natural world as being competition to believing in their religion. So here’s this monk, he’s standing on the edge of the monastic precinct, he hears the bell calling him to prayer, and he says to himself, “That’s the most beautiful sound in the world,” which is the call to the inner world to becoming more generous, a bigger personal, so a large foundation.
But at exactly the same time, because nothing is straightforward in the Irish tradition, he hears the black bird calling from outside of the monastic wall, and he says to himself, “And that is also the most beautiful sound in the world,” which is the world calling to you just as it finds you. The physical world as it is, with no changes, nothing. You’ve just got to meet it as you find it. So this is a piece I wrote dedicated to that ancient Irish meme, The Bell and the Blackbird. It’s also the title poem of a collection I have of that name, The Bell and the Blackbird.
The Bell and the Blackbird. The sound of a bell still reverberating. The sound of a bell still reverberating or a blackbird, a blackbird calling from a corner of the field, asking you to wake into this life or inviting you deeper into the one that waits. The sound of a bell still reverberating, or a blackbird, a blackbird calling from a corner of the field, asking you to wake into this life or inviting you deeper into the one that waits. Either way takes courage. Either way wants you to become nothing but that self that is no self at all. Wants you to walk to the place where you find you already know you’ll have to give every last thing away. The approach, that is also the meeting itself. The approach that is also the meeting itself, without any meeting at all. That radiance you have always carried with you. That radiance, you have always carried with you as you walk both alone and completely accompanied in friendship by every corner of the world, crying Allelujah.
Brett McKay: Well, David Whyte, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time.
David Whyte: Lovely. Thank you, Brett. Wish you well.
Brett McKay: My guest today was David Whyte. He’s a poet and philosopher and the author of multiple books. They’re all available on Amazon.com. You can find out more information about his work at his website, DavidWhyte.com. That’s W-H-Y-T-E.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/Whyte where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website at ArtofManliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years, and if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to StitcherPremium.com, sign up, use code “Manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until the next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.