Poetry at Work cover

Readers of this blog know I’ve written on the subject of poetry and business life on a number of occasions. (You can find examples here and here.)

So it will come as no surprise when you learn I’ve written a Foreword to a new book called Poetry at Work: (Masters in Fine Living Series) by Glynn Young, himself a poet who has worked for many years in the world of business.

You should definitely buy the book — for yourself and for your colleagues, which you can do by clicking on this link: Poetry at Work: (Masters in Fine Living Series). Here is my Foreword:

On the one-year anniversary of 9/11, we held a vigil or memorial service in the office where I worked. We thought it best to set aside time to reflect, remember, and reconnect with each other.

Gathering in the conference room, we shared our thoughts, memories, and connections, our stories, prayers, and poems.

I read W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” and we followed it with a moment of silence. Others shared poems, told of where they were when they heard the news, someone sang a hymn, I believe; most of us cried.

It was the most powerful staff meeting I’d ever attended.

Later that day, I circulated Auden’s poem by email to my colleagues at work and to a larger poetry email list I maintain for National Poetry Month.

The poem, Auden’s reaction to the Nazi invasion of Poland, seemed an appropriate response to the shock we all still felt about the attack on the World Trade towers, and the massive loss of life such as we hadn’t experienced on our soils since the Civil War.

Auden, writing not far from lower Manhattan, begins the poem,

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

This poem was widely circulated in the aftermath of 9/11, as if the poem struck a collective chord both emotional and visceral. Great poetry is timeless.

Back in the mid-to-late 90s, I delivered a series of talks about poetry and business life to groups of corporate leaders, Rotary clubs, and small business associations. I read poems — not my own — about how it felt to fire someone, what it was like for a woman in corporate America, and why it’s so hard to let go when you retire.

I loved the reactions of the businessmen in the room, especially the older men who had experienced a lot of the feelings described.

Invariably, most nodded along with something that hit home; many looked skyward and blinked back tears. Poetry moved them to tears.

Poetry at work is no longer an anomaly. David Whyte, Clare Morgan, James Autry, and others helped make it acceptable. So, too, did many individual leaders and managers who were open to letting poetry into their companies, offices, and discourse.

In Poetry at Work, Glynn Young argues for the poetry of work — at work, in work, and in the workplace. He finds it in the big things, such as the crisis to which he helped respond as a speechwriter for a chemical company, and in the small, everyday interactions we all experience at the office.

Long ago I received a bit of advice from an older poet who told me to go out and get a real job and write about real life. It was sage counsel and I am the better for it. I have no regrets about being a working poet rather than an academic.

I have spent my entire working life as a poet. Indeed, I was a poet even before I had my first job.

The closest I ever came to having a traditional “poetry job” was when I worked on the editorial staff at Viking Press — that and one lecture on the process of revision given at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

I have always tried to bring my poetry to my work life and to let my work life influence my poetry. The work that lent itself best to my poetry was the 15 years I spent with The Nature Conservancy, in part because much of my poetry is focused on the natural world and our species’ relationship with it.

The Conservancy offered me opportunities for first-hand field observations, unparalleled access to the scientific knowledge of some of the world’s foremost biologists, and travel to many of the Earth’s last great and most spectacular places.

My time with the Conservancy provided a beautiful symbiosis between my work and my poetry. I have not since been able to reclaim that symbiosis, yet my work life still informs my poetry in other ways.

I may not find direct, poetic inspiration from my day job now, but it affects the way I work on my poetry. Rather than writing late at night after being out in the field, I now find odd, furtive moments: walking to or from the office between meetings, on my subway commute, and while waiting for elevators.

Occasionally, I’ll be struck by some phrase or sentence heard on a conference call and I’ll worry it until finding its marrow or proving it useless. Part of it might resurface while I’m driving between cities or on an airplane or it may be lost forever.

I had a meeting a little over a year ago with a European colleague at the Grand Hyatt in New York. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance from outside the firm for which we both work.

As we met and ascended the stairs to the Lounge at New York Central, I was reminded of a poem I wrote in that bar many years ago, while working for an international publishing agency.

“Drink Meeting at the Grand Hyatt Sun Garden” wasn’t a very good poem, I think, but it well illustrated my discomfort at the time, as an artist in a business setting.

