Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Out of the Taxi and into the Office: Melissa Girard Reviews "What Poetry Brings To Business"

Melissa Girard—whose review of The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett continues to be one of the most regularly accessed postings in the P&PC archive—returns this week to assess Clare Morgan's 2010 curiosity What Poetry Brings to Business. Now on the English Department faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Girard (pictured here) specializes in modernist American poetry and regularly taught business and professional writing at the University of Illinois. That background—not to mention some first-hand experience working in the advertising industry—makes her our go-to consultant to tell us how much stock we should place in Morgan's study.

Writing about Wallace Stevens in the New York Review of Books in June 1964, Marianne Moore said, “He did not mix poetry with business.” Although Stevens (pictured here) worked for more than five decades at various law firms and insurance companies—notably, Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he spent nearly forty years—his thoughts and feelings about business never entered his poetry. As Moore recounts, “Phrases sometimes came to him on his way to the office in a taxi ... but you may be sure that ‘Frogs eat butterflies, snakes eat frogs’ was not written in the office.”

Dana Gioia, himself a former businessman and, from 2003 to 2009, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), wondered, if Stevens had written about business, what would he have said? In one of the more provocative essays in Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992), Gioia notes that Stevens’ silence on the topic, while perplexing, is hardly unusual. Countless modern poets have worked in all aspects of business over the last hundred and fifty years, and, yet, unlike novelists, who have left behind a rich, fictional record of modern office life, we have only a scattering of stanzas from poets. Modern American poets, Gioia points out, have written superbly about everything from bicycles and baseball cards to incest and pedophilia and, yet, somehow, “this same poetic tradition has never been able to look inside the walls of a corporate office and see with the same intensity what forty million Americans do during the working week.” Gioia concludes, “American poetry has defined business mainly by excluding it. Business does not exist in the world of poetry, and therefore by implication it has become everything that poetry is not—a world without imagination, enlightenment, or perception. It is the universe from which poetry is trying to escape” (114).

It has been nearly twenty years since Gioia challenged poets and poetry critics to follow him into the belly of the beast—to go where even our greatest modern poets could or would not take us. The recently published What Poetry Brings to Business (2010) by Clare Morgan with Kirsten Lange and Ted Buswick is one of the first, sustained critical attempts to answer Gioia’s call. Morgan and company have finally taken poetry out of the taxi and into the cubicle.

What Poetry Brings to Business is difficult to classify. Equal parts memoir, poetry textbook, and academic study, it is not a manuscript per se, but a manuscript-about-a-manuscript. Morgan, a literary critic, fiction writer, and director of the graduate creative writing program at the University of Oxford, cleverly frames the text around what is, undeniably, one hell of a story. Seemingly out of nowhere, Morgan was approached by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the world’s leading business consultancies, and asked to submit a proposal for a project exploring the relationship between poetry and strategic thinking. Specifically, Morgan was invited to contribute to The Strategy Institute, a kind of think tank within BCG devoted to enhancing executive thinking. They approached Morgan because they were concerned that business and management strategy were too often being reduced to a narrow, toolbox approach (“5 Steps to Enhance Your Creativity,” etc.) and thought that poetry might be able to offer a richer, more lasting means of transforming executives’ decision-making capacity.

What Poetry Brings to Business is not the book that Morgan was asked to write for BCG. If you’re like me, you’ll make this discovery slowly and with some disappointment. I still want to know exactly what Morgan would say to an audience of business executives in Tokyo. I want to see PowerPoint slides! What Poetry Brings to Business is not this. Instead, Morgan has written a book about the process of writing that BCG book. This is no management guide, but a book pitched to people exactly like me: poetry teachers, poetry critics, and poets who would like to follow Morgan as she begins to discover ways to begin this long overdue conversation. The chasm between business and poetry is so great, the book seems to suggest, that we need this preparatory exercise.

