Duff ’n Stuff ─ Who knew poetry can make corporate leaders better at their jobs?

Posted in Blogs, Literary

BY PATRICIA DUFF, Oct. 18, 2013

Poetry can make you better at business.

I did not know this, but it doesn’t surprise me.

I read an article recently that talked about how high-pressured business leaders, who need to deal with the chaos in their extremely dynamic environments, can improve their ability to better conceptualize the world ­— and communicate it through presentations or writing — by reading poetry. Reading and writing poetry can exercise one’s capacity to communicate more clearly to others.

Apparently, the creative capabilities spurred by poetry can help executives keep their organizations entrepreneurial, help them to glean imaginative solutions to problems, and to steer through problematic environments, when good ’ole, previously reliable data alone doesn’t help them.

I’m so happy to hear that there is this glimmer of light slipping under the doors of corporate conference rooms. I have so many ideas for suggested readings of poets! How could anyone possibly narrow the field, when there are so many good poems to read and so many corporate executives to help? (I love poetry. My favorite moment of every weekday is at 3 p.m. when Garrison Keillor chooses a poem to read for the Writers Almanac on NPR.)

Here’s one by Billy Collins that might be good for the harried executive:

I Ask You

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (1658–1660) (447x500)

There is poetry in Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” painted between 1658 and 1660.

It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside—
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.

No, it’s all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles—
each a different height—
are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt—
frog at the edge of a pond—
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.

How about this one by Walt Whitman for that old sexist male exec?

A Song of Joys

O ripen’d joy of womanhood! O happiness at last!
I am more than eighty years of age, I am the most venerable mother,
How clear is my mind – how all people draw nigh to me!
What attractions are these beyond any before? what bloom more
than the bloom of youth?
What beauty is this that descends upon me and rises out of me?

Necessary to any clattering board room of corporate chaos is certainly Naomi Shihab Nye, who calls herself the “wandering poet” and puts words together in a way like nobody else. Here’s her take on the most appealing kind of fame.

Lorinda's Hay Moon over Whidbey (500x381)

Lorinda Kay’s photograph of the “Hay Moon” over Whidbey Island in July 2013 is a kind of poetry itself.


The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.  

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.  

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.  

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.  

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.  

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back. 

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

High on my list of recommended reading for conflicted corporate leaders would be William Butler Yeats, whose poetry has often led me away from a certain chaos in my own mind to a place of light. It was Yeats who once remarked that ”poetry is born out of the quarrel with oneself.” I think he meant that writing poetry is one way to give yourself some clarity; to divine from your own mind what’s essential and important.

Here’s a Yeats poem that might remind executive leaders that some things are more important than business; that how you love will be remembered, rather than all those deals you cut. Life is short, corporate dude.

When You are Old

Pablo Picasso Old Guitarist (417x500)

Pablo Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” is a painting that, to me, is also poetry.

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

So, says the article, leaders and their colleagues might find themselves more hopeful and flush with purpose if they take some time to write and read poetry. They might even find their work infused with more surprise, meaning and beauty.

The thought of corporate America sitting quietly reading Yeats or Nye is utterly satisfying to me and gives me some sort of fresh hope.

From my most wishful heart,
Patricia Duff


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