“Working Together” An Explication of David Whyte’s Poem

Listen to the poem as you read along: sound is sense!


Working Together 

We shape our self
to fit this world

and by the world
are shaped again.

The visible
and the invisible

working together
in common cause,

to produce
the miraculous.

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

or imagine,
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

David Whyte

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.”


You and I

This isn’t my all-time favorite poem, but it is close.  Below the poem is my explication of how I think the poem and the poet create meaning. Of course, part of it is what I am bringing to the poem, but much of it is the realization of the genus of the poet Jonathan Potter. I’ll bet his wife (or girlfriend) loves this poem, also:

Before you read the poem, or while you read the poem, listen to Garrison Keillor’s interpretation. The sense is always, first and foremost, in the sound.”

Start at 3:30


You and I

Jonathan Potter


You are a warm front
that moved in from the north,
a blind spot bearing beautiful gifts,
a garden in the air, a golden filament
inscribed with the name of God’s hunting dog,
a magic heirloom mistaken for a feather duster,
a fountain in a cow pasture, an anachronistic anagram
annoyed by anonymity, a dollar in the pocket
of a winter coat in summer.

And I am the discoverer of you.


You and I

Jonathan Potter

Surprise! This poem is built as a cascade of metaphors, falling one over the other, over the other, until the first word in the title and the first word in the poem become the last word of the poem. It is a cascade of air, not water. Each image suggests a discovery. The images start as nebulous air images and then gain substance; they give way to concrete images as the poem progresses, just as the relationship of the poet to his lover gains substance when he recognizes how his love is materializing for his lover: he realizes her beauty coming into his awareness.

“You and I” describes the poet’s surprise as he realizes just how special his love is. The first images evoke surprise: “a warm front that moved in from the north.” Fronts (air and moisture) tend to move in quickly and this front is a surprise because warm fronts don’t usually move in from the north.  

He is surprised as her beautiful gifts materialize, having been hidden just out of his sight, or better, they have been there all along, and he just notices them. Potter uses alliteration (blind, bearing, beautiful) to highlight the growing awareness of her presence as a gift: nothing is apparent (blind), something is coming (bearing), and the gift is revealed (beautiful). The placement of the word “gift” at the end of the line emphasizes the surprise process when he at last notices her.

The poet uses “gift” to start the alliteration of the next two lines: (garden, golden, and God.) The garden in the sky image evokes beautiful star-filled heavens, whereas the golden filament inscribed with the name of God’s hunting dog is the divine connection of loyalty and love between the poet and his love connected by nothing less than the thinnest of connective tissue: a golden filament ties him to the divine and to God’s hunting dog. God’s hunting dog helps the poet find the love and loyalty of his love that the poet can’t discover on his own.

The feather duster transitions the poem to more concrete images. Dusting off the everyday routine of their relationship, he discovers a covert love passed down to him as a magic heirloom that has been passed from her family. She comes from a loving past, and he is surprised by the revelation of that love.

The “fountain in the cow pasture” is a concrete image of the sublime being made manifest from the mundane. There is the surprise at the discovery of water (an image of the presence of God) flowing from the mundane (a cow pasture). 

“An anachronistic anagram annoyed by anonymity” is a fun attribution to the feelings of the “You” in the poem. She is annoyed her presence in the poet’s life is not recognized immediately. He is a little slow on the uptake of her love for him; it takes him awhile to appreciate who she is (the anagram).

The penultimate surprise is the dollar lost in the winter coat (a reference to the warm front surprise), until he discovers it in the warm summer of their love. In other words, as their relationship grows, he continues to be surprised by her love and her presence.

The second stanza’s meaning comes directly from the form of the poem. The poem is about two people discovering love (You and I). The first stanza is the “You” of the poem. It starts with the word “You.” The second stanza is the “I” of the poem. Notice how the title is used in the first words of each stanza: “You” as the first word of the title, “And I” as the first two words in the second stanza. The poet completes the relationship of the title and as the discoverer of “You” (his love).

So what is the back-story on this poem? I have no idea. What is my take on this poem? It is one of my all-time favorite love poems because it reflects how I first discovered my love for my high school girlfriend, and it describes the discovery of when I first knew I was in love with my wife Eva.

If you actually stayed with me this far, let me know how how you liked this poem and this explication.  Don’t be shy: I feel like I am writing in a vacuum.