Poetry in the Workplace

A few years ago, I was responsible for a fairly large team, and we needed help in writing. I had heard a poet speak at a writer’s conference, and was completely taken by his passion for writing, words, and language. So I invited him to be our guest speaker for a seminar. People on other teams heard about what we were doing. Some asked to join us. Others invited themselves and just showed up.

He looked like a poet – longish hair, blue jeans, and a blue jean jacket over a t-shirt. And cowboy boots (he was from New Mexico by way of Indiana). He was both entertaining and inspirational — we had never before had a speaker quite like our poet.

We had poetry in the workplace, and it fit. But was this just a special circumstance?

I’ve always thought of Wallace Stevens as the patron poet of the workplace, not because he wrote poetry about the workplace but because he worked in corporate America for his entire career. He was able to accommodate both work (as a corporate attorney) and the writing of poetry.

I’ve tried to imagine working in a company and being better known for my poetry than my work. How did colleagues at The Hartford respond to Stevens? Did they think him a bit odd or eccentric? Did they wonder why he preferred legal work to academia?

Of course, I’m looking at the corporate world of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s through the lens of the corporate world in 2012. I remember looking through old employee newsletters for two different corporations from these same decades, and being surprised that these “house organs,” as they were called, often included – surprise! – poetry. It’s only in our own utilitarian, everything-focused-on-the-bottom-line day that corporate life is very different from what it once was.

Our seminar was unusual – and perhaps that was the pull. But perhaps not. Perhaps there is something in the soul of the corporate employee that longs for meaning, tribal coherence and understanding, the kind that poetry can bring.

I don’t expect to see poetry slams in the corporate cafeteria during the lunch hour or a senior executive quoting Ted Kooser, Seamus Heaney, or Adrienne Rich. But that doesn’t mean poetry has no place in the corporate world.

And it doesn’t mean that poetry doesn’t exist at all with the corporate world. In fact, if I listen hard enough, I hear it in a number of ways.

I hear it in the speeches in the employee town hall meetings. Especially the good speeches, the remembered ones.

I hear it in the narration of the corporate videos.

I hear it in the rhythm and flow of the weekly cycle of meetings, in the repetition if nothing else.

I hear it in the corporate announcements, as people try to (1) craft memorable phrases and/or (2) just get the darn announcement approved and out the door.

I hear it in the customer meetings, as sales people attempt to inform and inspire and persuade.

I hear it in the corporate blog, the language of a company’s Facebook page and the brevity of a tweet.

I hear it in the PowerPoint presentations, a sometimes poetic combination of text and images (although PowerPoint does have its limitations).

I hear it in the face-to-face meetings, annual performance reviews and weekly reports, and in the “go-around-the-table-and-share-what’s-happening” staff meetings.

I hear it in the workplace because poetry is language and language is poetry, and I’ve seen corporate executives spend as much time and effort on the right word, the right phrase, and the right line as any poet might.

No, I don’t expect to overhear hallway conversation about a new poem in Poetry, but I wonder what business goals and results might be accomplished if we understood and practiced the focused, deliberate use of poetry in the workplace.

Photo by Kelly Sauer. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Glynn Young, author of Dancing Priest.

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Comments

  1. says

    Fabulous article Glynn. I always said when I was writing corporate ‘bumph’ that the art was always in the story-telling — and no matter how dry or terse the information, we still had to tell a compelling story to ensure readers actually read it.

  2. says

    The other interesting question is, what from the workplace gets into the poems? A bit about this can be found in that slog of a bio on William Carlos Williams.

    I’d especially like to see more poetry in politics.

  3. says

    And I wonder, too, how much more pleasant, meaningful, thoughtful, careful, and effective the workplace (and any place of interaction) might be if we all spent “as much time and effort on the right word, the right phrase, and the right line as any poet might.”

  4. says

    As noted here, the corporate life is different now than it was in the ’30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Perhaps poetry can become a means by which the corporate world can heal from within, leading to new intuitions and innovations for the greater good; moving from fabrication to truth. An infiltration if you will…

  5. says

    “…but I wonder what business goals and results might be accomplished if we understood and practiced the focused, deliberate use of poetry in the workplace.”

    If the focused and deliberate use of words would be considered in the workplace as it can be in the kind of poetry that imparts substance in few precise and well placed words that sound pleasing as well as communicate sufficiently; it would elevate understanding and interest.

  6. says

    Fabulous indeed. A damn fine piece of writing, Glynn. I think of Wallace Stevens often–and not just for “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” but for the reasons you mention here. I would love to get out a bullhorn as long and powerful as the Missourah River and shout out to all poets, writers, artists, that you need not starve to make compelling art. You need time. Time. Don’t sacrifice it, cherish it, don’t waste it (except when it needs to be wasted). Don’t get trapped by things (like debt) that rob you of time. Glynn, so much of your piece, I loved. Bravo, sir.

  7. says

    I hear poetry in the world of public education. As a former middle school literacy teacher and current middle school support specialist, I delight in bringing poetry to students through innovative programs like Flocabulary, hip-hop raps, culturally relevant, engaging poetry in action. Poetry is present in so many settings if we listen to the music of words. I enjoyed your post and perspective very much!

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