An Alphabet of Poets – W is for Whyte

News Of Death

For Tom Charlotte

Last night they came with news of death
not knowing what I would say.

I wanted to say,
“The green wind is running through the fields
making the grass lie flat.”

I wanted to say,
“The apple blossom flakes like ash,
covering the orchard wall.”

I wanted to say,
“the fish float belly up in the slow stream,
stepping stones to the dead.”

They asked if I would sleep that night,
I said I did not know.

For this loss I could not speak,
the tongue lay idle in a great darkness,
the heart was strangely open,
the moon had gone,
and it was then
when I said, “He is no longer here”
that the night put its arms around me
and all the white stars turned bitter with grief.

David Whyte (1955- ) from River Flow – New and Selected Poems 1984 – 2007, Many Rivers Press, 2007

Why W for  Whyte. Why not one of the Williams, W.C. or C.K?.; or the Wrights, C.D., Charles, Franz or James? Or for that matter, Wordsworth, Walcott or Whitman?! Simple.

David Whyte has perhaps done more than anyone I know, or am aware of,  to make poetry, his and others,  relevant and critical for a life well lived!

Few speakers, let alone poets, can hold an audience, rapt and engaged for two hours or more, the way Whyte can. Fewer still can inspire listeners to live past the known frontiers of their lives the way Whyte can.

Why then do I introduce this blog with one of Whyte’s lesser known poems – one preoccupied with death and grief? I wondered about this myself when I re-discovered this poem: a poem I had  forgotten I knew, one I had memorized a few years ago! I think I know why.

Whyte’s poems, non-fiction books and lectures challenge me to face my deaths – the big one and the little ones – the defeats that are part of any life  He reminds me that to push through to the frontier of my life I must leave things behind. Part of that is to acknowledge the losses and then move on.

News of Death
is a poem that reminds me to feel my own buried griefs: lost marriages, deaths of parents, lost dreams and then to feel again the gifts that have come from those losses, those defeats. But the power of this poem for me are the haunting images for death, images of heart-breaking beauty. And also, that in our grief the heart can be strangely open.

The gifts from our defeats! A counter-cultural idea these days. This next poem, written after Whyte had seen a self portrait of Van Gogh, further develops this theme. It also echoes Rilke’s famous lines: Winning does not tempt that man./ This is how he grows by being/defeated, decisively by constantly/greater beings.

Self Portrait

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
if you know despair or see it in others?
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes,
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living,
falling toward
the centre of your longing. I want to know
If you are willing
to live day by day, with the consequences of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat?

I have heard that in that fierce embrace even
the gods speak of God.

from River Flow – New and Selected Poems

Just two weeks ago I was one of more than four hundred people in Victoria listening to Whyte uncharacteristically devote a whole evening to just his work, the poems from his just published book Pilgrim, his sixth book of poems. Centered around the theme of pilgrimage, this book continues Whyte’s exploration of  leaving the familiar, moving toward the unknown and then in that luminal place remembering a deeper self that has been waiting for us all along; that “stranger who was yourself” described so clearly in Derek Walcott’s poem Love After Love, a Whyte favorite.

Here is one of the key poems from Whyte’s new book:


The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
hiding then revealing the way you should take,
the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall,
and the way forward always in the end
the way you followed, the way that carried you
into your future, that brought you to this place,
no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,
no matter that it had to break your heart along the way:
the sense of having walked from far inside yourself
out into the revelation, to have risked yourself
for something which seemed to stand both inside you
and far beyond you, that called you back
to the only road in the end you could follow, walking
as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice
that by night became a prayer for safe arrival,
so that one day you realized what you wanted
had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place
you had lived in before you began,
and that every step along the way, you had carried
the heart and the mind and the promise
that first set you off and drew you on and that you were
more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way
than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:
as if, all along, you had thought the end point might be a city
with golden towers, and cheering crowds,
and turning the corner at what you thought was the end
of the road, you found  just  simple reflection,
and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back
and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:
like a person and a place you had sought forever,
like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;
like another life, and the road still stretching on.

from Pilgrim, Many Rivers Press, 2012

As we sat and listened to Whyte in a room both made lighter and darker by his presence, how his poems and words created an intimacy that made it seem we were just a chosen few, not hundreds, sitting around a fire in a small croft somewhere in the highlands of Yorkshire or in Connemara, Ireland. And more poignant still, this evening, devoted to poems of pilgrimage, made us all witnesses to Whyte’s own grief pilgrimage triggered by the unexpected natural death four years ago of his dear friend, the poet, philosopher, scholar and best-selling spiritual writer, John O’Donohue (1956 – 2008).

