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Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

A celebration of the delicious enchantment of the very first time.

Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

I remember the feeling of first seeing the Moon through the small handheld telescope my father had smuggled from East Germany — how ancient yet proximate it felt, how alive, as though I could glide my six-year-old finger over its rugged radiance — the feeling of electric astonishment at something so surprising yet so inevitable, something that seemed to have always been waiting there just for me to discover it. I remember next having that feeling nearly a decade later, upon first reading To the Lighthouse, my English still too crude to register every note of nuance, but attuned enough to be staggered by the symphonic might of Virginia Woolf’s prose, to be stirred in some still-dim corner of my own mind by the glowing edges of hers.

It is an unrepeatable feeling — better than a first kiss, for it comes without anticipation or hope; more like a great love that rises from some unseen shore like a great blue heron over the misty lake at dawn, unbidden and improbable and discomposing in its majesty. It is a feeling often found between the covers of a great book, in the stillness between expectations, or as the twist at the end of a great poem dopplers past you in the hallway of the mind, leaving you stunned and transformed.

In some strange and wondrous sense, then, that which is still ahead of you, still waiting to be discovered, still holding its secret astonishment, is the most delicious, delirious of rewards.

Umberto Eco hinted at this in his wonderful notion of the “antilibrary” with its insistence that unread books, by virtue of their yet-unimagined and unsavored nourishment, have more value to our inner lives than those we have already metabolized. A generation later, poet and philosopher David Whyte address this in his gorgeous contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — that labor-of-love collection of 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by poets and physicists, cellists and entrepreneurs, artists and astronauts — some of the most inspiring humans in our world, whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Whyte writes:

Dear Young Friend,

I wish. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now, I wish I were standing where you are standing now, I would swap everything I have learned through my reading, I would swap my entire library of a thousand books, every journey and adventure I have taken through their pages, all the insights about the world and myself, all the laughter, the tragedy, the moments of shock and relief, all the books that have amazed me and that have made me reread them again and again, to be at the beginning as you are, so that I could read them all again for the very first time.

I wish, I wish, I wish I were in your place with all the books of the world waiting patiently for me. It would be so astonishing to come across Coleridge as a perfect stranger and hear his voice for the first time; I would love to know nothing about Shakespeare or Jane Austen, to be overwhelmed by the fact that there is a Rosalind, or an Elizabeth Bennett, or later, an Emily Dickinson, in this world, and then, and then to see my hand for the first time attempting to write even a little like they have, to follow them in shyness and trepidation and beautiful frustration, to walk through the incredible territory we call writing and reading and see it all again with new eyes. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish

I were in your shoes, in a beautiful waiting to know, waiting to read, waiting to write, so that I could open the door and walk through all the books I have ever read or written as if I hadn’t. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now.

Yours in anticipation,

David Whyte

Savor other testaments to the power and splendor of reading from A Velocity of Being — letters by Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Debbie Millman, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alexander Chee, Kevin Kelly, and Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin — then revisit Whyte on anger and forgiveness, friendship, love, and heartbreak, and resisting the tyranny of labeling the heart’s truth.

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Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Love and Resisting the Tyranny of Relationship Labels

“We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling. In many ways love has already named us before we can even begin to speak back to it.”

In the prelude to Figuring — a book at the heart of which are the complex, unclassifiable personal relationships animating and haunting historical figures whose public work has shaped our world — I lamented that we mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves.

Poet and philosopher David Whyte examines these distorting yet necessary containers of concepts in one of the lovely short essays in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a book I have long cherished.

Under the word “NAMING,” Whyte considers the difficult art of giving love the breathing room to be exactly what it is and not what we hope, expect, or demand it to be by preconception, tightness of heart, or adherence to societal convention.

David Whyte (Photograph: Nicol Ragland)

He writes:

Naming love too early is a beautiful but harrowing human difficulty. Most of our heartbreak comes from attempting to name who or what we love and the way we love, too early in the vulnerable journey of discovery.

We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognizable form of affection.

To sit with a shape-shifting, form-breaking love is a maddening endeavor that rattles the baseboards of our being with its earthquakes of uncertainty and ambiguity, its uncontrollable force and direction. Only the rare giants of confidence — giants like Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, in their beautiful love beyond label — manage to savor the sweetness of such unclassifiable, unnameable love rather than grow embittered at its nonconformity to standard templates of attachment and affection.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Jerome by Heart — an illustrated celebration of love beyond label

The realest love, Whyte suggests, is one we get to know from the inside out — a love that defines itself in the act of loving, rather than contracting and conforming to a pre-definition:

The act of loving itself, always becomes a path of humble apprenticeship, not only in following its difficult way and discovering its different forms of humility and beautiful abasement but strangely, through its fierce introduction to all its many astonishing and different forms, where we are asked continually and against our will, to give in so many different ways, without knowing exactly, or in what way, when or how, the mysterious gift will be returned.

