A secretary at work once stopped me outside my office. “People are worried about you, ” she said.
“Me?” I asked. “Why?”
“You’re walking the hallways, mumbling to yourself. People are noticing.”
I stared for a moment, and then I understood.
“I’m writing a speech, ” I said. “It’s a restless activity for me. I have to walk and mouth the words as I go. I have to hear them. The words have to sound right.”
She nodded, relieved, if still a little worried.
I was amused, and then I wondered, do people think I’m weird?
In a word, yes.
You can always recognize the poet at work.
Few of them actually wander the hallways, mumbling to themselves. Poets aren’t quite that odd. Usually.
But you can tell who they are, even if they don’t write or read poetry.
At meetings, for example, poets speak aloud what everyone else is thinking. “There’s a dead skunk in the middle of the table, ” they say, “and we’re avoiding it. But it’s still there, and it smells.”
Or someone has neglected to do something the rest of the team is depending upon to do their own work. People look embarrassed, too embarrassed to say anything. The guilty party brazens it out in silence.
The poet at the table looks around at everyone else and finally says, “Why didn’t you do your assignment?”
Or you’re interviewing candidates for a job using the same questions (supplied by Human Resources to keep the playing field level) with each one. The poet among them says, “I’m familiar with the behavioral question interview. Can’t we just talk about what’s important and what you need in the job?”
The poets at work make the uncomfortable observations, point out the embarrassingly obvious, cut through the thicket of workplace jargon to get straight to the point, and ask “why” about the more ridiculous aspects of the organization’s culture. They may never write or read a line of poetry, but they behave just like the people who do.
At best, they get classified in management reviews as “conscientious objectors.” At worst, they get saddled with the most dreaded characterization of the 21st century: “not a team player.” They rarely make it to senior management ranks; the culture recognizes a poet and responds like white blood cells fighting an infection.
Years ago, a story was told about a brilliant researcher who made it into senior management ranks. His brilliance included challenging the status quo in unorthodox ways. His executive office didn’t have a desk; he said he thought better while sitting in bed, a big four-poster bed right in the middle of the room. And he’d make surprise visits into the research labs, which he believed were too quiet. He’d bring a trumpet, and play it.
This was corporate America in the 1970s. He didn’t last long. No word on what happened to the bed.
Beds and trumpets aside, organizations need their poets. Not to keep people entertained or aggravated, but to do those things poets do best – stating the obvious, challenging the conventions, and keeping the organization from committing a kind of gradual suicide.
It’s right there on the table,
a piece of skunky road kill,
and we go to great lengths
not to talk about it,
not to acknowledge it,
to act in spite of it,
to plan and decide
pretending it’s not there.
But it is, isn’t it, safely
ignored until the poet
wanders in, mumbling.
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- Poets and Poems: John Balaban and “Empires” - September 8, 2020