Poetry and the Business Life
PublishedJune 10, 2012 CategoryArts Social Action

Poetry and the Business Life

‘The Poetry of Business Life’, I wrote in the preface to my 1994 anthology , is more than a title. It is an assertion and a challenge. ‘The Poetry of Love’ would have no such implication, since Love is fully legitimate territory for poets. Pets and Politics also qualify. So what was so different about Business?

In a few short subsequent years, poets have been pushing through the breached ramparts of the work place and the office into this wider world. So it is a good time to look again at the ideas set out in the anthology’s introduction which were part-prologue and part-stimulant to these happy events.

The Western Myth of Managerial Man (and Woman) is one of the dominant myths of our Age – testimony to the pervasiveness and power of Business. For most of the 20th century it emphasized those human attributes thought relevant to executive success, especially competitive ambition and financial numeracy; and groomed many generations, through business schools and corporate institutions, in the techniques and attitudes considered appropriate to this calling.

Some other important and, arguably, more basic human yearnings – emotional needs and wider family, social and intellectual aspirations and relationships – were long thought irrelevant and even dangerous to this corporate model. The tensions between the corporate and the fuller life began to provoke new questions in a renascent business literature.

From the unease of many individuals involved in business, the agenda widened to embrace the deeper needs of corporations themselves and their increasing influence on society. It was not an accident that the language of poetry was eventually invoked to help the change.

The conventional language of business itself, as Roy Doughty accurately observed, is predominantly a language of information – accounting, policy manuals, financial reports – aimed at “de-lineating, defining, separating” for the purposes of measurement and control. It is a technical language, honed to its specific purpose, but constrained in wider, more complex applications.

By contrast, Doughty continues, “The language of poetry is the language of evocation, and it is this language which best speaks about relationships. Poetry is just as precise and effective in the realms of relationships as the language of accounting is in the realm of finance.” Business people were in need of this language because the world of commerce, no less than the worlds of ecology and spirit, is a nest of inter-relatedness.

Development of a richer language in the business world also required, I argued, the rescue of the word “business” from the narrowing constraints being put on its meaning and application. For what is business anyway? It’s a good Old English word (bisignis: busy-ness) that has been progressively wrenched away from its core meanings – task, work, occupation, profession, trade – toward an even more
narrow concept of dealing, buying, selling; and, more recently, the thin financial and accounting veneer of business activities. We need “business” back for that richer diversity of activities by which we all barter our work and skills for our pittances. Tycoons and Top People are not the only ones in “business” even though, in the age of the image-makers and the business pages, they have become obtrusively dominant.

“Business,” in this broader sense, and its poetry, pre-dates by many centuries the Corporation, Henry Ford and even the East India Company. Sa’adi, the Persian poet, died in 1291 but bequeathed to all businessmen to come the aggrieved epitaph:

The luck of wealth dependeth not on skill,
But only on the aid of Heaven’s will.
So it has happened since the world began –
The witless ape outstrips the learned man.

Women aspirants for business had a poetic champion in Agathias, many centuries before the Equal Opportunities Commissions. Martial, a Latin-speaking emigrant from Spain to Rome in 64 A.D., explained the banker’s winning psychology long ago:

Tis hard refusing when you’re asked to lend;
But to refuse before you’re asked displays
Inventive genius worthy of the bays.

Money, wealth, escape from poverty – arch motivators of business enterprise – are recurring themes in poetic literature from the Nineteen Ancient Chinese Poems of 300 B.C.; and stimulated their greatest epic drama in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.

Poets were prominently there, too, when the industrial revolution, starting about 1760 in England, spread the technologies of machine and production engineering around the world and shaped “business” and the “corporation” toward their now familiar forms. One such poet, Edward Young (1683-1765), even lays claim to be father of business verse:

Thee, Trade! I first – who boast no store,
Who owe thee nought – thus snatch from shore,
The shore of Prose, where thou has slumbered long;

Is ‘merchant’ an inglorious name?
No; fit for Pindar such a theme; . . .

Young is (happily) better remembered for the message on many an office wall – Procrastination is the thief of time!

So the more modern and contemporary poets who dominated my anthology inherited a poetic language which, even in the subject matter of business, has a long and rich tradition. The “globality” which many now claim for business is an infant compared to the “global” reach of poetry.