It is certainly true that Morgan, a creative writer and university professor, needed to be convinced that poetry has something to offer business. When initially approached by BCG, she asked,
How many people care about poetry anyway? Isn’t it an old-fashioned mode that deals in airy-fairy utterances? At the beginning of the twenty-first century, isn’t it pretty much an irrelevance unless you are an academic with a vested interest in what Eliot himself called ‘a periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion’? Periphrastic: who needs it? (12)
P&PC readers will undoubtedly cringe over such early passages where Morgan reveals her own outdated and outmoded perception of the genre. Equally cringe-worthy is her first stab at defining the relationship between poetry and business strategy. “There is a lot in common between a poem and a marketable product,” she writes,
Here is my output, the poet says. I would like to share it. Poets are interfacing with consumers in terms of reaching a readership. They have to intersect with the prevailing market forces via the publishing industry. They have to grapple with questions of utility, addressing the relationship of the work to the needs of contemporary moment. They have to establish a niche for a particular work through channels that will enable each individual voice, among many competing ones, to be heard. (11)
In my professional writing courses, we call prose like this “businessese,” a term that refers to the specific form of jargon and clich├ęs that infect the language of contemporary business. (“So, will poetry help me ‘think outside the box’?” I found myself asking, facetiously.)

However, after a relatively rocky beginning, What Poetry Brings to Business improves considerably. Each subsequent chapter follows Morgan on her “journey” as she discovers an array of skills and strengths that poetry has to offer. These insights unfold gradually, as Morgan conducts workshops and interviews with a variety of business and poetry professionals, including Gioia, and reads deeply in poetry, poetics, psychology, linguistics, and philosophy, all in search of “tangible” connections between the two enterprises. While we don’t get PowerPoint slides, the book does provide a very useful anthology of at least fifty poems that, Morgan argues, help hone strategic thinking, most of which will be familiar to readers and teachers of modern poetry (Robert Frost, W.B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, John Keats, Lewis Carroll, Billy Collins, William Stafford, Robert Hayden, along with some more surprising choices).

Morgan also provides transcripts of some of the conver- sations she has had with workshop participants over the years. This combination of poetic texts and critical responses creates a valuable pedagogical apparatus. Anyone who teaches introductory poetry courses or conducts poetry outreach will appreciate the veritable lesson plans that the book supplies. It is fascinating, for instance, to read the different ways that a lawyer, engineer, and BCG executive have responded to “The Road Not Taken,” and to then compare them to classroom experiences. (For what it’s worth, these executive-level responses were virtually identical to ones that I have encountered in undergraduate classrooms.)

Because of her focus on process, Morgan wholly avoids the kind of instrumentalization of poetry that one might fear finding in a business management guide. You will not learn the ways that poetry can improve your copy or report writing (“poetry has rhythm!”), nor will you find any epigrammatic wisdom (poetry has no “takeaways”). Instead, Morgan ultimately discovers that there has always been a deep and abiding connection between business strategy and the logic of poetry.

“Poems put down their roots in the no-man’s-land between thinking and feeling,” Morgan writes, “the borderland where logic shades into the non-logical, where a world defined and delineated by language gives way to the more diffuse territory of what psychologists sometimes call ‘the feeling state’” (55). This is the same strange land, she says, in which twenty-first-century business executives routinely find themselves, a world in which facts and data are never enough and there is rarely a right or a wrong answer. Reading, discussing, and thinking about poetry regularly, Morgan claims, can help business professionals become more comfortable with ambiguity, and, as a result, prepare them to be creative, ethical leaders.

All of Morgan’s insights about the strong interconnections between poetry and business seem completely accurate: that poetry sharpens our strategic-thinking skills, teaches us to be attentive to subtlety and nuance, and prepares us to navigate both linguistic and situational ambiguity. Indeed, what is surprising about What Poetry Brings to Business is not these findings, but the fact that we needed to find them in the first place. I came to What Poetry Brings to Business expecting to find an impassioned missive to the world of business, reminding executives of the myriad ways that poetry still matters. What I found, instead, was a creative writer and Oxford professor who seems herself to have forgotten. The business executives who populate this study are the ones who seem hungry for the new creative energy that poetry might bring to their professional and personal lives. It was BCG, after all, who initiated this new partnership with poetry. They seem more than willing to be convinced of its value. The question is whether the poets are finally ready.