Listen to the poem as you read along: sound is sense!
We shape our self
to fit this world
and by the world
are shaped again.
and the invisible
in common cause,
I am thinking of the way
the intangible air
passed at speed
round a shaped wing
holds our weight.
So may we, in this life
to those elements
we have yet to see
and look for the true
shape of our own self,
by forming it well
to the great
intangibles about us.
— David Whyte
from The House of Belonging
©1996 Many Rivers Press
Written for the presentation of The Collier Trophy to The Boeing Company
marking the introduction of the new 777 passenger jet.
“Working Together” Explication
I liked David Whyte’s poem “Working Together” from first glance. Garrison Keillor’s oral interpretation added a dimension to the poem I didn’t hear in my vocal reading. Take a moment and “listen” to the poem by reading it out loud several times to get the first “sound sense” of the poem.
Where to start with this poem? I usually like to decide the subject, or category this poem would fall into. This poem is Whyte’s celebration of “the miraculous.” What is so miraculous? The act of “working together” can be miraculous; the poem is a discussion of the miracle of how we shape our world and in doing so, it shapes us. This miraculous “shaping” happens every day, but Whyte is drawing attention to a specific “shaping” and a particular relationship created by the interaction between what we aren’t aware of and what object, or idea we are creating. There is something of Elizabeth Gilbert’s connection to the “Big Magic” in this poem.
What got my attention in this poem? The title! Look at it. It contains everything the poem discusses in just two simple words. “Together” reveals a relationship; furthermore, the first syllable “To” is sound symbolism for the number “two” which also suggests the simplest of relationships: pairs, dyads, couples. This poem utilizes dyad metaphors to reinforce a special relationship to the miraculous.
Taking this four-sentence poem one sentence at a time, let’s look at “how” the poem builds meaning to show us the “miraculous.” Each sentence uses the repetition of words to shape a visual and an aural dyad. “We shape our self to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.” The sentence is built in two clauses subtly reinforcing the dyad. Here we are “shaping” our world and by that act, the world is “shaping” us. In a sentence: we become what we do. The repetition of the words “shaping” and “world” suggest a duality, as does the word “again.” This sentence suggest Gary Snyder’s poem “Ax Handles.”
The second sentence in the poem almost works like a stanza: “The visible and the invisible working together in common cause, to produce the miraculous.” There is my thesis: the poem is about the miraculous! “The visible” is our world, our experience, our reality, which works with the “invisible” (the miraculous) in “common cause” (alliteration is used to suggest the idea of the pairing of ideas) to produce something miraculous. We create something miraculous every day without even noticing our creative acts. Whyte wrote the poem to remind us that we are in partnership with the miraculous and creative world whether we are notice, or not. Whyte uses dyads three times in this sentence: “visible and invisible, “working together,” and “common cause” (alliteration) to reinforce the idea that we are connected to the “miraculous.” The duality in the very structure of the sentence is stated in two clauses separated by a comma. Form is meaning, and the form is pretty obvious. Whyte intended the form of his poem to reinforce the meaning of the poem.
Sentence three helps the reader move from the abstract idea of “working together to shape the intangible with the tangible” and “the visible with the invisible” to the concrete image of a wing and the physical interaction between the wing and the air. “I am thinking of the way the intangible air passed at speed round a shaped wing easily holds our weight.” Whyte’s idea in this sentence is to show how the concrete (a wing) and the seemingly abstract (the air) form a relationship (work together) to create the miracle of flight. The air is miraculous: it is simultaneously tangible and intangible (pretty miraculous in my book) and it works with the tangible (a shaped wing) to produce something called the Bernoulli effect, or lift which in turn makes flight possible. Even the shape of the wing suggests a duality: it only works because the top of the wing is not the same shape as the bottom of the wing. The very shape (rounded on top) “works together” with (the flat underside of the wing) as “air is passed at speed” to create the miracle of flight. Another, less obvious duality in this sentence is the relationship of “weightless air” “easily” holding “our weight.” Think weightless air holding up the weight of a 777 “easily” and it is not too hard to feel connected to the miracle of flight. Abstract thinking (miraculous thinking, creative thinking) works to create a concrete wing, which in turn, creates the miracle of flight. All of this takes place in “invisible and intangible” air with a “visible and tangible” wing.
Whyte makes his case in the final sentence for how we are shaped by our world. The world works together with us to help us find our true shape in the world: “So may we, in this life trust to those elements we have yet to see or imagine and look for the true shape of our own self by forming it well to the great intangibles about us.” Faith, another intangible is suggested by this sentence. Whyte inserts a relationship in the single word “we.” And what do “we” do? We “trust” in this life those elements we have yet to see (the invisible) or imagine (a second invisible)
and look (for the tangible “elements” amongst the intangible that we can only imagine) in order to “see” the true shape of our own self. Thus, when we “create,” we create ourselves as well. The alliteration of “see, shape, and self” addresses “seeing” the relationship between us and the invisible, or the “miraculous.” We are shaping our own self by creating (forming) ourselves to the great intangibles about us! We are shaped by our ideas; our ideas shape the world. Our world is enveloped in the intangible air that is all about us. Our imagination works together with the “intangibles” like air to create the shape of our lives. All of this is based on our “trust” in the invisible, miraculous creative acts that we have yet to see.
This is my take. I’ll own all of it.
David Whyte’s interpretation of his own poem is entirely different. Research will reveal that my understanding of this poem is several imaginings away from Whyte’s purpose for writing the poem.
Google the YouTube video of him reading the poem and you will hear (and see) that “Working Together” was written for a specific purpose: to celebrate the commissioning of the Boeing 777.
This is the video:
This is the source of the purpose of the poem:
Written for the presentation of The Collier Trophy to The Boeing Company marking the introduction of the new 777 passenger jet.
My dialogue with this poem happened before I even knew who David Whyte was. I glad I didn’t have the “back story” of the poem before I had my own opportunity to let it “happen to me.” To wit, if I can have my own dialogue with the poem and David Whyte has his unique dialogue, what might your dialogue be? I would be delighted to hear your criticism if you understand criticism to mean “to bring out sweetness and light” (beauty and truth). Jump in. You might wonder about my definition of “brief” in the title. This explication is “Jeff-brief.”