Poetry for Professionals by J. Coleman

Wallace Stevens was one of America’s greatest poets. The author of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and “The Idea of Order at Key West” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955 and offered a prestigious faculty position at Harvard University. Stevens turned it down. He didn’t want to give up his position as Vice President of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

This lyrically inclined insurance executive was far from alone in occupying the intersect of business and poetry. Dana Gioia, a poet, Stanford Business School grad, and former General Foods executive, notes that T.S. Eliot spent a decade at Lloyd’s Bank of London; and many other poets including James Dickey, A.R. Ammons, and Edmund Clarence Stedman navigated stints in business.

I’ve written in the past about how business leaders should be readers, but even those of us prone to read avidly often restrict ourselves to contemporary nonfiction or novels. By doing so, we overlook a genre that could be valuable to our personal and professional development: poetry. Here’s why we shouldn’t.

For one, poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity. Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman once told The New York Times, “I used to tell my senior staff to get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand.” Emily Dickinson, for example, masterfully simplified complex topics with poems like “Because I could not stop for Death,” and many poets are similarly adept. Business leaders live in multifaceted, dynamic environments. Their challenge is to take that chaos and make it meaningful and understandable. Reading and writing poetry can exercise that capacity, improving one’s ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it — through presentations or writing — to others.

Poetry can also help users develop a more acute sense of empathy. In the poem “Celestial Music,” for example, Louise Glück explores her feelings on heaven and mortality by seeing the issue through the eyes of a friend, and many poets focus intensely on understanding the people around them. In January of 2006, the Poetry Foundation released a landmark study, “Poetry in America,” outlining trends in reading poetry and characteristics of poetry readers. The number one thematic benefit poetry users cited was “understanding” — of the world, the self, and others. They were even found to be more sociable than their non-poetry-using counterparts. And bevies of new research show that reading fiction and poetry more broadly develops empathy. Raymond Mar, for example, has conducted studies showing fiction reading is essential to developing empathy in young children (PDF) and empathy and theory of mind in adults (PDF). The program in Medical Humanities & Arts (PDF) even included poetry in their curriculum as a way of enhancing empathy and compassion in doctors, and the intense empathy developed by so many poets is a skill essential to those who occupy executive suites and regularly need to understand the feelings and motivations of board members, colleagues, customers, suppliers, community members, and employees.

Reading and writing poetry also develops creativity. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, the aforementioned Dana Gioia says, “As [I rose] in business … I felt I had an enormous advantage over my colleagues because I had a background in imagination, in language and in literature.” Noting that the Greek root for poetry means “maker,” Dana emphasizes that senior executives need not just quantitative skills but “qualitative and creative” skills and “creative judgment,” and feels reading and writing poetry is a route to developing those capabilities. Indeed, poetry may be an even better tool for developing creativity than conventional fiction. Clare Morgan, in her book What Poetry Brings to Business, cites a study showing that poems caused readers to generate nearly twice as many alternative meanings as “stories,” and poetry readers further developed greater “self-monitoring” strategies that enhanced the efficacy of their thinking processes. These creative capabilities can help executives keep their organizations entrepreneurial, draw imaginative solutions, and navigate disruptive environments where data alone are insufficient to make progress.

Finally, poetry can teach us to infuse life with beauty and meaning. A challenge in modern management can be to keep ourselves and our colleagues invested with wonder and purpose. As Simon Sinek and others have documented, the best companies and people never lose a sense of why they do what they do. Neither do poets. In her Nobel lecture “The Poet and the World,” Wislawa Szymborska writes:

The world — whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence … is astonishing …Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

What if we professionals cultivated a similar outlook? We might find our colleagues more hopeful and purposeful and our work revitalized with more surprise, meaning, and beauty.

