It’s Poetry at Work Day 2017.
And I have a confession.
This is now the fifth year that Tweetspeak Poetry has sponsored Poetry at Work Day. I’ve written about it and celebrated it. I even wrote a book called Poetry at Work.
My confession: Associating poetry with work still sounds strange to me.
The first connection between poetry and work was made for me. I was part of the speechwriting team at my company, and a friend gave me three poetry collections. “You can’t write speeches unless you know T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Wallace Stevens, ” he said. These three great modern poets helped shape not only poetry and literature but also speechwriting.
I knew that some speakers often quoted or recited poems in their speeches. But I didn’t yet know that poetry was actually in the work of writing a speech.
In 1994, I read David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. It seemed an odd book—a Welsh-born poet talking about saving one’s soul while working for a large corporation. I read it because the title appealed to me, and for another reason.
The corporate upheavals of the 1980s and early 1990s were ongoing. Many of us were trying to work through convulsions in work life that were essentially ending the old corporate paternalism and replacing it with something at best utilitarian and at worst cold, uncaring, and ruthless. It was a brave new world in corporate life, and Whyte had much to say about it. In 2001, he published Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, and that book set me firmly on the road toward understanding poetry at work.
A few years later, I was in one of those interminable meetings at work. They are perhaps the most common feature of corporate work life—recurring meetings designed to cover all bases (and cover other things as well), reach consensus, and make sure everyone was accountable for the final decision.
These meetings often made me want to scream. Their sheer repetitiveness was grounds for justifiable homicide.
I even remember the particular meeting room—an interior, windowless room with a screen at one end and enough chairs to accommodate 10 people. I would attend because I had to, but I grew adept, as did others, at appearing engaged but in reality being in another world altogether. For a brief moment, my mind wandered into the meeting, and I heard statements that were identical to what had been said the week before.
And that’s when it clicked, right in the middle of the ordinary, repetitive, numbing meeting. The meeting was like a poem filled with repetition, with words and phrases mentioned over and over, week after week. I was living a poem.
Right at that moment, the angle of the world shifted for me. And I saw exactly what Whyte had been talking about. Work, all work, including these awful and boring meetings, was filled with poetry. It was as if what had been white background noise suddenly burst into a wild and joyful symphony.
That is what Poetry at Work Day is about—finding and celebrating that wild and joyful symphony we call work. Here at Tweetspeak Poetry, we have a resource page, which includes posters you can download. We have a million suggestions, but none will be as good as your own when you consider the work you do, whatever it is and wherever you do it, and see and hear the poetry in it.
So look for it, find it, study it, and write about it. Write the poem that is in the work you do. And come back here and let us know in the comment section what you found. We’ll select one (or two) and give the selected poets a copy of Poetry at Work.
But, most of all, celebrate with us. Find the poetry in the work you do. It’s there.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish