What Is Your Favorite Poem?

Answering this question depends on many factors, not just one. 

Instead of naming my favorite of all (an impossible task), I’m going to mention one of my favorites instead. The poem is called “The Journey”, and surprise of surprises, I’m not referring to Mary Oliver’s poem by the same title, though that too is one of my all-time favorites. This one is by David Whyte, whose native home is Yorkshire, Wales and Ireland, though he now makes his home in the Pacific Northwest. Or at least he did when the book House of Belonging was published in 1997, which includes this poem.

I first became acquainted with David Whyte by way of a self-narrated audio recording of his poetry. What could be better than hearing the voice, the intonation, and the accent of the poem’s creator? Nothing, in my opinion. To have this auditory experience at a moment in my life when the concept of taking an interior “journey” from one set of feelings to another was front and center only added to the memorable impact of the poet’s voice in my ear. 

Whyte’s “The Journey” uses two metaphors: black geese flying across an open sky and charred sticks from an extinguished fire. Each has left a message, or rather an invitation, for the reader. If deciphered, these messages will lead to a heartfelt reunion with a misplaced “wedge of freedom” that has caused the reader suffering. The last two lines of the poem, 

“You are not leaving

you are arriving”.

offer encouragement and faith instead of the presumed doubt and discouragement at such dramatic transitional moments in one’s life.

I heard David Whyte read this poem in person in 2001, when I attended a weekend retreat facilitated by the poet. My husband and I had separated just a few months earlier after 31 years living under the same roof (or to be accurate, roofs). Those two days in Vermont with David Whyte and a handful of strangers represented the first “journey” I would take on my own in this new, unwelcome chapter of my life. 

It was Columbus Day weekend, and the foliage was a spectacular mix of burnt oranges, cherry reds and golden yellows against the backdrop of vivid shades of green. My mood was somber, a combination of grief and shock for what was now forever over, and dread of what lay ahead. At some point during the weekend, I approached the poet with my book and asked for his signature. Without indicating which poem or page I preferred, he opened to the second page of “The Journey” and scribbled the last two lines above his illegible signature. 

“Stephanie,

You are not leaving

You are arriving”

Twenty years later, as I reflect on this serendipitous counsel from a poet I admire to this day, both for his lyrical writing as well as his stance toward moving beyond suffering, I feel tremendous gratitude for the personal journey that has led me to finally embrace a “wedge of freedom” once so achingly elusive from my life’s journey. 

Michael Whyte

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