I generally had fine English teachers in high school and college, teachers who emphasized poetry as much as they did other literary forms. From The Iliad through Beowulf and Chaucer, and then on to Romantics, Victorians and Moderns, I likely read as much poetry as I did anything else.
And then, for close to a decade, I read little if any, focusing on career, family, “getting established” and reading fiction when I could find time.
That changed when I became part of a company’s speechwriting team. No one else on the team read poetry (all history majors), but a friend kept pressing on me the need to read poetry if I was really serious about being a speechwriter. He gave me copies of the collected poems of three great modernist poets – T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens. It didn’t take much convincing; I could easily see that poetry and speeches – truly fine speeches – have much in common, in terms of form, flow, cadence, voice, rhythm and how they sound to the ear. Differences exist, to be sure, but there is much I could learn, and did learn, about speechwriting from poetry.
I was familiar with Eliot and Thomas from my formal education years. Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955) was something of a revelation. A businessman, with the heart of a poet. A corporate attorney. And one who turned down academic offers from Ivy League universities to stay with the Hartford Insurance Company.
While he likely stayed in business for financial reasons, I’m confident Stevens also found inspiration in his corporate work. If you’re not familiar with corporate life, you might be surprised it’s not the gray monolith many think it is. It’s full of drama and human conflict, success and failure, victory and defeat, blood and sweat and even tears. Few grand corporate plans turn out as intended. Desires for control and order can never really be satisified, but that doesn’t keep us from trying.
Plans go awry. Events, trends and people are misjudged. Mistakes are made. Success can often be the result of serendipity as it is the purposeful, determined execution of programs.
This is the stuff of poetry. I understand Wallace Stevens. He may not have written poems about corporations and the insurance business but in a sense he really did.
Poets in business hear things others can miss. Every workplace conversation has an interior and overt stream, and it’s usually the poet who hears the interior dialogues before others do, because those interior dialogues are shaped by words and phrases originating in hopes, dreams and fears.
Every workplace conflict is rooted in basic human needs and emotions, and it is usually the poet who sees what is actually occurring below the surface. Every corporate plan has a narrative that shapes it and directs it. You can tell the difference – easily – between a vision statement written by a poet and one written by someone else.
The poet of the workplace submits his or her work to others to read, act upon, or promote, and the words are often repeated, recited and referred to by thousands of people.
The poet of the workplace, like most writers, works best in solitude. And in that solitude the poet internalizes the culture, digests it, reconstitutes it, reshapes it, and then releases it.
The poets of the workplace, like poets in general, do not have an easy time of it, generally are considered outsiders or not quite “team players.” But they are vitally necessary to the functioning of the workplace, and it is the only work life they know.
Another Weeping Woman
By Wallace Stevens
Pour the unhappiness out
From your too bitter heart,
Which grieving will not sweeten.
Poison grows in this dark.
It is in the water of tears
Its black blooms rise.
The magnificent cause of being,
The imagination, the one reality
In this imagined world
With him for whom no phantasy moves,
And you are pierced by a death.
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