AFG Venture Group Dispatches

Corporate advisory and consultancy in Australia, South East Asia and India.

Lindley Edwards’ article on the relevance of poetry to business published in the December 2017 edition of Boss Magazine

December 6th, 2017

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Poetry is as relevant to business as it is to life, with its power to help us accept challenges and come up with creative solutions.

I have long been a student of poetry, as I find it provides wisdom to live by, opens up possibilities and provides innovative ways of seeing as well as experiencing. As poetry is based on strong emotional and often visual imagery, it can talk directly to the heart of the matter at hand.

The best explanation I have found of
 why you would read poetry comes from The Grim Grotto, the 11th book in the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket:

“Reading poetry, even if you are only reading to find a secret message hidden within its words, can often give one a feeling of power, the way you can feel powerful if you are the only one who brought an umbrella on a rainy day,
or the only one who knows how to untie knots when you’re taken hostage. With each poem the children felt more and more powerful – or, as they might have said in their food code, more and more wasabi – and by the time the two volunteers were interrupted they felt as if the tables just might be continuing to turn.”

I was interested to learn that in ancient China, a person who wished to become educated first had to memorise a collection of poetry called the Book of Songs, which was one of the core Confucian texts. Memorising these poems gave people a shared foundational language to assess and discuss real-life events. More importantly, it gave people skills to rework and apply the passages they had memorised into events in their lives in innovative ways, as well as share with others. In the sharing, people were trained to sense how they could refine their responses to affect listeners better and communicate most effectively.

Poetry is as relevant to business as it is to the rest of our lives. Let me give you some examples of how we can apply poems in ways that help us understand, accept and deal with day-to-day business, work and life challenges.

WELL VERSED IN BANISHING DREAD

Poetry can help us when we are feeling anxious and wake up at 4am with fears, worries or feelings of dread.

We know that worry and stress have a negative impact on our abilities to lead and live well. Worry becomes a habit and research shows that continual stress harms our health. It does not help us find other solutions or innovate a response.

Enter Hafiz, a 14th-century Persian poet, with his brilliant poem Find A Better Job:

Now that
 all your worry
has proved such an
unlucrative business,
why not find a better job?

There is comfort that this poet, seven centuries ago, also felt worry and found that the solution was to find another job or way to deal with anxiety. This similar theme of waking up empty and frightened, which is a”’normal” human condition, is also something explored by Rumi, the 13th-century poet:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the

study
and begin reading. Take down a musical
instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss
the ground.

It is reassuring to know that Rumi also woke up empty and frightened even though he was a respected leader, teacher and scholar who also was the beneficiary of inherited wealth. We would not expect him to have much to be frightened about.

Today, Rumi’s poem is saying don’t wake up and immediately reach for your phone 
or tablet to check your emails; instead, it exhorts us to do the things that create beauty or harmony and connect us to something larger, more life-affirming.

DISCOVER DARK ENERGY

Poetry helps us when we reach the space where our vision, strategy and business model are not working, or feel outdated, and in need of a refresh. At these times, it is natural to question our leadership, skills and capabilities.

As David Whyte exhorts in his poem Sweet Darkness, when we reach this point it’s time to stop, accept the dark, and let go of everything that is too small for us and no longer fits.

When your eyes are tired

the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone

no part of the world can find you.
It’s time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes

to recognise its own.

There you can be sure

you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home tonight.
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.

The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds

except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the
sweet confinement of your aloneness

to learn that
 anything or anyone

that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.


This poem also confirms that no one has immunity from what life presents – difficulties – and that even when we have incredible success, we will have times when we are lost and confused.

In the darkness there are no false promises of a vision, we are at rock bottom. In the dark we need to learn to sit and ask ourselves “What is true?”

The concept of tired eyes being used as a marker of determining if your strategy and leadership need refreshment is a powerful one. It is powerful to understand that the way out is to face the issue, which may mean greater initial darkness, and to treat the darkness as your ally.

ODE TO OPENNESS

When we are locked in a confrontation with another person or group of people there
 is no movement, unless we can find new ground. Rumi again advises us:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and
rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

Rumi is not only showing us that there
is a place beyond right and wrong but that this is a better and more beautiful place. It is particularly useful to reflect on this when we are in the “right”, as holding on to being right does not give the other the room to move.

DIFFERENT LINE ON FAILURE

As business people we have successes and we have failures. When something fails or doesn’t turn out well, we need the ability to integrate the lessons and move on. Being caught in the past doesn’t allow us to freely move on to create something better. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado writes in the poem Marvellous Error;

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt – marvellous error! –

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.


This gives us so much hope – that our old errors and failures are not only released but can become sweet honey.

At the heart of most great epics and stories, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, is this same promise that all that is dark or wrong or difficult is part of an alchemical, transformational process that turns our dark matter into gold and can give us new life.

Poetry also confirms that everything is always in flux and we must move with it. One of my favourite lines about this is from Walt Whitman’s poem Pioneers! O Pioneers! : For we cannot tarry here, we must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger …

I believe that poetry not only helps keep us marching but also actively assists us to bear the brunt of life – via the adventures, dangers, challenges and opportunities it presents to each one of us.