Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America

David Whyte, “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America,” (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 323 pages including notes, bibliography and index.  No pictures.

While attending a poetry workshop on Iona in June, I learned of this book and was intrigued.  When I got back home, I picked up a copy and read it back in August while in North Carolina on a planning leave.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It was better than I expected.  Whyte is a British poet who moved to America and found himself involved with corporations as he attempted to encourage their creativity with the use of poetry.

You’d think that management and poets would avoid each other.   After all, management is attempting to maximize the productivity of employees and poetry does little for the bottom line.  Work is about doing, while poetry is about being (20). However, Whyte suggests that both need each other.  Without poetry (and the arts) corporations becomes soulless, and poetry without the corporate world becomes useless.  Poetry can help businesses have employees who are better-rounded and who are creative.  To tap into the creative process of individuals, souls must be nurtured and emotions understood.  Of course, this begs the question as to what is the soul.  And there are no easy definitions or ways to understand the soul. 

It’s not just poetry from which Whyte draws meaning.  He draws from all kinds of stories as archetypes of our experiences in life and within organizations.   There’s Dante, lost and walking in the dark woods and Beowulf facing not only his fears, but the mother of his fears.  He explores the luring passions of fire around which our storytelling and language began, and the Irish myth of Fionn and the need for mentors to teach a new generation to rise even further.  He draws from the wisdom of Greek myths that point to our need to become elders, and to the English poet Coleridge observing the chaotic yet orderly flight of starlings.  In addition to the above who became major themes within individual chapters, he draws from a host of others throughout this book such as Franz Kafka, St. John of the Cross, Goethe, the Bible, the Gilgamesh, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paulo Neruda, T. S. Eliot, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Chinese mythology, Robert Burns, William Blake, William Butler Yeats, Zen, Native American and African legends, Matt Groening (“Life in Hell” cartoons), among others.   

This is not a how-to book on saving corporate America.  Instead, it is a complex book that invites us to consider stories with ancient truths and how they might help us navigate the complex world in which we find ourselves.  

Whyte sees poetry as a way that corporate America can foster the well-being of the souls of employees and thereby allow them to bring creativity into the organization as they navigate the path between imposed orderliness and chaos.  This book is over twenty years old and I know he has revised a new edition.  I wonder if  he addressed how poetry might address Enron and the current political nature of our society.  

  •  The poet needs the practicalities of making a living to test and temper the lyricism of insight and observation.  The corporation needs the poet’s insight and powers of attention in order to weave the inner world of soul and creativity with the outer world of form and matter (9)
  •  Corporate America desperately needs the powers historically associated with the poetic imagination not only to see their way through the present whirligig of change, but also, because poetry asks for accountability to a human community, for rootedness and responsibility even as it changes. (10
  • “If work is all about doing, then the soul is all about being: the indiscriminate enjoyer of everything that comes our way.  If work is the world, then the soul is our home.”  (20)
  • Work is a series of events.  The soul, as James Hillman says, turns those workaday events into experience.  (22)
  •  But at three in the morning, when we are alone, our defenses are down, and we cannot sleep, the huge green hand rises from below and drags us into something hitherto ignored, deeper and more urgent (37)
  •  The harder point is that the fears are almost always irrational.  You cannot reason them out of existence.  If you could, they would have gone long ago.  What does it take to have the maturity to admit the lake is there and then the deeper courage to slip beneath its still surface.  (46)
  • The only real question is not one of winning or losing, but of experiencing life with an ever-increasing depth.  The storyteller says, why not go down… (71)
  •  Those circles of fire were the pivot around which our storytelling and language began.   We must have listened to the first stories over the crack of twigs, with our faces warmed by the fire’s heat and our backs chilled by the surrounding dark.  Little wonder that fire lies in the center of what we understand to be alive and engaged. (81)
  • I think we all live with the hope that we can put off our creative imperatives until a later time and not be any the worse for it.  But refusing to give room to the fire, our bodies fill with an acrid smoke, as if we had covered the flame and starved it of oxygen. (92) 
  • We like the idea of heaven but feel safer when it remains on the other side of existence.  (104)
  • But at the crucial moment, just as it is ready to gather its just reward, the older, experienced side of us will watch helplessly as the eternally innocent and inexperienced young fool, blessed by the grace of luck and youth, simply in the right place at the right time, wanders innocently into the clearing and takes the treasure for which we have worked so hard. (168)
  •  In a country dedicated to the ideals of personal freedom, there has been endless opportunity to be a numberless corporate clone completely replaceable by another corporate clone.  (213)
  • Like a dream, it is astonishingly accurate at taking the measure of our present struggles and indicating the path we are on.  But the impotent thing is not to over interpret the image or the dream.  We place too much burden on it if we are too quick to say it must mean this or it must mean that.  The main point is to live with the image or the dream and let it work its magic on us. (235)
  •  Rilke:  “Stop choosing, he says, between chaos and order, and live at the boundary between them, where rest and action move together.  (242)
  • Living systems, according to John Holland, a maverick and inspired student of complexity, “never really settle down.”  Holland and his colleagues are finding that the plants and animals that do settle down do not survive for very long.  It is as if life is forever trying to keep itself exquisitely balanced on the edge between chaos and order, always about to fall into the imprisoning forces of an overly ordered world on one side and the seductive calls of complete chaos on the other.  (252)
  •  Poets encounter the same problem.  For instance, how to work with the difficult cussed aspects of life without being dragged into a whirlpool of self-pity… Holding on to the gritty particularities of life even as we delve into deeper levels of self-revelation, we reel out the same golden thread Ariadne passed to Theseus to guide him through the Cretan labyrinth.  Attempt to go down without this slight but glowing line back into the world, and we perish, as the self-entangled poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton did, devoured by the minotaur of the self-referential ego.  Their poetry had a riveting intensity, but it did not include a great soul world that could save them from their individual personalities (257-8)
  •  Drawing upon the lessons learned from the starlings: Trying to run complex companies, big or small, by imperial command, from the top down, may be the single most unnecessary burden carried by any corporate manager…  It also carries an implicit lack of trust in the essential elements of the system—people. (269)
  • Stop treating people as if they are dangerous vehicles about to spin out of control unless you are constantly applying the brakes.  Educate them into everything you know, ask them to learn more than you know.  Show them not only how to find the brake but the accelerator as well.  (272)
  • Poetry is the art of overhearing ourselves say things from which it is impossible to retreat. (287)
  •  Without failure we have no possibility of appreciating or praising the life well lived, the work well done, a place well taken care of, or the greater ecology that makes up our home. (288)
  •  Preserving the soul in corporate America means reclaiming all those human soul qualities sacrificed on the altar of organizational survival. (295)


  1. Since I'm a big fan of poetry I think I need to check this out

  2. Interesting concept. What sort of ways did he suggest going about this? Poetry reading or writing? In groups or alone?

    1. This wasn't a how-to guide and he didn't give any suggestions as to how one should bring poetry into the work culture--only that it would help people navigate the complexity of the world

  3. It's certainly an interesting concept. Almost a right brain vs. left brain.

  4. Having a really hard time in understanding what you are talking about, friend Sage ... Guess, me is not Einstein ... anyway ... Love, cat.

  5. I'll have to look up that book. If for no other reason that to try and find out which corporations actually have a soul. I know "progressive" corporations exist, but I am clearly not skilled nor educated enough to have ever worked for any. I'm thinking the level of folks that work at places like Microsoft or Google.

  6. Now that is an interesting book! "Live at the boundary between chaos and order." That's a precarious place to be!

  7. Hi Sage - he's obviously a highly respected poet and philosopher .. he's got a TED talk that'd be worth listening to I think ...

    Thanks for bringing him and his book to our attention .. really interesting to know about - cheers Hilary

  8. While it's not my type of reading material I appreciate you letting us know about it.

  9. Business is about the suppression of risk, and contradictory, profit comes from risk. But corporations as they are run today are but thought experiments within thought experiments and are sterile. Ultra controlled and without true vision. Meaning it really doesn't matter which industry or product they are trading.

  10. This does sound interesting and very different from what I was expecting when I saw the cover and read the title. Thanks for sharing. :)

  11. Thanks for the heads-up! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  12. Hello I'm just back from a vacation down south, and just in time for a real autumn here. This book looks quite interesting and could be just the thing for today.

  13. There is much we can learn from the stories of the past, Sage. You always share such thought provoking books!

  14. The intersect of poetry and corporate culture is an interesting one. I wonder how to get people or entities interested in opening their minds to other parts of the brain, and to goals exclusive of money.

    PS I have a little something (err, a big something) for you at my blog.

  15. Hello Sage
    Very interesting to read this ... in fact I read it through a few times!
    I see that in the comments Hilary mentioned that he's got a TED talk, I think that would be worth listening to.

    All the best Jan

  16. Although I don't think I would enjoy reading this book, some of what you presented here is very interesting.