Exposing business to the power of poetry


Poet'Most organisations understand that they have to subvert their own received reality." Poet David Whyte is explaining why corporations such as American Express, Boeing and Toyota call him in to talk the language of poetry, mythology and, indeed, autobiography.David Whyte believes poetry releases the creativity, insight, courage andimagination needed to survive in modern business. PadraigO'Morain reports

This is the language he speaks at seminars such as the one he will be holding at the National College of Ireland, on May 31st.

"The language we have in the corporate world is not large enough for the territories we have entered," is how one US executive explained Whyte's appeal to him. What does this Yorkshireman, whose mother was from Waterford, do that entrances hard-bitten business people?

If you listen to one of his CDs, such as Thresholds, you find that Whyte tells stories about Ireland, Yorkshire and his life, recites poetry ("I have a lot of Irish poetry memorised - Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney, Mahon") and talks about realms of imagination and creativity not often mentioned in the average place of business.

This is hardly the sort of thing you expect corporations such as Deloitte & Touche, Shell and the Mayo Clinic to queue up to hear. Moreover, Whyte's message is that going to work is simply not the be-all and end-all of our lives. There is part of us that couldn't care less about work, he tells his high-powered listeners.

Yet that is the part where our creativity and integrity reside. It is the part that can see relationships differently, that knows when something going on is wrong.

Organisations which fail to recognise this lose out on that creativity. The creative potential is lost when employees feel that they are powerless and do not belong. The organisation, says Whyte, becomes an empty shell which is passed from one generation of workers to another.

But the more perceptive organisations realise that they need that creativity if they are to survive and prosper in an ever-changing world. A corporation staffed by robots may be heading for the scrap heap.

Poetry is the way into the imaginative power locked up in people, says Whyte.

"Good poetry can provide explosive insight, grant needed courage and stir the dormant imagination of individuals and organisations alike," he says.

His appeal may also be due to his ability to express how people in the world of work actually feel. He grew up among the hills and valleys of Yorkshire, lived for years in the Galapagos (he has a degree in marine zoology) and now lives in the city of Langley (permanent population: 1,095) on an island in the Pacific, northwest of the US, and writes poetry every day.

Yet he seems to have a keen insight into what is going on in the hearts and minds of people who get suited up to go to work in offices every day.

Take this extract from his 2001 book, Crossing the Unknown Sea - Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity:

"Speed in work has compensations. Speed gets noticed. Speed is praised by others. Speed is self-important. Speed absolves us The great tragedy of speed as an answer to the complexities and responsibilities of existence is that very soon we cannot recognise anything or anyone who is not travelling at the same velocity as we are We start to lose sight of any colleagues who are moving at a slower pace, and we start to lose sight of the bigger, slower cycles that underlie our work On the personal side, as slaves to speed, we start to lose sight of family members, especially children, or those who are ill or infirm, who are not flying through the world as quickly and determinedly as we are."

He believes managers, as we now understand them, will disappear from the corporate world and be replaced by leaders.

These leaders will reflect "an image of leadership which embraces the attentive, open-minded conversationally based, people-minded person who has not given up on her intellect and can still act and act quickly when needed."

David Whyte's seminar on May 31st is organised by Cathedral Books in association with Dublin Docklands Development Authority. His theme is Thresholds - Navigating the Difficult Transitions of Life. Those interested in attending should contact Aedeen Tarbett at 01-8745284. The fee is €295. Not bad for a poet.