Poetic Voice

by Bonnie Swift


As a child, I was lucky enough to grow up listening to David Whyte tapes with in my mother’s car. At the age of eleven or twelve, I had not yet come to appreciate poetry, having only read it from a book. But poetry came alive for me in Whyte’s cassette tapes. Listening to a well-read poem is an entirely different experience than encountering it on the page. David Whyte reading poetry is like receiving a loaf of warm bread, fresh from the oven. It is life sustaining. Simple in its genius.

Achieving the most basic effect often requires the most adept skill. In this TEDx talk, Whyte introduces us to his thorough, methodical approach to poetry, employing several poems as platforms for a discussion of what he terms the ‘conversational nature of reality.’

First there is his charming accent. Whyte hails from Yorkshire, England, and so he has that classic British lilt, which betrays a sense of confident erudition. But he is also a traveler and has long made his home in the Pacific Northwest, and so in his tone we sense a very down-to-earth, wool-socks-in-sandals kind of charm. As a child, I remember being drawn in and calmed by the rhythm of his metered, melodic speech. He uses the range of his voice to strike a delicate balance between animating poetry with emphasis and variation in tone, and remaining neutral enough so that there is space for our own imaginations to work as well.

Emphasis is placed not just by inflection, but also through repetition. An important line can be read two, three, or four times. Each time we hear it, another layer is peeled back, and we feel the language more profoundly. By the third or fourth time you are no longer just hearing the words—you are experiencing the meaning behind the words.

In this talk, Whyte opens with his poem 'Everything is Waiting for You'. The first time he reads it, he repeats several lines, several times, as if he wants to make sure his listeners catch each piece of important material. When he reaches the end of the poem, he repeats the last line, ‘Everything is waiting for you,’ leaning in, repeating it again, ‘everything, everything, everything.’ At this point you really feel it as an invitation, as if it emanates from something bigger than the poem or even poet.

Then Whyte recites the entire poem again. You’ll feel comfortable when he starts over from the beginning: it is your chance to put together all the pieces that you caught the first time, and to catch more of the pieces you’d missed.

Whyte’s poetic voice will - to use one of his own metaphors - make you feel like a snake, shedding your outermost skin. Little by little, he will chip away at your fragile defense, until you start to feel the steady warmth glowing at your core.

David Whyte, ‘Life at the Frontier: the Conversational Nature of Reality’
TEDx Puget Sound
20 minutes


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