In more recent times, it was again a poet who drew attention to another distinction – central to current discussion of business life – between the archetypal “businessman” of literature (entrepreneur, free-actor, risk-taker) and the unromantic “professional corporate manager.” It was W.H. Auden in The Managers.

In the bad old days it was not so bad.
The top of the ladder
Was an amusing place to sit: success
Meant quite a lot – leisure
And huge meals, more palaces filled with more
Objects, books, girls, horses
Than one would ever get round to . . .

The last word on how we may live or die
Rests today with such quiet
Men, working too hard in rooms that are too big,
Reducing to figures
What is the matter, what is to be done . . .

Most professional managers are now “businessmen” only in the broadest, colloquial sense of the word. Even with the occasional share option, and however senior, most are the hired craftsmen and journeymen of business, not the assumed plutocratic “owners” with whom society often identifies them; though Charles Handy’s multi-careered ‘portfolio man’ and the independent ‘home worker’ of the internet age may give a further boost to non-conformity.

Auden, with no evident life connection with “business,” joined other “outsider” poets in the anthology – Ogden Nash, G.K. Chesterton, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin and others – who have pungently commented on it from a distance.

Since “business” has now absorbed or replaced so many other occupations which once supported a living, it would be a devastating blow to poetry itself if the poets found neither place nor inspiration in it. Many of our most prominent twentieth century poets have worked in business with no apparent fatal damage to their muse, even where they have ignored it as a topic.

As Dana Gioia (one of the finest of contemporary American poets and a late marketing vice president of General Foods) has reminded us, this group includes T.S. Eliot, A.R. Ammons, Wallace Stevens, James Dickey. To which I would add Walter de la Mare, Roy Fuller and many others. Even with these poets of genius, however, who made little direct allusion to their business lives, imagery from that life often breaks through. I see some of it in T.S. Eliot (the “Unreal City” of The Waste Land) and, in lesser moments, it bubbles out:

I shall not want Capital in Heaven,
For I shall meet Sir Alfred Mond.
We two shall live together, lapt
In a five per cent Exchequer Bond.

In ‘The Poetry of Business Life’, however, we focused mainly on “Business Poets” in both senses of the phrase: those who work, or have worked, in “business” and have also chosen to write about it. This draws on a rich mixture of “professional” poets – who have published works, and are easily accessible; and newer, sometimes “unpublished” writers. Among the latter, I found a refreshing incidence of women.

Among the well-known “professional” poets, both Gavin Ewart and Peter Porter have seen business through the prism of the advertising agency where, presumably, the “creative” facility with words has some direct business utility.

Michael Ivens has had and retained a wider business interest, to match his poetic one, and his Jenkins Is A-Weeping has the immediate, authentic stamp of someone who has been there:

Unaccustomed as he was
To public speaking, laughing, crying, dancing,
Singing, or other extravaganzas
Better left undone, or second best,
Released in the private bar or in the home,
He found that,
“Retirement is a bit of a shock,
I’m going to miss all my colleagues and friends,
And thank you so much for this wonderful clock
And . . .”
Heard a curious song
And stopped.

No one has articulated the dilemmas of the contemporary manager-poet better than Dana Gioia . His pieces, reproduced in the anthology from The Gods of Winter and Daily Horoscope, are rare direct comments on his business life within the totality of those collections. My dialogue with Dana Gioia, on poetry and business, was a major stimulus to the anthology project.

One of the most committed and highly influential “poetry-in-business” voices is that of James Autry – until recently president of the Magazine Group of the Meredith Corporation in the United States. His book Love and Profit is – with its unique mixture of verse and prose – a cogent, but unsentimental, plea for the release of the emotions in the corporate workplace.

Less well known may be some of Autry’s earlier pieces (from Nights Under a Tin Roof and Life After Mississippi), but I find them unique in their biographical tracing of the business executive poet to the young Tennessee boy in a different time and place.

You are
in these hills
who you were and who you will become
and not just who you are
She was a McKinstry
and his mother was a Smith
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In other times and other places
there are new families and new names
He’s ex P and G
out of Benton and Bowles
and was brand management with Colgate
And listeners sip Dewar’s and soda or puff New True Lights
and know how people will do things
they are expected to do . . .