Poetry isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to every business problem. There are plenty of business leaders who’ve never read poetry and have been wholly successful. But to those open to it, reading and writing poetry can be a valuable component of leadership development.

by J. Coleman

Anne Bradstreet: 1612-1672

More educated than most women of the day. When she first came to the new world she was resistant to change. She joined the Boston church feeling it was the way of God. Bodily weak, she still had eight children. Was prone to exploring her conscience. She struggled with supposed truths found in the scriptures; didn’t believe in miracles. Her belief in God came from seeing the world with her own eyes.
She wrote poems to please her father. Her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, brought with him to London a collection of her poetry and it was printed in 1650. The Tenth Muse was the first published volume of poems written by a resident of the New World and was widely read. The themes she explored were the ages of humankind and the seasons, concern for family and home, and the pleasures of everyday life.

The Prologue
I’m not well-versed enough to write of kings and wars. I do get jealous of not having more talent. I am simple. You cannot fix up my writing–it is irreparable. I will not get better at writing poetry given time. If I do write well they will think I must have stolen it. Yes, men are the best, but give us women credit where credit is due. Your works are awesome, but perhaps when you read mine both of our works could shine more brightly.

In Honor of That High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory
This poem is an ode: originally, a poem to be sung. In modern use, a lyrical poem, rhymed or unrhymed, typically addressed to some person or thing and usually characterized by lofty feeling, elaborate form, and dignified style.
The Proem [prelude]
Even though you are dead you are still famous. Your glory was so great that everyone could feel it. You’ve had exceptional gifts and sacrifices made in your name: “Mine bleating stands before thy royal hearse.” You did not disdain the poor, so I know you will also listen to me; I still sing your praises.
The Poem
Nothing can compare to your actions. She showed everyone that women can be smart. She showed up the men on many counts; she kicked butt! I literally do not have enough time to tell you all the cool things she did. She was better than Semiramis, better than Tomris. Better than Dido. Better than Cleopatra. Better than Zonobya. What does our Queen’s accomplishments say about the women’s race? You can no longer say we cannot reason. If we are the same in heaven then she will be ruling from a thrown. She is dead now–and there will never be another like her. “Here lies the pride of queens, pattern of kings, So blaze it, Fame, here’s feathers for thy wings.”
Her Epitaph Another


To the Memory of My Dear and Ever Honored Father Thomas Dudley Esq. Who Deceased, July 31, 1653, and of His Age 77
I have a duty to lament through verse; he taught me everything. His daughter knows best how to praise him. “Who heard or saw, observed or knew him better? Or who alive than I a greater debtor?” Everyone who knew him could also give him praise. He helped found this land and made it easier for those thereafter. He did not brag because he put worth into the afterlife in heaven. He did not show off–his thoughts and actions were more important. He served us well here and now he is at peace. I will see him again in heaven.
The last section entitled “His Epitaph” sums up the thought in truncated form.

To Her Father with Some Verses
I honor you by being honorable myself–like you taught me. I’ll try to live right in your memory–pay it forward.

Long days; thinking of summer. If there are so many wonders on earth, imagine how awesome God must be. Our world is so wonderful it seems like a heaven. A tall leafy tree; how long have you been growing? You have lived over many years–a reflection on the concept of eternity. What is glory to the Sun? No wonder people made the sun a god; if I hadn’t known better I would have too. The sun bursts upon the land; you wake up every living thing. We all know of the path and power of the sun. You make the seasons. Are you so powerful that we cannot look upon you? Are you so far away we cannot reach or imitate you? Think how powerful a god would have to be to make a sun. I walked alone and began to sing. Nature shows me my God, but I am not worthy. The grasshopper and cricket seem to sing better to the Lord than I. Looking back in time–God can see the farthest back. The fall of Adam. Cain is born and has no idea of his fate. Eve reflects back on a paradise lost and that she gave it all away for knowledge. Both Cain and Abel brought offerings, but Cain’s was rejected. Cain begins to plot against his brother. Abel suspects nothing before being killed. First blood was spilled–much more to come. Cain thought others would help in his quest, but none would. Cain falls into despair, guilt, worry and builds a big wall around his city. The elders hope the best for their young and teach them, but sometimes they go astray. The old ones seemed to accomplish so much yet the younger generation has hardly done anything. We eat, drink, and be merry until our end draws near. The earth rejuvenates itself with every spring, but when man grows old he must lie in a grave. We are born above all creatures but are cursed and cannot return to our innocence. Who will outlive: man or nature? Sitting outside. Nothing keeps the river from moving to its destination. Little streams mix with you, the river. I want to lead my children on their hoped-for path. Fish go wherever they may go in happiness. As I was contemplating fish, a bird began to sing–so I turned more toward hearing and wished for wings. Oh, to be a bird without care. The bird is zen. The birds all sing in the summer mornings then go to warmer places in the winter. Man is the opposite–full of woe and frustration, but no matter how much pain we endure we do not concentrate on there being a heaven. When the sea is smooth the captain thinks he is in charge, but when a storm comes he realizes his boundaries. When life is good you think you live in heaven, but when bad times come you realize you are a mere mortal. Time brings death. Life passes into the forgotten. All except the Lord will pass to dust.


