Poetry From the On Being Gathering (Opening Night)
David Whyte is a poet and an associate fellow at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America and Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. His most recent book is The Bell and the Blackbird.
Krista Tippett: Poetry reading framed the On Being Gathering this year, and we are so happy now to share these slices of beauty, elation, and contemplation with you. Here’s how David Whyte opened for us on Friday night.
David Whyte: Thank you very much, Krista. Just a little touch of her virtuoso articulation. I’ve only had the pleasure once, but it was an immense pleasure to be interviewed, where one is made to feel articulate, interesting, debonair, suave, and somewhat intelligent. I always feel that at the bottom of a real conversation is a real invitation, and Krista makes the invitation in a really marvelous way. So thank you very much for this invitation tonight. We’ll give her another round of applause there.
Speaking of invitations, this place also is a marvelous invitation, not only to us but to a future that we want for ourselves. Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and then they shape us,” and these buildings have been shaped in a beautiful way. You look at the woodwork, the subtle greens here, the blacksmithing in the light fixtures. It’s just really marvelous, good work. So let’s give a round of applause for the builders who made this place.
That’s it for tonight. You’ve done enough applauding.
I wanted to make a series of invitations to you through a few poems. This is a piece that is the title poem from the book called The Bell and the Blackbird. The bell and the blackbird is an old meme in the Irish tradition. It’s the image of a monk, standing on the edge of the monastic precinct in the old Celtic Christian days, hearing the sound of a bell calling him to prayer. And he says to himself, “That’s the most beautiful sound in the world.”
But in the old Irish imagination, nothing is ever singular or simple, and at the same time, he hears the blackbird calling from outside of the monastic precinct. And he says to himself, “That’s also the most beautiful sound in the world.” And you’re left contemplating the man standing there, and you’re not told which way he goes, because, of course, in the real conversation of life, we have no choice. We are both called to a deeper sense and context of ourselves, and we’re asked to actually meet life as we find it. There’s always the great question, “Should I actually go deeper, to a deeper context, a deeper understanding of myself and the whole situation before I actually hurl myself at reality? Or should I do something now?” Of course, as real human beings in real human communities and families and relationships, we do not get to choose between the two. We always have to deepen, and we always have to be present in the world at the same time. So this is about holding that conversation. It’s really a little touchstone of the ultimate state that we’re all trying to attain. “The Bell and the Blackbird.”
“The sound / of a bell / still reverberating, // or a blackbird / calling / from a corner / of the / field. // Asking you / to wake / into this life / or inviting you / deeper / into one that waits. // Either way / takes courage, / either way 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, / without any / meeting / at all. // 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.”
The ultimate conversation, where we overhear our own voices in the voice of a stranger. It’s interesting to think that we almost always meet the new self in the form of a stranger. And yet, we live in a time of deep suspicion of strangers. And yet, the new you looking back at you out of the mirror is always first perceived as a stranger and always turned away from. The first beckoning horizon in our life is always seen as one that will lead us to a place of nourishment and pilgrimage and that will frighten us to death at the same time. So the invitation by life is always to be more generous than you thought you could be.
I had a good old friend, John O’Donohue. He and I used to get together for philosophical and literary weekends. There was one time where I was speaking out loud, over dinner, and I said, “You know, my father’s in a bit of trouble. I’m thinking of giving him some money.” He’s an Irish fellow and philosopher. Many of you may have read his work, actually, in Anam Ċara. He passed away, tragically, ten years ago. And I said, “I’m thinking of giving my father some money.” He said, “How much are you thinking of giving him?” I said, “I don’t know. I thought £1,000” — because it was in England. “£1,000?” he says. “Give £2,000. Go beyond yourself,” he said. “Give £2,000.” I said, “All right. I’ll give £2,000.” He said, “Go beyond yourself again.”
“Give £3,000.” I said, “Thank you, John. A friend indeed is a friend in need.” So anyway, I ended up giving him £4,000, in the end…
…because I heard John’s mind go, “Get beyond yourself. Get over yourself. Always be more generous than you thought you could be the first time.”
So anyway, it was about a year later, we were at another weekend we were having together at a place up in Connemara, and he said, “My friend’s in a bit of trouble. I’m thinking of giving her some money.”
I said, “How much are you thinking of giving, John?” He said, “I don’t know. I thought £500 Euros.” I said, “Go beyond yourself.” He said, “Ah, I remember this conversation.”
Anyway, he ended up around £3,000 or £4,000, in the end of the evening. But isn’t life always coming to our door, saying, “You’re actually a little bit more generous than that”? “You’re larger than that”? “There’s more about you than you think”? It’s constantly knocking on our door, asking us to take the next step.
This is a piece from the same unpublished book, called “Just Beyond Yourself.”
“Just beyond / yourself. // It’s where / you need / to be. // Half a step / into / self-forgetting / and the rest / restored / by what / you’ll meet. // There is a road / always beckoning. // When you see / the two sides / of it / closing together / at that far horizon / and deep in / the foundations / of your own / heart / at exactly / the same / time, // that’s how / you know / it’s the way / you / have / to go. // That’s how / you know / it’s the road / you / have / to follow. // That’s / how you know. // It’s just beyond / yourself, / it’s / where you / need to be.”
