On the Poetry of the Workplace (A Guest Post by Glynn Young)

In April, I began exploring the reason for poetry. I’ve invited a few guests to enter the conversation in hopes that we might find a collective answer to the question, “why poetry?” (Read all “why poetry?” guest posts, here.) Today, I’ve asked Glynn Young to stop in and share his answer. Glynn is leading some wonderful conversations about poetry in the workplace at places like Tweetspeak Poetry, The High Calling, and his own blog. In addition, he's recently released Poetry at Work, a book well worth any working stiff's time. Without further adieu, please welcome Glynn Young.

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I was educated in public schools, and it was in public schools that I was first introduced to poetry. Elementary education was a basic overview of all subjects, with a focus on whatever subject or theme our teachers were interested in at the moment. Middle school and high school had a focus on fiction; since this was the South, the Really Deep South, William Faulkner reigned supreme even years after his death. So we studied fiction, with an occasional cursory nod in the direction of poetry and essays.

The seeds for my love of poetry were planted in high school; and the love of poetry began in a discovery that I loved British literature. William Shakespeare. Charles Dickens. Thomas Hardy. John Milton. George Eliot.

And then T.S. Eliot. T.S. Eliot was the key that unlocked the poetry door. I read “The Hollow Men,” and something changed forever.

We are the hollow men We are the stuffed men Leaning together Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!...

In college, I started in pre-med but abandoned it (too much chemistry) for journalism. And literature. I took the English classes the English majors took – two semesters of British literature, from Beowulf and Piers Plowman to (again) T.S. Eliot. Along the way, my classes had a significant immersion in the Romantics – Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron (I survived tests consisting of nothing more than single lines or fragments of lines of poems – and had to identify the poet and the poem) (consider going through 30 or 40 lines like that in under an hour) (#IHatedPoetry).

A few years later, I found myself working as a speechwriter. A friend suggested I read three poets for a broad understanding of how language--and spoken language--could really work. He recommended Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and no surprise, T.S. Eliot. I read the collected poems of all three. I became a serious speechwriter.

From that point on, poetry became a regular part of what I read. As a result, I wrote better speeches. My perspective changed. I began to look at problems differently. I often found myself running against the corporate herd (and trampled more than once). But that different perspective helped rescue two different companies, both of which believed they had hit a reputational dead end. Poetry shaped and framed that different perspective. [tweetherder]Poetry and faith together were that different perspective.[/tweetherder]

About three years ago, I was sitting in yet another recurring weekly meeting, listening to the recurring weekly conversation, my attention drifting to something more interesting, when I caught something unexpected. I was hearing something in the repetition and in the conversation. And what I was hearing was poetry. Not necessarily good poetry, but poetry nonetheless. I looked around to see if others had noticed, but they had the same weekly recurring faces.

I began to pay closer attention to all of the forms of corporate work life--the interview, the performance review, the PowerPoint presentation, the reorganization and downsizing, the vision statement, the cubicle and other work spaces, unemployment, and even retirement. Wherever I looked, I found poetry.

Some well known business writers, like David Whyte and Clare Morgan, have long advocated for what poetry can bring to business. I love their books, but they see poetry as something from the outside of work brought inside and applied. I was startled to realize that poetry didn’t have to be brought in from the outside; it was, and is, inherent in the work we do.

Poetry is already there. To realize it, to grasp it, is to understand something powerful about who we are and what we do with a considerable part of lives.

We don’t work. We write poetry.

Glynn Young is the author of two novels and the recently published non-fiction book Poetry at Work. He blogs at Faith, Fiction, Friends, and is an editor at Tweetspeak Poetry.

*photo by takomabibalot, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Tonia Peckover: Why Poetry?

In April, I began exploring the reason for poetry. I've invited a few guests to enter the conversation, to try and find the collective answer to the question, "why poetry?" (Read all "why poetry?" guest posts, here.) Today, I've asked Tonia Peckover to stop in and share her answer. Tonia has been writing a great deal of poetry at her place these days, and it is extraordinary. She is an amazing writer, a semi-vegetarian Oregonian, and an enthusiast of simple living. I hope you enjoy Tonia's words as much as I do. When you're finished reading, visit StudyInBrown for more of her poetry.

*****

Why poetry?

Because maybe it happens to you: the small shimmer that puzzles at the corner of your eye. Ordinary day, the playground with your kids, or about to pull open the door to your house, and there it is: just a glint where you don't expect it. Enough to make you turn your head and search the lonely swing set, or the driveway, the hump of shadows near the alley, for the barely seen glimmer of movement, never there.