Here is poem from Pilgrim, birthed in Ireland just a short time after O’Donohue’s death, during the extended wake held there by friends and family. It is from the section titled Companion which honours this friendship, Whyte’s grief over his friend’s death. A grief that,ironically, this night through poems, laughter and memories, brought O’Donohue back to life so that we could feel his presence as a living thing with us in the room.


When the music started, I wondered
where it came from, the low haunt
of an air Carried on the careless wind,
the lift of a jackdaw, carried by a breeze
from the mountain, someone
was playing the flute hidden by a wall,
not knowing that anyone, anywhere,
could listen in, walking through
the simplest song that seemed to need
the broadest, clearest, upland sky.

I listened then, to the rarest of music,
the one played for no one.
Every hesitation and every step
the haunting took across the sky was let alone
to touch its full eternal measure;
every note allowed to float beyond itself
to a world with no approaching end.

There was no looking for the right
beginning, no search for the perfect close,
and no listener but the player
themselves beyond all listening,
so that I felt in that modal harmony
of stone and grass and mountain sky
and the clear view across the blue lake
below as if I stood alone and entire
with a world held in place, as if
memory could be true, and  horizons
hold their own unspoken promise,
and that grief might be its own cure.

And in the last held moment before
the music stopped and left the mountain
to itself, and the final, un-final note slurred
into the raptured air, as if the deepest pain
could be a long way  to somewhere after all,
and of all things, a broken, careworn, barely open
but listening heart, the one to serve me best.

Whyte’s facility to stand recite poem after poem without a text is legendary. To free the words of a poem from a page, to have it come directly from the heart through the mouth shrinks the distance between the poem and the audience to almost nothing. Laughing. he once told me he has no trouble remembering the texts of more than 300 poems he has memorized. The trouble is remembering all the poems he knows by heart. He needs a list for that!

Whyte invites poetic literacy. His evening performances, his day- long lectures and conversations are usually sold out. Four hundred in an audience is not unusual. And if tens of thousands of people outside universities know intimately certain poems of Mary Oliver, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Gerard Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth and countless others it just might be because of Whyte.

What calls us to move out of the centre of our lives, to move from the so-called safe place,  to the place where we truly are most alive inside our one given life? Whatever it is David Whyte calls us to walk toward it no matter how frightening the first steps seem. And no matter that the price likely will be a  broken, careworn, barely open but listening heart. This poem says those steps will hold us even on water!

The Truelove – David Whyte

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

Years ago in the Hebrides
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of baying seals,

who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,

and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them,

and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly,
so Biblically,
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love,

so that when
we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
because finally
after all this struggle
and all these years,
you don’t want to any more,
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning,
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness,
however fluid and however
dangerous, to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

from River Flow – New and Selected Poems


  1. Posted June 1, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Richard, I’m just now catching up on some of your alphabet! Love your presentation of David Whyte, and what you say about the opening poem: about finding “the gifts from our defeats.” Many thanks.

  2. Richard
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Dear Peggy – Thanks so much for your casreful readings of these posts! Indeed, the paradox of gifts coming from defeats. Or losses. Makes me realize how much of my life can only be understood when I look back and see what I couldn’t at an earlier time. All best, R

  3. Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I found you quite by chance goggling a copy of “News of Death.” This is one of the most poignant poems about grief I have ever read. I know I will return to read more of your alphabet. I have loved David Whyte’s poetry for many years and find him to be everything you say and more. Many thanks!

  4. Richard
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Dear Nancy: SO pleased you found News of Death on my site. Coincidently I was just at a Whyte day long retreat in West Vancouver. Vintage Whyte. Inspiring as always. All best, Richard

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