Although the talk given by poet David Whyte on Tuesday was not a specific address to college students, it is still a shame that more students didn't show up. In fact, the majority of students are probably thinking, "Who's David Whyte, pray tell, and what event are you speaking of?" Still, between 60 and 70 people did show attend the free public event, including a small handful of Oberlin students. So it was an intimate gathering, or as intimate as things can get inside a gargantuan space like Finney Chapel.
Whyte is a poet and a lecturer on a very noble mission. He visits big companies and helps them replant the seeds of creativity and spirituality within the steely, money-driven order that is corporate America. But his purpose here was not to inspire the downtrodden workers of the rat race, but rather to address a more universal human experience.
The subject of his talk was his most recent book of poems entitled The House of Belonging. The book explores the innate desire and necessity of humans to belong both to the world they live in and, more importantly, to themselves. In a fireside chat of sorts, Whyte used his time to tell the stories and inspirations behind some of the poems and present a reading of them. For the most part, the lad from Yorkshire managed to keep the audience in full attention from beginning to end.
He read his poems with a keen sense of urgency, as if what he was saying was a matter of life and death. He often repeated stanzas several times and stopped for dramatic, contemplative pauses. One couldn't help but feel moved somehow just by the style of his reading because it seemed as though he was rekindling the excitement he had while writing these poems. Dramatics aside, there was something beautiful and sincere in the content of what he was saying, as well.
He covered eight or nine poems, all of which kept an uplifting simplicity about them. Most of them dealt with ways of changing one's outlook on the world or getting in touch with the hidden inner-self. True, exercises like these run the risk of being trite and sappy, but that doesn't mean that the subject itself is invalid. In this case, Whyte managed to be inspiring without being sugar-coated.
The concept of "belonging to the night" was of particular interest to Whyte. He maintains that a similar night resides inside everyone and that it is in embracing that "darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness" in which you find solace and confidence. Whyte is a naturalist with a degree in Zoology, leading to a lot of animal and nature imagery. Whatever the subject, there always seemed to be a profound air attached to each poem.
This was a bit of a problem. A lot of his poetry dealt with mature wisdom and moments of clarity. His issues were perhaps better suited for a middle-aged or older audience; for people who have lived longer, experienced more frustration and maybe lost touch with some of the essentials after years of being caught up in an unfulfilling existence. After all, he did keep referring to the life process of ripening to a distinct time of understanding which, most likely, does not apply to most 20-year-olds in Tuesday's audience. Perhaps his talk was not well-suited to students. One might wonder why the college choose to bring such a speaker to campus.
Still, the experience was quite engaging and memorable, judging from the line in the lobby to buy his books. Inspirational speakers like David Whyte do not find their way to Oberlin very often, and it's nice to get away from the chaos and cynicism that traps every student to hear a voice of clarity and simplicity once in a while. In the words of Whyte himself, "You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in."
Words of Wisdom: David Whyte gave a well-versed talk to a small Finney audience on Tuesday. (photo by Michael Lando)
Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 2, September 12, 1997
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