While naming may confer dignity upon the named, names and labels are containers. They file concepts and constructs — often messy and always more tessellated, more replete with mystery than their linguistic package — into neat semantic cabinets. But language cups only with loose fingers what it is trying to contain and classify as nuance and complexity drip past the words. We contain in order to control, and whenever we control, we relinquish the beautiful, terrifying mystery of being.

White writes:

We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling. In many ways love has already named us before we can even begin to speak back to it, before we can utter the right words or understand what has happened to us or is continuing to happen to us: an invitation to the most difficult art of all, to love without naming at all.

Consolations, which also gave us Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means and the true meaning of friendship, love, and heartbreak, is a revelatory, recalibratory read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Carl Sagan on how to live with the unknown, Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and Annie Dillard on living with mystery, then revisit Whyte’s beautiful ode to working together in a divided world.

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Working Together: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Beautiful Ode to Our Mutuality with the World

“We shape our self to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.”

Working Together: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Beautiful Ode to Our Mutuality with the World

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” wrote the great Indian poet and philosopher Tagore — the first non-European awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature — in his 1930 meditation on human nature and the interdependence of existence. Nearly a century later, the English poet, philosopher, and redeemer of meaning David Whyte gave shape to that relational inextricability of our lives in his beautiful poem “Working Together,” found in his collection River Flow: New & Selected Poems (public library).

In this recording from Krista Tippett’s altogether sublime On Being interview with Whyte, he reads this simple, transcendently wakeful poem of supreme relevance to our divided world:

WORKING TOGETHER

We shape our self to fit this world
and by the world are shaped again.
The visible and the invisible working
together in common cause,
to produce the miraculous.
I am thinking of the way the intangible
air passed at speed round a shaped wing
easily holds our weight.
So may we, in this life trust
to those elements we have yet to see or imagine,
and look for the true shape of our own self,
by forming it well to the great
intangibles about us.

Complement with Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means, friendship, love, and heartbreak, how we enlarge ourselves by surrendering to the uncontrollable, and when it’s time to end a relationship, then other splendid recordings of poets reading their own work: Adrienne Rich reads “What Kind of Times Are These”; Elizabeth Alexander reads “Praise Song for the Day”; Sylvia Plath reads “Spinster”; Mark Strand reads “The End”; Langston Hughes reads “We Are the American Heartbreak.”

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Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Courage, Love, and Hardship as the Grounds for Self-Expansion

“Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.”

“Courage,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless and increasingly timely meditation on the power of principled resistance to injustice, “inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear.” Courage comes in many guises — the courage to despair, necessary for being an artist; the courage to be vulnerable, that surest yet most difficult path to self-transcendence; courage at knifepoint, where our humanity is revealed; the courage to resist cynicism.

Poet and philosopher David Whyte considers the question of courage in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — the ceaselessly quenching well of his wisdom on vulnerability, anger and forgiveness, and the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Whyte writes:

Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on.

With an eye to Albert Camus, that supreme shaman of courage who so staunchly believed that one must “live to the point of tears,” Whyte adds:

Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.

[…]

On the inside we come to know who and what and how we love and what we can do to deepen that love; only from the outside and only by looking back, does it look like courage.

Art by Jean-Michel Basquiat from Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou

The testing ground for courage, as for love, is often crisis — those trying and troubled times which are precisely when artists must go to work and during which our true strength of character is revealed. Whyte writes:

Crisis is unavoidable. Every human life seems to be drawn eventually, as if by some unspoken parallel, some tidal flow or underground magnetic field, toward the raw, dynamic essentials of its existence, as if everything up to that point had been a preparation for a meeting, for a confrontation in an elemental form with our essential flaw, and with what an individual could until then, only receive stepped down, interpreted or diluted.

This experience … where the touchable rawness of life becomes part of the fabric of the everyday, and a robust luminous vulnerability, becomes shot through with the necessary, imminent and inevitable prospect of loss, has been described for centuries as the dark night of the soul: La noche oscura del alma. But perhaps, this dark night could be more accurately described as the meeting of two immense storm fronts, the squally vulnerable edge between what overwhelms human beings from the inside and what overpowers them from the outside.

[…]

Walking the pilgrim edge between the two, holding them together, is the hardest place to stay, to breathe of both and make a world of both and to be active in their exchange: aware of our need to be needed, our wish to be seen, our constant need for help and succor, but inhabiting a world of luminosity and intensity, subject to the wind and the weather, surrounded by the music of existence, able to be found by the living world and with a wild self-forgetful ability to respond to its call when needed; a rehearsal in fact for the act of dying, a place where inside and outside can reverse and flow with no fixed form.

Whyte’s Consolations remains one of the most beautiful and consolatory books I’ve ever encountered, the kind with which each repeated encounter is always new and always regenerative. Complement this particular portion with Rebecca Solnit on resisting the defeatism of despair and Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel.

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