Monday, May 25, 2015

Praise to the Poet!

If it’s true that the Inuit have some twenty plus words for snow, it’s no surprise why. Living with it day after day for a lifetime would naturally reveal the nuances of snow in a way that makes no sense to the dweller in the desert. They would distinguish between degrees of dryness and wetness, small and large flakes, snow with or without wind, snow on the edge of hail and so on.

So when we try to make sense of our interior landscape, who should we turn to? We need someone tuned to the elusive weather of our feelings, our moods, our sense of self. Someone who makes a habit of attention to both inner and outer worlds and then searches for the language to shed light on it. Without the right words, without naming something or giving it an image or the bridge of a metaphor to help it cross between worlds, we can’t wholly know something. The precise word for a feeling or constellation of feelings allows us the distance to observe it from the safe haven of a room enclosed in language, spares us the possibility of being blown away or drenched or pummeled by it.

Enter the poet. In the hands of the skilled poet, we come not only to recognize ourselves, but are introduced to new shades of meaning and nuances of color. David Whyte is such a poet, one who has not only written a sizable collection of poetry, but has memorized a few hundred poems from many times and places. He lectures, gives readings and workshops worldwide and it his precise attention to language cultivated by a lifetime practice that constantly astonishes me. He is like the Artur Rubinstein or Keith Jarrett of the human psyche, a virtuoso who is in control of such fine subtleties in his perception that careful attention to his words always reveals a new depth and breadth to whatever the subject at hand.

Like any artist, he has his signature phrases that could almost become cliché— “initiate the needed conversation,” “ move toward the beckoning horizon,” “pay fierce attention.” But he lives them and means them and elaborates on them in ever-changing contexts so that they remain fresh and useful. In his new book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, he helps take a new look at what we take for granted and see them from a new, often surprising perspective. It’s not easy to claim that “anger is the deepest form of compassion,” “denial is an ever-present and even splendid thing” and “despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty” and get away with it! But if you stick with him, his turning things on their head reveals the often unseen side and in so doing, helps us see the large picture of their necessary presence in our life. Armed with new vision and precise language, we can work with it all rather than by worked by it.

In my case, the two chapters on “Disappointment” and “Forgiveness” illuminated these twin themes of my past eight years in a way that no friend offering advice or consolation could. That’s the magic of the poet. They arrive at some universal understanding that speaks to your particular situation as if they knew it intimately. And then they give you the image or thought or phrase that allows you to see it all in a larger context. And after all, that’s the only healing really possible— to get above it all to see its place in the ever-rolling drama of your life, and thus, ultimately to welcome it, to be grateful for it, no matter how much pain it caused you at an earlier time.

Inspired by his reading on the word “Haunted,” I was granted a new perspective about my work in jazz education. See next entry. Meanwhile, thanks to David Whyte and all the poets who have offered constant “solace and nourishment” by revealing the underlying meanings of our shared experience.

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