The Flesh and the Spirit
In a secret place of crying (?) I heard two sisters discussing the past and the future. Flesh wanted money and looks. Spirit thought of the other world. Flesh asked if spirit could live solely on meditation–how could spirit live without all the worldly pleasures? If you desire it, you can see it. Set up monuments in your name. Have silver, pearls and gold. Take what you want–the world can supply more. Keep what you obtain. Spirit says “Enough!” I will fight you all the way on this. You were born of Adam, but I of God. You flatter, but that does not gain my trust. When I followed your ways my life was miserable! I look for higher things. I spend my time better than you. I value things you cannot see. My robes will one day outshine the sun. There is a description of heaven btw. lines 85-95. Heaven will not take you. I’ll live there and you can have the earth.

The Author to Her Book
What she would say to the second edition of her book:
This book was not strong; it was stolen. They didn’t spruce you up at the printer’s. You should have never been published. I would like to fix you up, but the more I try, the more mistakes I see. I couldn’t even come up with ways to make you better. Tell them you have no father and your mother is so poor that she sent you away.

Before the Birth of One of Her Children
Everything ends. We have joys and sorrow. No bond is strong enough to stave off death. How soon may I die? I hope you live longer than me. Let my faults die with me. Remember my good traits. Protect those who live on with you. If I am gone with you read this, kiss this page and remember me.

To My Dear and Loving Husband
This is a love poem.

A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment
How can you stand to be apart? I have so sun without you. I need your warmth. I’ll take the children to tide me over–for I see you in them. I will welcome you home and I want you to stay so we will be one again.

Classic of Poetry

Classic of Poetry is the oldest poetry collection of East Asia. The poems reflect the breadth of early Chinese society. There are images of nature and distinctive, fresh simplicity. There is now centuries of commentary and interpretation and is an important element of the traditional curriculum.


The Anthology and its Significance

The anthology contains compact, evocative, lyric poetry. Because Chinese literature originated with the Classic of Poetry, short verse gained a degree of pedagogical, political, social importance in East Asia not enjoyed anywhere else in the world. The Classic of Poetry contains 305 poems and consists of three parts: the “Airs of the Domains”, the “Odes/Elegances” and the “Hymns”. The choice and arrangement of the poems were seen as an expression of Confucius’s philosophy. Moral virtue contributes to social order. Confucius’s high opinion of the Classic of Poetry led to its inclusion in the canon of “Confucian Classics.” The Confucian Classics became the curriculum of the state academy (124 B.C.). A “Great Preface,” written for the anthology, became the single most fundamental statement about the function and nature of poetry in East Asia. It claimed there were “six principles” of poetry: the three categories in which the poems were placed and the three rhetorical devices of “enumeration”, “comparison” and “evocative image”. Scholars have debated these issues ever since. They developed the idea that poetry and song can bridge the gulf between social classes, that they can serve as a tool for mutual “influence” and “criticism.” Poetry and songs give the people a voice, helping them keep bad rulers in check, and was central to the Confucian understanding of poetry and society. Poetry made room for social critique and created the institution of “remonstration”: the duty of officials in the bureaucracy to speak out against abuses of power.