The name of the bar has changed, as has my comfort level with business life over the years. Here is “Drink Meeting at the Grand Hyatt Sun Garden”:


Jazz standards fill the atrium,

black and white and one uniform shade of gray

—is this a Woody Allen film?

I’m waiting for Soandso on business,

not my business,

but the people I work for, theirs—

Any moment Woody will walk in

with Mia Farrow or Somebody,

an entourage, paparazzi.

He’ll head straight for my table,

and shake my hand;

the press will want to know

who I am, and I’ll no longer

be “a minor poet, not very conspicuous.”

I fight the urge to bolt

out of the Sun Garden bar

and find some dark, unmonikered pub,

like those my father frequented.

I realize the discomfort he must have felt

when he’d visit the clean, well-lighted

establishments of Tokyo, or LA, or Miami

on business, not his

but the people he worked for, theirs—

This is not my world:

a foreign post for a poet

and accidental businessman.

I suspect they’d throw me out

if not for my Brooks Brothers suit

and American Express card, not mine

but the people I work for, theirs—

Soandso is late, or lost,

or has forgotten…no,

it turns out she’s been waiting

in the lobby, fifteen minutes, twenty,

only just now thought

to check the bar—“Silly me…”

No Woody, no Mia, no Diane Keaton.

(But wait, isn’t that Mr. Shawn by the piano?

And isn’t that Donald Trump on the divan?)

Just a meeting, information shared—

perhaps, one day, we could be friends—

business transacted,

not my business,

but what has become mine—

I light a cigarette after Soandso has gone.

“Are you finished with this one, sir?”

I order another drink

and finish my poem. This

is my business.

The world is my office.


I try to bring poetry to my work life as much as possible, whether I’m giving a speech or presentation, leading trainings or writing copy for an annual report or business plan.

It’s not always easy to bring poetry to work, but as my friend the management consultant Cam Danielson says, poetry adds a dimension to me that others don’t have — a way of paying attention to and perceiving the world that perhaps challenges or even changes the worldview of others.

In the end, we don’t give ourselves enough time for poetry — at work or at home. If we did, our business life might be less stressful and more satisfying. We might find our work more rewarding. We might, as Young suggests in his book, find the poetry at work.

–Scott Edward Anderson

Years ago I developed a talk called “Poetry & Business Life,” which I delivered to Rotary Clubs and other gatherings of business people.  I thought of it today after this exchange on Twitter:

poetry & heart & soul RT @greenskeptic: @slboval @GarrettMelby @jerrycolonna Business needs more poetry!

I began my talk, which is unfortunately too long to publish here, with an often quoted line by William Carlos Williams (the Doctor-poet):

“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

The real news in my talk was about the importance of allowing poetry into our lives as business people — and yes, of opening our hearts and souls, too.

I also talked about how many poets take up other professions.  Many are teachers, of course, but I was thinking about other professions: doctors, insurance salesman, vps of marketing, copywriters for ad agencies, bankers and publishers, to name a few famous examples.

It’s a product of our age that, with very few exceptions, poets can’t make a living from their craft. As poet Robert Graves said, “There is no money in poetry, but then/ there is no poetry in money either.”

Some, like Wallace Stevens, keep their poetry and business lives completely separate.  But increasingly, as I wrote in my talk,  “more and more poets are coming out of the board room and are more open about their corporate lives in their writing.”

I went on to observe

This is a good thing, both for poetry and for business.  We need a greater understanding of the emotional ties and the spiritual side of the work we do.  So much of our lives are spent among this certain group of people, who are not our family and not always our friends, but who nevertheless represent important relationships.

Together, we are a corpus, an enterprise of humanity, and there is much to be learned from our interactions.

Poetry can be a means to tap into the stories we share; for poetry, with its economical use of language, connects us with our compassionate selves as managers and as business people.  Poetry can teach us how to find the balance within life and work, rather than between life and work.

We need poetry for exactly what can be found there and what it can bring to our lives in the office.

David Whyte, in his book The Heart Aroused, describes the need for poetry in what he calls “the fight to save the soul of corporate America.”  Business people who bring poetry into their business lives and poets who bring their business lives into their poems are also saving poetry by making it more relevant to people’s lives.

This can only be a good thing for the future of poetry in America—and for business.

Enhanced by Zemanta