It was 1996. I was in a bookstore, likely the Barnes & Noble not far from my house. I spotted a small book with an unexpected title: The Heart Aroused : Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. The author, David Whyte, was a poet. His book wasn’t about how poetry might apply in the workplace, but how critically important poetry was if corporate America was to flourish and succeed.
I bought the book. I read it cover to cover. Three times. No book has had as profound an impact on me and how I understand the workplace as The Heart Aroused. “The poet needs the practicalities of making a living to test and temper the lyricism of insight and observation, ” Whyte said. “The corporation needs the poet’s insight and powers of attention in order to weave the inner world of soul and creativity with the outer world of form and matter.”
I had been a CEO’s speechwriter. I had been reading poetry for more than 15 years to become a better speechwriter. I was also caught up in the transformation of the workplace by the electronic communications revolution and a huge influx of new thinking about corporations, their organizational structures, and whether they would function best as machines or networks.
It was the first rush of the email avalanche and the advent of the web site. It was also a time of staff functions being turned upside down in the name of rationality and efficiency, while candy was being distributed at meetings and spirit teams went around headquarters singing to people. Senior executives were spinning off businesses and following the instructions of consultants in meetings – by playing with Legos to release their inner child.
There were not two sides of the same coin. They were completely different coins, existing simultaneously, representing radically polarized visions of the future. Neither was sustainable.
“Our lack of soul is our refusal to open to a full experience in the world, ” Whyte said. “Work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us, yet exhausts the narrow parts of us we do bring to its door.” In the book, Whyte used Beowulf; poems by Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, and T.S. Eliot; the Irish folk tale of “Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge;” and the poetry of Coleridge to make his points about the individual soul in corporate America, the soul being “the indefinable essence of a person’s spirit and being.”
And it is in the soul – that place in the depths of our existence – where storms often rage and chaos is more the norm than the exception. We don’t just bring our skills, talents, experience and physical bodies to the workplace; we also bring our souls, as much as our systems management tries to deny and fight it.
Poetry, and The Heart Aroused, helped me make sense of what was happening. The result was not a “happy medium” and compromise at the middle. Instead, I ended up rejecting both, seeing them for the shams they were, these extremes of institutionalized hippiedom and the killing machine of rationalized efficiency. Instead, I found both understanding of what was happening and, eventually, a path forward for myself.
From Whyte’s “The Soul Lives Contended, ” published in Fire in the Earth (1992):
The soul lives contended
if it wants to change
into the beauty of
it tries to speak.
you will not sing,
afraid as you are
of who might join with you.
The voice hesitant,
and her hand trembling
in the dark for yours.
She touches your face
and says your name
in the same moment.
The one you refused to say,
over and over,
the one you refused to say.
In addition to The Heart Aroused, Whyte has published some seven books of poetry and two additional non-fiction works – Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (2001) and The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. And he’s still hard at work helping corporations understand the importance of poetry in the workplace.
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