The combination of “successful property developer” and “prominent businessman” strains most conventional assumptions about “the poet.” Harry Newman Jr., chairman of a Long Beach, California, property company, is all three. Inside his collection, Behind Pinstripes, is evidence of a highly sensitive writer, with the courage to examine the complex costs of business success – for love, family, friends – as the downside of its exhilarations.

Cultivating a friend in business
Is tightrope walking in a gale

If you have something to gain
And use your friendship
As a moral lever
For achieving it,
You have placed a price tag
Of no value
On your relationship,
And in the process
Made you and it, not him
A whore

Inevitably I had to look to translation to discover how far these poetic business involvements are replicated elsewhere. They are – and I included some glimpses of how Finnish, German, Japanese and other poets have reacted to the same phenomenon.

In the lively and developing Poetry of Business Life it is the newer work and emerging talents which most excite. Touching only the fringe, I found evidence of many contemporary younger writers – men and women – producing energetic, marvelously diverse and assured work on many aspects of this life. They come to it with the poet’s idiosyncracies and lack of inhibition and hold their own with confident ease among their (currently) better known peers.

Function and status within the business organization seemed irrelevant to the poetic urge. Banker, engineer, computer technician, accountant, personnel executive, consultant, marketeer – all were included. Secretary, midrank executive and chairman rubbed shoulders. Some well-known business names, too, confessed to the writing of verse as a reflective companion to their careers.

I had offered the reader some rough ‘map references’ in the form of eight subject ‘Cantos’ recognizable in the familiar life of business (Money, Markets, Work, Power, Technology etc); but suggested they be discarded as readers grew more familiar with the book’s – and poetry’s – territory. For a good poem may hold a universe of meaning, and the better pieces I had chosen could leap easily across these arbitrary boundaries between one reading and another.

Even so, the spontaneous pressure of poets for inclusion spawned unexpected categories, most notably travel (‘Comings and Goings’). Travel proved, as in the wider corpus of poetry, to be a major preoccupation for contemporary business poets and, whether commuting or distant journey’s, symbolized transience and the way work extends its grip beyond the office door.

Charles Blackburn Owen said it well, compressing in this metaphor much of what recurs in the anthology:

Divided love, divided care,
Synthesised at half-past eight,
Urgency is down the stair,
Through the door and garden gate,
Platform One, time to spare
To corner, kill the rebel thought,
To love your neighbour, to compare
His shadow pale or long or short.
A half-way house to nowhere new,
A precognition of decay,
Before the hearse that bears us to
Another unheroic day.

The three-year process of compilation of ‘The Poetry of Business Life’ and subsequent research and analysis, suggest that re-connecting ‘business’ and ‘management’ to the mainstream of poetry and creativity does not require some great ‘post modernist’ leap. The need is for some diligent communication and critical scholarship of a kind sometimes lacking in the ‘management sciences’. As Ted Kooser, Vice President of the Lincoln Benefit Life Company, and himself a distinguished poet, wrote in the Conference Board Journal (USA):

‘I wish I could steal into corporate headquarters all across the country and replace every one of those pop-management books with collections like this one. It would greatly humanize American business. Poetry has a way of making life and work meaningful – something that the management ‘gurus’ have not yet stumbled upon.’

Kooser knows that the sense of ‘irony’, wholly missing from so much of the conventional business ‘literature’, is a vital ingredient of the poetic sense, the ‘ars poetica’.

That’s why I included Wendy Cope’s brilliant ‘Engineers’ Corner’ provoked by the Engineering Council’s advertisement in the Times, lamenting the absence of an ‘Engineers’ Corner’ in Westminster Abbey.

We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –
That’s why so many poets end up rich.
While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.
Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?

Whereas the person who can write a sonnet
Has got it made. It’s always been the way,
For everybody knows that we need poems
And everybody reads them every day . . . . . .

The poetry-in-business network has continued to expand internationally since the anthology appeared and a further edition is planned, alongside some overdue research into the syntax and characteristics of the poetic and business languages.

In moving forward we need to acknowledge Joseph Joubert’s wise reminder that ‘You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you’.

© Ralph Windle 2006