Poetry at Work: Dana Gioia on Poetry in Business

In Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, Dana Gioia included an article on business and poetry. His focus was on the odd fact that many poets who worked in business, some their entire working lives, wrote virtually nothing in their poetry about their business or anything related to it. This includes poets like T.S. Eliot (Bank of England), Wallace Stevens (Hartford Insurance) and Ted Kooser (Liberty Financial Insurance). (Farmers, like Robert Frost and Wendell Berry, are a different matter.)

The conventional wisdom, Gioia says, and especially the conventional American wisdom, is that poets “must be people out of the ordinary; they must be strong, even eccentric individuals.” In other words, Walt Whitman fits our preconceived notions; Wallace Stevens, corporate lawyer, does not.

Gioia suggests that the businessmen-poets themselves saw poetry as something necessarily distinct from their day-to-day work. Perhaps it’s because poetry often neglects the things that most people recognize or understand, or perhaps they needed the distinction to be able to write the poetry they did. “Office life, investments, interest rates, corporate politics, quarterly profits – these are not subjects that would seem especially congenial to poetry,” he says, “and one can understand how a poet, even one for whom these topics were matters of daily concern, would ignore them.”

The businessman-poet and businesswoman-poet might find themselves suspected by both other business people and poets.

Speaking as someone who’s worked in business for almost his entire working career, I would add that you have to be careful about what you say about your work outside of work. Business and other organizations do have legitimate concerns about what employees might say or write. Ignoring your day-to-work in your poetry, fiction, and non-fiction is a safer course. I’ve published two novels, and neither one is about my work, my company, or my industry.

Gioia was himself a businessman – a vice president of marketing for General Foods for years until he left to pursue writing and poetry full-time. He published poetry collections while he was working at General Foods. But he did the conventional thing, what we would expect so as to keep our stereotype of the poet – he left business.

There are people in business who write and read poetry. I know some of them. They are not frustrated or misplaced poets; they are business people who enjoy poetry. Gioia’s suggestion that the notion of business and poetry are perceived as separate worlds, isolated from each other, is a consideration here, but the isolation is more from the perspective of the poet than the business person.

Most books on poetry and business – I’m thinking of The Heart Aroused by David Whyte and What Poetry Brings to Business by Clare Morgan – cite this distinction between poetry and business. They are separate, isolated worlds, joined only when a consultant (poet or academic) can bring some ready-made lessons to the workplace. This is the perspective of distinction – poetry as “the other” – something alien in the business environment. (Think of a seminar by Jack Welch for poets and college English professors on “What Six Sigma Can Teach Poets” and you get the idea.)

My own experience suggests this distinction is not only unnecessary; it is also potentially harmful for mutual understanding and appreciation. In my 40+ years (more or less) in business, I’ve seen too much of the poetic in it to view poetry as something alien.

What is particularly valuable about Gioa’s essay is how “known” poetry actually is to business. In his other well-known essay Can Poetry Matter, discussed here last week, Gioia points out that there was once a broad reading public for poetry, serious readers who read fiction, poetry and criticism, and that serious reading public included people in business. I once was a speechwriter for a CEO who read John Updike and Charles Dickens, and openly talked about it in his conversations and speeches.

Poetry is in business, like poetry is in all occupations. It may not be obvious, but it’s there, waiting to be recognized.

Photograph by BaileyMary. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Glynn Young, author of the novels Dancing Priest and the recently released A Light Shining.


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