David Whyte's mother, the lyrical Mary O'Sullivan, whose love radiated like the sun itself.
Play • 39 min

[Note: This episode is dedicated to the late poet (and editor non pareil), David Corcoran.  We miss you, David.]

In this strangest of holiday seasons, when so many of us are missing our extra limb of extended family, I’m not so sure it’s just cheer we could use. As we turn this final page on our dark 2020, we might need something that transports us in a different way. The wisdom of the poet and philosopher David Whyte, especially when it comes to the wonderful relationship he had with his mother, Mary O’Sullivan, might be just the right tonic for our times. 

I got in touch with Whyte about coming on to Our Mothers Ourselves after I heard him tell a heartbreaking story about his mother during his popular Sunday Series. Thomas Crocker, Whyte’s very kind right-hand person, got back to me and said that David’s schedule was hectic, but there was something about the invitation that spoke to him. That’s the way things tend to happen with this podcast: People find themselves wanting, needing, yearning to talk about the woman who saw them through so much of life.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve been asking people to choose just one word to describe their mother, and when I asked this of Whyte, he said it was something he hadn’t thought about before – finding the one word that best sums up Mary O’Sullivan. He chose the word “lyrical,” because, he said, his mother was “joyously articulate,” “a great singer,” and lyrical in her use of words to convey love and affection. 

Turning the tables just a bit, I asked a few friends, whom I know to be fans of Whyte’s poetry, for the word they would use to describe David Whyte. A sampling of the responses: Insightful. Profound. Deep. Wise. Genius. Spiritual. Inspirational. Accessible. Surprising. Mystic. Storyteller.

My own word for Whyte: Bountiful. Everything he writes, even words wrought in sparest form, is a generous helping for the mind and for the soul.  When Whyte arrives, poetry in hand, the gift he brings is as precious as the most exquisite mother-of-pearl box. And long after its bearer has taken leave, the poetry stays. Phrases like ‘Perfection is a fragile, ice-thin ground that barely holds our human weight’ linger like an afterimage.  

One David Whyte poem that is new to me is Farewell Letter, about a letter he imagined his mother might have written to him after her death.  In our interview, Whyte talks about the interrupted dream that gave rise to that poem.

Whyte's verse is balm for many a broken soul. So here’s to hoping that my conversation with him about his mother and their elemental bond will feed your mind, raise your spirits and fill your soul. I know it lifted my own heart beyond measure.


* You can find Whyte’s word for his mother — and the words other offspring who have contributed to the word cloud  — on the mother word cloud page. Please visit and contribute your own.

A special thanks to Thomas Crocker at Many Rivers Press for permission to use David’s poetry.

Music composed and performed by
Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah)
Producer: Alice Hudson
















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