I was working in communications for a Fortune 500 company. A large portion of the day-to-day work was meetings. We had a team-based culture, and to our work, our teams had to meet.
The teams, and the meetings, proliferated. We had departmental meetings. We had cross-functional meetings. We had committee and subcommittee meetings. We had telephone meetings, video meetings, and online chat session meetings. We had one-on-one meetings. We had staff meetings. We had briefing sessions, strategy discussions, and crisis planning meetings. We often had meetings to plan meeting agendas.
I often wondered if the curse placed upon Adam and his work for eating of the Tree of Knowledge possibly included meetings.
One day, sitting in yet another meeting, I heard what sounded like repetition. People around the table were having a discussion, and I realized I had heard the same discussion before, with the same arguments, the same supporting evidence, the same objections. I kept hearing the discussion as a refrain, or a chorus for a song or hymn.
Just like that, I walked into the poetry of the workplace. I didn’t even know poetry existed in the workplace, and yet there it was. How had I not seen this before, me, a speechwriter who often read poetry while writing a speech? That question surprised me as well, because it was clear that I had been unknowingly or unwittingly employing poetry to do my work. It wasn’t a work tool; it was the actual music that made the workplace work.
Another way to say it is, the workplace has a literary life.
I was in my 30s before I discovered the poetry in work, and in my 50s before I understood it. Others saw the poet in me long before I did; perhaps it was my habit of walking around, soundlessly mouthing words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, as I was writing speeches. Some executives did management by walking around; I did speechwriting by walking around. More than once I was stopped and asked if I was feeling okay.
Poets at work always tend to be oddities. They’re introverts in a business culture that worships teamwork. They point out the things that everyone sees but no one else will say. They can often be politically incorrect. They see the flaw, or flaws, in the grand project the entire organization has embraced as its reason for existence (at least the one for this week). When feeling charitable, colleagues think of poets as conscientious objectors. It’s better than the terrible and career-suffocating judgment of “not a team player.”
But the poets at work are also the ones who articulate the higher aspirations we have buried within us, who speak to the everyday but lift us to the heavens. They speak to the nobility of work, why it’s important, and why it is good. The workplace becomes dreary and gray without them.
Have you met the poet at work? He or she is there, even if they’re not particularly obvious; not all of them wander around mouthing words to themselves. They are usually the people who make you realize that what you do is worthwhile and that you yourself have intrinsic value because you were made that way.
It’s right there on the table,
a piece of skunky roadkill,
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,
and spots it.
From Poetry at Work: “The poetry of William Carlos Williams, for example, cannot really be separated from his work as a physician. I suspect that his work as a physician cannot be separated from his poetry, either. Both are faces of the same person, a whole person—a man who wrote poetry with a doctor’s eye and practiced medicine with the compassion of a poet.”
This article was prepared for the Literary Life group on Facebook.
Top photograph by Matthew LeJune via Unsplash. Used with permission.