David Whyte – language we need for the times we live in

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”

The words of David Whyte, from the poem, Sweet Darkness.

David Whyte

If you’ve never heard of David Whyte, then I suggest you make yourself familiar with his work. A good start is to listen to him interviewed by Krista Tippett at the On Being podcast. That’s where I first heard him, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Not long after I listened to this podcast, I was fortunate enough to hear him speak at The Edge in Federation Square. It was a gift to listen to him share his verse and touch many of us with words that spoke to situations we were dealing with, each in our own way. When David recites his poetry, he repeats lines, phrases, and stresses key words. It’s so impactful. You listen even more carefully, craning for insight.

David’s back story is fascinating. He studied marine zoology and found himself in the Galapagos islands observing wildlife. What he also found was that the scientific language he needed to describe their habitat and interactions wasn’t enough to fully appreciate and encompass the experience, and he found those words by returning to poetry. Eventually, he immersed himself fully in his craft. Here’s what he shared in the On Being podcast explaining how he ended up working for companies in corporate America.

And so when I went full-time as a poet, I was only a year into it and I spoke here in Washington, D.C. at a large psychological conference. And at the end of the conference was this line of people, and at the end of the line was a man who, in best American fashion, said, “We have to hire you.” And I said in best Anglo-Irish fashion, “For what?” [laughs] enthusiastically. And he said, “To come into corporate America.” And I said, “For what?” And he said a marvelous thing, actually. He said, “The language we have in that world is not large enough for the territory that we’ve already entered.” “The language we have in — and in your work, I’ve just heard the language that’s large enough for it.”

And of course, he was talking about the territory of human relationship that the workplace was entering, and the movable human relationship, and the movability that the organizations had to have. And the only place that came from was from the individuals who actually worked within the structures. So it was the breaking apart of many of those structures. And I don’t think we quite realize how over-structured our organizations were just 25 years ago or 30 years ago. There are still plenty of dinosaur ones left for us to still go and live in if we want them, but …

These words sang to me. As I’ve stepped into leadership positions over the last few years my understanding of the power of words to bring people with you has only intensified. I’ve appreciated how words can move people, can frame change scenarios in ways that make people want to come with you and not turn the other way. As many of us work within our schools to envision what is necessary for children navigating futures less certain than ours ever were, we need to find the language that will ease our people into a deeper understanding of the role they need to play. An investment in ideas and a willingness to reflect and review will help prepare our children and build our capacity in the process.

At the AIS ICT Leadership conference in May this year I spoke briefly about podcasts and the benefits they can bring  – they’re an investment in yourself and your personal growth if you listen to the right ones. I mentioned On Being and referenced the David Whyte episode. Often, when you’re leading change, you have to have difficult conversations, ones you’d really prefer to avoid given the chance. But if you’re doing your job well, you don’t avoid them, you face them head on, even though it means you’re often doing so with trepidation. It’s a situation many of us have to face, and the words of ‘Start Close In’ capture what I think is necessary if you are going to build resolve and tackle things head on. I read this poem to the audience of mainly men. There seemed a bit of a stunned silence at the end of it – not sure anyone’s read a poem at an ICT Managers conference before, but hey, you never know when words will make an impact, right?


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.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something

To find
another’s voice
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

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.

~ David Whyte ~
(River Flow)

I suggest you start close in and take a look at David Whyte’s work. People of wisdom in times that require it are salve for troubled souls.