One of the great disciplines of human life, I’ve always felt, is friendship. A good friend is always inviting us out beyond ourselves. They’re always attempting to address the better part of us, hopefully through subtle diplomacy rather than coming at us head-on with our sins and omissions. But I often feel that, by definition, all long friendships are based on mutual forgiveness, because you will always trespass against your friends’ sensibilities. You will always say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and they will have to forgive you. That’s why they’re still friends. You will have to forgive them too. So, just by definition, you’ve been on a path of mutual forgiveness and of knowing each other’s sins and difficulties and omissions and still addressing both the better part of the other person and the future that you’re both dedicated together.
This is a little lightning raid on friendship, because, as Krista said, this weekend is dedicated to a kind of deep friendship around the truth, around wanting to know the deeper context; deep friendship with different forms of belief that can still be in conversation with one another, and a deep friendship with people who are often made in quite a different way and have a different voice. The axis of friendship is always along that frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you.
“Friendship is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion that we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.
In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves. To remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves. Through the eyes of a real friendship an individual is larger than their everyday actions. Through the eyes of another we receive a greater sense of our own personhood, one we can aspire to, the one in whom they have most faith. Friendship is a moving frontier of understanding, not only of self and the other but of a possible and as yet unlived future.
Friendship is the great hidden transmuter of all relationship: it can transform a troubled marriage, make honorable a professional rivalry, make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love and become the newly discovered ground for a mature parent-child relationship.
The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life. A diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.
Through the eyes of a friend, we especially learn to remain at least a little interesting to others.
When we flatten our personalities and lose our curiosity in the life of the world or of another, friendship loses spirit and animation; boredom is the second great killer of friendship. Through the natural surprises of a relationship held through the passage of years, we recognize the greater surprising circles of which we are a part and the faithfulness that leads to a wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship: to learn to be friends with the earth and the sky, with the horizon and with the seasons, even with the disappearances of winter and in that faithfulness, take the difficult path of becoming a good friend to our own going.
Friendship transcends disappearance: an enduring friendship goes on after death, the exchange only transmuted by absence, the relationship advancing and maturing in a silent internal conversational way even after one half of the bond has passed on.
But no matter the medicinal values virtues of friendship, of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement. The ultimate touchstone of friendship is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”
I think one of the remarkable things of life is the ability to continue to make friendships. I often think it’s a sign of youthfulness. We often think that our deep friendships are made when we’re young, and then there’s kind of attrition around them, and we just have a few left by the time…
But that, also, is the sign of a life in trouble. To have a sense of anticipation of about-to-be, about-to-make a deep new friendship that will accompany you through the next epoch of your life — and that’s a lovely, imaginative invitation to make for yourself for this weekend — that there are many, many potential conversational friends who might be witness to us and accompany us through the years, at this place. So I wanted to finish with a piece, which is a series of invitations. Invitations that I’d like to make to you and that everyone here in the On Being team and at the Multiversity would like to make to you too.
I’m going to take you to one of my favorite places in County Clare, which is probably my second home in the world. The north of County Clare is a beautiful limestone mountain area, looking over to Galway Bay and over to Connemara in the north. It’s full of ancient sites. It’s one of the first inhabited places in Ireland, and the culture there goes back — it’s an unbroken native tradition that goes back 5,000 years to the Neolithic. It’s been tenuous at times, and it’s been almost broken, but it’s kept alive. Many of these ancient sites are still visited today in a live, contemporary, conversational way.
The place I’m going to take you to now is a place called Leaba Colman. “Leaba,” in Ireland, is a bed, which is a place where someone slept, actually, so it’s more literally a place where someone lived and dwelt. There are all kinds of leabas. There’s Leaba Diarmuid and Gráinne; there’s Leaba Pháiric — and on and on it goes: people, often of great renown or sanctity, who lived in a place. This place, Colman’s Bed, is named after the extraordinary Irish Druidic monk who lived in that place. Irish Christianity was one of the finest representations of that tradition, because it was so full of articulation, of imagination, of artistry, and of generosity towards the natural world, where they would see the voice of God in a blackbird as much as they would hear it in the bell calling them to prayer. And they thought it very strange to choose between the human world and the natural world, and that human beings, in many ways, lived at a live frontier between those two horizons. That’s what makes it remarkable. So they spent a lot of time out in the wild, in what they called “Green Martyrdom.”
But Colman, who lived in the sixth century — so in the 500s, A.D. — was not just a wild, contemplative, virtuoso meditational artist. He also ran a very large monastery down in the plain of East Galway, called Kilmacduagh. So he had both worlds — he had the political world, which was transforming Europe through Irish people going out and founding monasteries in a time of chaos, laying down the future age that was to come; but he also had to keep his raw sense of spirituality alive. So he would work, he would probably become exhausted, and then he would go up into the mountains to this place, which was below a cliff and which had a tober, which is a well. You’ve got to make sure you don’t get your tobers mixed up with your leabas. Your tober is your blessed well, and your leaba is your bed. And the bed was a cave, and the tober was a spring, which was a holy well, and he would drink from that. It was surrounded by watercress. It was surrounded by hazel trees, and it had a cliff at the back with peregrine falcons and ravens, which still, to this day, nest on the cliff. Then, beyond it, from this cradled holding, you had this amazing, biblical horizon of limestone.