Poetry is the camera for capturing that.

Or perhaps you have one of those dazzling hours when your mind has hold of some oblique thought, an elusive idea that all at once took shape like a wreath at the end of some old timer's pipe, and frantic, you take your pen and try to give it words, hope somehow your pen will carve the shape of epiphany, or genius, and find instead it has scrawled down the memory of a wreath, now an egg, now a horseshoe, now a curve, now... gone.

Poetry is the language for writing that.

Or maybe you've faced a length of days like a chain of unanswerable questions, each one linked to another, unbreakable mystery, each one waking in you a terrible hunger for certainty, a thirst to know, a driving need to apprehend and solve, to label and catalog, to categorize and conquer, file away forever the shadowed places that persist.

Poetry is the rest from that.

Why poetry?

I have stopped for a moment because there is a glimmer at the corner of my eye, something bright and careful, like the scales of a minnow who just caught a shaft of the sun and slipped over to dive down deep, bringing with him into darkness a minuscule treasure, the barest sliver of another world, a tiny relic, like a shard of gilded pottery dug from the mud, a memory from an ancient earth, just a shimmer or a smoke ring, a question, to tell them there have been others who dreamed and swam high.

Micha Boyett: On the mystery and the magic. (Or, why I believe poetry matters)

Today, I've asked Micha Boyett, talented author and award-winning mother (so her children say), to answer the question, "why poetry?" Micha (pronounced "MY-cah") is a grand writer whose new book Found: A Story Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer, explores how to live an monastic life within the hustle and bustle of our contemporary society. (Go pick up a copy.) Micha received her MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, where she studied poetry. In other words, when it comes to poetic license, this woman has some clout. Enjoy.

*****

I sit in the teacher’s chair before a carpet packed with five and six year olds, all sitting crisscross applesauce. They stare at me with expectation. I am August’s mom, the real-live-author, there to tell them about poetry.

“A poem is like a painting or a sculpture made out of words,” I say. “Have you ever had a big feeling and it made you want to cry really hard or hit something?” About eighteen hands shoot up at this question. (Me too, kids. Me too.) “Poetry takes a big feeling or a big idea and shows it in a small, careful way.”

“Sometimes I have big feelings.” (All the time. Big feelings are my best friends. For better or worse.) “And when I have them, the best thing I can do is put the feeling into words. I understand my feelings better after I write them into a poem.”

Five of the Kindergarteners are waving hands with vigor because they really need to tell me all about their big feelings and all the times they’ve hit their siblings. I nod my head with compassion and try to move on. “Poetry is like a painting because it says something big in a small space. Poetry shows us the world around us in new ways.”

I stare at my son who is beaming because his mom is sitting in the teacher’s chair. He is beaming because I am an expert in something, even though on the way to school he assured me that poetry is super boring.

“Yeah, buddy. Sometimes it’s boring for me too,” I said. “But sometimes it’s magic.” I’m sure he rolled his eyes in the back seat. But, right now, he’s bursting with pride in me.

It’s true, what I said to him in the car. I love poetry because of the magic. I love it because sometimes I need to be given new words and new images and new gentle rhythms. I need to be reminded of the beauty of this world, and poetry gives me a different vision. Poetry adjusts my lens, my paradigm. It helps me notice what is more real than the to-do lists and anxieties of my daily life.

The world is both exquisite and foul. It is both wonderful and tragic. And poems somehow give me the space to hold the weight of the bothness.

Poetry gives me the form to hold the wild sweetness of my son on that carpet in his Kindergarten classroom, gazing at me with pride and love. Poetry gives me the form to acknowledge that I can hold his innocent pride in me and still recognize the coming loss: that he will grow up, that this moment will pass, that he will mature and become a man. He loves me desperately in this bright moment but soon (so soon!) he will fall in love with another woman and make a life with her. He will have a job and responsibilities and he will have to remind himself to send me a happy birthday card. His blonde hair will go brownish and eventually grayish and I will die and (please God) he will bury me with tears.

I think this as I speak about poems to the twenty-one children in his classroom. Somehow, I hold the desperation of his sweet innocence, and the truth of his growing up. Somehow I feel it in a moment as I speak.

Poetry tells me there is room to hold the mystery of this. Poetry gives me a way to say it.

I speak to his class about William Blake who wrote words two hundred years ago. “Can you guys believe that he wrote a poem two hundred years ago, before we were alive, and we still read it, even though he’s not even alive anymore?”

They cannot fathom two hundred years. I cannot fathom it either. How do I dare to consider eternity?