The Poems

Almost all poems in the Classic of Poetry are anonymous and give voice to many different players in Zhou society. The constraints imposed by society, and the conflict between individual desire and social expectations, are important themes in the “Airs” section. The protagonists in the romantic plots that appear in the poems of the “Airs of the Domains” could be from any culture, past or present. The central stylistic device of the Classic of Poetry is repetition with variation. Enumeration is often used and is the telling of sequences of events in straightforward narrative fashion. Poems from the “Airs” section, by contrast, mostly employ “comparisons” and “evocative images.” Evocative images are much more elusive and do not easily translate into any rhetorical trope in the Western tradition. Xing, the term rendered as “evocative image,” literally means “stimulus” or “excitement.” Xing brings natural images into suggestive resonance with human situations, stimulating the imagination and pushing perception beyond a simple comparison of one thing to another. This collection was part of the education of political elites. They contain pristine simplicity and evocative power to voice fundamental human emotions and challenges.


Classic of Poetry


About how women should act and a young man tormented by desire. The pretty girl is fit for a prince and she is forever desired. Went looking for her; she is always in my thoughts. Couldn’t sleep. We play music for the pretty girl. We play music to make her happy. Does this poem encourage women to not be jealous if their men take another lover?


Peach Tree Soft and Tender

The peach tree has cycles like a woman who will become a wife and mother. The bride is like a blossom. She will plump and ripen like the peach. She will mature into a bride.


Plums Are Falling

The fruits become fewer with each repetition until the woman decides whom she wants to marry. Seven men want me; I hope I end up with the fine one. Now there are three; I want a steady man. Although many men want me, I want only to be the bride of one.


[In the Airs section we can see how individual desire interacts with societal expectations.]


Dead Roe Deer

A girl who has just been seduced and now sits beside a dead deer. Death hovers ominously over deer, woman and maidenhood. The deer is wrapped in white rushes and the maiden is also white as marble. The maiden says to not touch her or make her cry out because the dog will bark.


Boat of Cypress

A heart that refuses to bend to society’s wishes. The wine does not calm my restlessness. My brothers do not help me with my grief. Neither you nor I can tell my heart what to do, but my behaviors have remained dignified. I contemplate little injustices. These troubles of the heart are like unwashed clothes and I cannot get away.


Gentle Girl

I pretty girl waits for me, but she is in shadow and I cannot see her. She gave me a scarlet pipe. I find delight in her beauty. She also brought me a reed, but what made it beautiful was the giver.



She gave me a quince and I gave her a garnet. Even though the exchange is unequal, our love will last. She gave me a peach; I have gave her an opal. She gave me a plum and I gave her a ruby. The gifts are not equal in monetary value, but we continually give to each other which will make our love last.


Zhongzi, Please

A suitor with very strong desires! The girl fears a scandal. Zhongzi, don’t cross my village wall and break the willows. My mom and dad already know you are trying to see me…and they don’t like it! Don’t cross my fence and crush the mulberries. My brothers will see that and there’ll be trouble. Don’t come into my garden and trample the sandalwood. The neighbors will talk.


Zhen and Wei

Festival scene along two rivers: the Zhen and the Wei. Erotic flirting. The man and maiden frolicked at the river’s edge. They throw flowers in the water.


Huge Rat

A voracious rodent compared to an exploitative lord. This huge rat has been eating my grain for three years, but I get nothing in return. I should leave and go to a happier place. I feed you, but you never thank me. In a happy realm I will find what I deserve. You do not reward my toil. I need to escape to a place where no one wails or cries.


She Bore the Folk  (from the Odes section)

Enumeration lends structure here. The miraculous birth of Lord Millet: ancestor of the Zhou and inventor of agriculture. A resourceful mother who steps into a god’s footprint. She gave birth to Millet with no pain. He was protected everywhere he roamed. He wailed when he was left alone. When he became hungry he began to plant. The art of agriculture. “He passed us down these wondrous grains…he spread the whole land with black millet.” The gathering and using of the harvest. Because of him we are able to live comfortably.