So to me, whenever I go there, it’s always like a representation of the human body. We have this shelter. We have this cradling. We have this form. And yet, we are always, when we’re fully human, only human when we’re in conversation with something larger and that’s taking us out of ourselves, towards that horizon.
So I went for years to this place, leading people up there. I’d take people to the West of Ireland every year, and we’d go up like bees to the hive, up to Colman’s Bed. And after a few years, I started asking myself, why do we come to these places? Why do we make pilgrimages? There’s this ancient human dynamic of pilgrimage. We’re constantly saying, as human beings, “Over there is slightly more important than here, where I’m standing…”
“…and I’m going to make a journey out of going to that place.” So we have them all over the world. We have Kyoto in Japan. We have Varanasi in India. We have Mecca. We have Jerusalem. We have Santiago de Compostela. If you’re an Elvis fan, you have Graceland.
Something good happened there, some kind of joyous voice brought a different kind of energy into the human field of experience. And I was saying to myself, “What is it about Colman’s Bed? Why do I keep taking people up there, and why do we keep coming?” This was a beautiful question that I was working with for a good dozen years, and it was 12 years before I wrote this piece as a way of overhearing myself say what the invitations were.
There’s an image at the beginning of the poem, which is an image of a contemporary of St. Colman, and his name was St. Kevin, and he was the kind of Irish St. Francis, because he had this remarkable experience with all the animals and birds. He was constantly losing his prayer book, and then an otter would bring it back; and then he’d lose it again, and a stork would bring it. You get the feeling he was just chucking it in the river in the end, and they were just bringing it back.
But Kevin was praying in his cell. And the old Irish monks used to pray, not with their hands together, but with their hands out. They also had a half-moon tonsure at the front and long hair at the back, so they looked incredibly cool.
He was praying there — you’ve got to imagine him — and then, suddenly, a blackbird was flying past and looked down and saw this wonderful palm there; said, “That’s a lovely place to perch.” So it flew down. And Kevin, being so compassionate towards the natural world, decided he’d keep praying so as not to disturb the bird. But the bird looked around and said, “This is a great old place for a nest,” and so it started flying backwards and forwards and building a circle of twigs and feathers. Again, Kevin, being compassionate toward the bird, kept praying. And then, finally, the nest was done. But of course, didn’t the blackbird lay an egg in the nest? So Kevin had to keep praying, and then, of course, there was a chick in the nest. Kevin had to keep praying. Then the chick had to be fledged. Finally, mother and daughter bird flew off into the wild blue yonder. And Kevin could stretch and put his hands together. Of course, it’s an apocryphal story, but it’s actually really psychologically precise as to the phenomenology of deep meditation, of warming interior forms into light. So that’s the first invitation.
So I’ll take you up to Colman’s bed through these invitations, and then we’ll all say good night.
“Make a nesting now, a place to which / the birds can come, think of Kevin’s / prayerful palm holding the blackbird’s egg / and be the one, looking out from this place / who warms interior forms into light. / Feel the way the cliff at your back / gives shelter to your outward view / then bring in from those horizons / all discordant elements that seek a home. // Be taught now, among the trees and rocks, / how the discarded is woven into shelter, / feel the way things hidden and unspoken / slowly proclaim their voice in the world. / Find that far inward symmetry / to all outward appearances, begin to welcome back / all you sent away, be a new annunciation, / make yourself a door through which / to be hospitable, even to the stranger in you. // See with every turning day, / how each season wants to make a child / of you again, wants you to become / a seeker after birdsong and rainfall, / watch how it weathers you / into a testing in the tried and true, / tells you with each falling leaf, / to leave and slip away, even from the branch that held you, / to be courageous, to go when you need to / to be like that last word you’d want to say before you leave the world. // Above all, be alone with it all, / a hiving off, a corner of silence / amidst the noise, refuse to talk, / even to yourself, and stay in this place / until the current of the story / is strong enough to float you out. // Ghost then, to where others / in this place have come before, / under the hazel, by the ruined chapel, / below the cave where Colman slept, / Live in this place / as you were meant to and then, / surprised by your abilities, / become the ancestor of it all, / the quiet, robust and blessed Saint / that your future happiness / will always remember.”
At the end, after I’d written that last line, I said, “Oh, that’s why we come.” All of us have had the experience of looking back over our lives, where our younger self did something that our future self is very thankful for. You look back at that moment. Had you not gone out the door, had you not made the phone call, had you not made that promise, you would have a very different life now. You can go back — that person was the ancestor of your present future happiness. The great question for this weekend is, how could you be the ancestor of your own future happiness? What conversation could you begin? What promise could you make? What promise, even, could you break, that would make you the ancestor of your future happiness, that you could come back to yourself, this weekend, and thank yourself for having stepped out on that path into a future which has made both a better world for yourself and the world in which you have given your gifts?
Thank you very much.