We pass out copies of Blake’s “The Tyger,” which I have printed in large font next to a black and white image of the ferocious creature. We stop with each stanza so I can explain the big words. I define symmetry. “Hold out your arms and draw an invisible line down the middle of your body. Look how your arms are the same on each side!” We discuss the scary feeling of seeing a cat’s eyes in the dark and compare that to Blake’s description of the tiger’s fire eyes.

We wonder out loud about what it could mean for stars to shoot spears and weep. August and his friends are sure that “when the stars threw down their spears” it meant that a bad hunter was trying to kill to the tiger and the stars were protecting him. (These San Francisco boys have passionate feelings about caring for the animals.)

I listen and wonder with them. I want them to feel the mystery of this poem, of poetry in general. Because sometimes there aren’t answers. Surely Blake knew what he meant by the stars/spears image but, honestly, I’ve never been quite sure. And even though the language is high above these Kindergarten-sized brains, I know this to be true: Kids understand mystery and the otherness of the fierce creature in Blake’s poem. Kids may not know what a furnace is, but they know the creepiness of a brain fashioned inside glowing fire.

When we spread out through the room, back to seats and tables and crayons, the kids write their own poems in which, based on Kenneth Koch’s amazing prompt in his book Rose Where Did You Get That Red?, they are invited to ask questions of any kind of creature they want. I walk around the room helping the children sound out words.

One boy writes his poem to a megaladon. Another writes “Cretur! Cretur! Why are you so gloomee?”

About twelve different girls write their poems to unicorns. (How did these girls collectively zap each other’s brains with the shared unicorn idea? I’m amazed.) My son calls a cobra snake “wis” and “fritng” (wise and frightening). And each time I see them working to put pencil to paper, struggling to get the questions out of themselves and into the world, I feel the magic of poems.

All great art should say the big truths with economy and beauty. Every word of a poem should be necessary, just as every stroke of the paintbrush on canvas, or every cut of the clay in the sculptor’s hand should contribute to the story, the experience, the presence of the piece.

We need big feelings set in small spaces. Our world is too loud and too fast and, most likely, it will continue to speed up as these children grow. We need the quiet ferocity of poems, the room they give us to recognize the truth in the wild motion of our lives. Poems are like prayer in that way: an invitation to slow down.

Yes, poetry is sometimes boring. But, mostly, that’s because we are too frantic to trust the poems, to wait with them, to ask them questions. When we stop to listen to a poem speak, when we take the time to sit with their quiet mysteries, sometimes we are invited into the magic.

 *****

Micha (pronounced "MY-cah") Boyett is a writer, blogger, and sometimes poet.  A former youth minister, she's passionate about monasticism and ancient Christian spiritual practices and how they inform the contemporary life of faith. She recently released her first book Found: A Story Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer. Boyett and her husband live in San Francisco with their two boys. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at michaboyett.com

Micha Boyett

On Poetry, by Hilary Sherratt

It's National Poetry Month, and I've been setting out to discover why we read and write poetry. Today, I've asked Hilary Sherratt to answer the question "why poetry?" I first met Hilary by way of an email forwarded to me by her fiancé, Preston Yancey. “Read this poem,” it said. That was it. I read. I was hooked.

Hilary has a rare way with words. She has poems that make you say “whoa.” (So after her opening line, make sure you snigger extra loud.) After you read her piece, make sure you drop by her place.

*****

I'm not a poet, I'm the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I'm not a poet, I'm wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I'm not a poet, I'm a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I'm not a poet, I'm a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don't write poetry because I'm a poet.

There'd be no point to the words, then, they'd be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I'd say, "I'm a poet" and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I'd say, "I'm a poet" because I'd want you to think I'm a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

I'm not a poet.

I write because the words claw at my insides and there is nothing gentle or lamblike about the way they're born. I write poetry because words are violent against ribcages and there isn't a muscle in my body that can keep them. I write because the words are the tide's relentless turning, and on the days when I do not know where I begin or end I do know that when I hear something beautiful it should be written.

I'm not a poet, because if I tell you I'm a poet I'm not telling you why I write poetry. I'm just telling you that I wish you'd think me a poet.

I write it because the words must be. Because out of nothing we might spin the beautiful.

And because I hear the word midwinter and all I think is:

The lake is still, undisturbed as it must be, the justice of such faithful movement all summer - to hold only itself. And now my request. My hands blush in asking that it might carry me, too, I glare skyward. Is there anything to a body but gravity, the heaving pull of the heart? Is there anything to my hands but a prayer I only half believe? It is midwinter. Must the world still carry me?

On the Reason for Poetry (And the Analog Resistance)

April is National Poetry month. (Did you know there was such a thing?) To celebrate, I've asked some friends to join me in answering the question, "Why Poetry?" (Next week's piece, for instance, will be by the lovely and talented Hilary Sherratt). I hope you'll join us in the conversation. And if you say you aren't the "poetry type?" Give it a go this month. See how it feels.

*****

Aunt Mary died of eating twelve red peppers after a hard days work. The doctor said it was her high blood pressure finished her.

~John Ciardi

1.

I sat in the rustic pew on my front porch, a copy of Selected Poems:John Ciardi cracked to the poem "Aunt Mary." The pew was a reclaimed piece, salvaged by my mother from some going-out-of-church sale in northern Louisiana. I'd salvaged the verses from a local used bookstore in the Ozarks, reclaimed the piece and gave it a home between the works of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry.

It was a quiet evening, one in which the first warm winds of April were sweeping down the lane. The birds hopped from branch to branch, the joy of Spring in their songs. Squirrels chased each other through the muddy front yard, through the tender grass shooting from winter's dead zones. I pinched the pages between thumb and forefinger; there is nothing quite like the yellowing leaves of a good book of poetry, the rough-fibered, tactile, analog pages.

It could have been any poem, really. But it wasn't. It was this work, "Aunt Mary," about the writer's aunt who'd passed into the next world on the flames of twelve red peppers. Mary was a woman who "loved us till we screamed," who was in the family of the broken,

"in which one dies of twelve red peppers, one has too many children, one a boy friend, two are out of work, and one is yowling for one (offstage) to open the bathroom door."

There is a truth about family in the verse. I sense it, but it hides beneath the surface.

2.

It is April the 1st, and the dust has barely settled on last week's discussion regarding whether same-sex couples should or should not be employed by World Vision, a entity which, as best as I can tell, has a singular non-profit purposes--care for the impoverished. Just days ago, this was the issue du jour. World Vision's hiring policies were in question, and the debate took to the hallowed halls of the internet. We all gathered there, there, the family, some of us watching as others debated with humility, and still others--the championed prize-fighters in the room--slung wholesale accusations across the aisle. One side accused the other of being Un-orthodox (a idea without definition), and their equal opposites accused the more Orthodox of being unloving (an ideal without definition).

Nuance be damned.

I watched as one sat yowling for another (offstage) to open the bathroom door. The one behind the door yowled back.

3.

Why poetry? (And for today, let's relegate this question to "why read poetry?") This is the grand question.

Many have an affinity for poetry, though they'd likely not recognize it as such. In high school, did you roll the windows down, let the wind blow through your hair as you screamed every word to "Smells Like Teen Spirit?" Did you make mix-tapes for your boyfriend? Did you scrawl self-angsty lines in a fifty cent notebook? Perhaps you didn't, but I did (though you may substitute "Smells Like Teen Spirit," for "The Love of God," because I was a good Baptist boy).

In poetry, I've always found the artistic medium that gives the freedom to better understand the world. Good poetry conveys layers of meaning and nuance, unpacks truths in surprising and understated ways. Good poetry is like a diamond, its many facets drawing the reader into the mystery at its heart. It entices me, makes me dig into its language for meaning.

I am a word-miner, and poetry is the mineshaft. It's why I read. I hope to find the grand golden nugget one day. I know it's there somewhere.

4.

On April the 1st, I sat with the lines of John Ciardi, he mourning the loss of his utterly human aunt. I rubbed the pages between my fingers as I read the closing lines,

...At once I wept Aunt Mary with a real tear, forgiving all her love, and its stupidities, in the palm of God. Or on a ledge of time. Or in the eye of the blasting sun. Or tightroped on a theorem. --Let every man choose his own persuasion, I pray the tear she taught me of us all.

I wept Aunt Mary too, and all the very real lovers of this world and of God who are only doing the best they know how, who are only espousing their best understandings of mysteries.

There was no comment section at the bottom of the poem, no way to tweet the verse to the rest of God's green earth, or to spout an opinion about it. There was only me, the poem, the internal weeping, the birds, the squirrels, and the pew. There was only a prayer for all of us, the yowling children. There was only the understanding that we're all here together, reflections in this mirror dimly. There was the sense that unfolding the nuance of words can only be achieved by this sort of Analog Resistance.

This is why I read poetry. It is a sanctuary from the myriad cacophonous violences that occupy this mainframe world.