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)

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Iona to Skye

candles at farewell servic
This is a posting of my trip to Scotland from back at the end of June and early July.  This picks up where I left off on my "week on Iona" post.

I wake up dreaming.  It’s my last morning in Iona and in the dream, I’m returning to the bakery to work. It has been many years since I worked there (in reality, I left that job over 30 years ago).  I was dropped off by the 13th Street entrance. I rang the bell, but then remembered that I had a key.  I was sure it wouldn’t work, as it had been so many years, but discovered it did work. I stepped into the plant and then woke up.  Of course, I haven’t had a key to the plant since I left and the bakery closed in the mid-90s.  When I woke, I looked out the window at the gray dawn.  I dressed, brushed my teeth, and finished packing up before going down to the dining area for breakfast.  I left my pack in the foyer, where it was to be picked up and taken to the ferry. Today’s breakfast is early, at 7 AM.  We eat quickly, in time to walk down for a 7:30 AM chapel service.  The ferry leaves at 8:15 AM. 

             The ferry is filled with folks with whom I’ve spent the past week.  Many of them came over on the same ferry the previous week.  We didn’t know each other then.  Many are now returning home, but I have another week to travel in Scotland.  As we gather our luggage and load aboard the ferry, the Iona staff gather to tell us goodbye.  We wave as the ramp for the ferry is raised and soon we’re racing across the sound.  It is drizzling but the water is calm.  There’s a bus waiting for us at Floonphort and we quickly stow our luggage underneath and are soon on our way across the Ross of Mull and Glen More, back to Craignure.  An hour and a half later, we arrive and the ferry to Oban is waiting.  There is no time to explore.  Most of those who’d been in the poetry group sit together on the ferry.  Knowing there won’t be time in Oban to eat lunch (which is a shame as it’s known for its seafood), several of us have lunch on the ferry.  I have a breakfast roll with bacon and egg (essentially a large yeast roll split in two with the bacon and egg stuck in between the two halves).  The talk is light as we know our time together is coming to an end, but that we’ll still have a train ride ahead.

A view of a loch from the train
We leave the ferry in Oban and walk across the street where the train is waiting.  It’s just two cars and quickly fills up and minutes after boarding, pulls out.  Most of the group is heading to Glasgow and begin making plans for dinner, but I’m getting off the train after about two hours, at Crainlarich, where the Oban branch connects with the West Highlands line.  I depart at the station and realize that there is not much of a town, but there is a small restaurant on the other end of the station.  I order a bowl of soup and some coffee as I wait in the dry room for the northbound train for Mallaig.  There’s perhaps fifteen of us, who’d come in from Oban, waiting for the train.  It arrives about thirty minutes later.  After they separate coaches (one set goes to Oban), we board.  There are not enough seats and ten of us find ourselves sitting on our packs between cars.  The conductor complains that they were supposed to have four coaches, but were given on two.  For the next hour, we sit uncomfortably and crouch a little tighter as it seems more passengers are getting on than off at each stop.

Crainlarich station 
What I could see from my perch on my pack, the train was passing through some incredible scenery with tall mountains and rivers.  At Tulloch, we picked up a group of four Germans who are spending twelve days hiking in Scotland.  They are about my age, three women and a man, and had decided to jump ahead.  As they board, they bring with them some of the dreaded Scottish midges (a biting gnat).  The next thing I knew they are biting me. The woman sitting next to me tells me that they had only been bad for the last mile or so of their hike. As we couldn’t really see scenery, we spend the time talking about our favorite hikes in various parts of the world.  One of them had hiked in the Sierras and seems impressed when she learned that I’d hiked the John Muir Trail. 

Glenfinnan Viaduct 
At Roy Bridge, a number of folks get off and the vestibule on the train where I’d been crowded in was pretty much left to me and the Germans.  They and about half the train gets off at Spean Bridge and I’m finally able to find a seat.  The mountains are spectacular as we head toward Fort William.  The train pulls into the station, then backs out several miles to where the mainline continues to the east, running along streams.  Between Lock Eli and Glenfinnan, we slow as we come around a bend before crossing over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct. This stone arched bridge is truly a work of art and was featured in the Harry Potter movies.  The tracks kept heading east, through Lochailort and Beasdale, running through a number of tunnels.  At Arisaig, which boasts a harbor filled with sailboats, we can see the ocean again (or at least the Sound of Arisaig).  Off in the distance are the steep cliffs on the Isle of Eigg.  Leaving here, the train heads northwest to Morar, and then on to Mallaig.  The hills are grassy and heather populates the rocky ground with ferns in the low places.
Glenfinnan Station
South of Mallaig
Mallaig from the ferry
The train pulls into Mallaig late.  Across the platform from us is the Jacobite train, a tourist railroad featuring wonderfully restored dining cars and pulled by a steam engine.  They make daily runs between Mallaig and Fort Williams.  I wish I had time to check out the train, but have only a few minutes to make it over to the ferry terminal for the ferry to Skye.  In no time, we’re sailing.  I’m sad I didn’t have time to spend in Mallaig, but am curious about Skye, a place where my ancestors supposedly sailed from when they headed to America in the mid-18th Century. 

Ferry to Skye
I hiked here for a late dinner
I have reserved a spot at an Eco-Camp that is just off the ferry dock.  I hike in and am given my choice of several spots, picking on that seems best for a hammock.  I realize there is no place to eat (there is a coffee shop/ice cream parlor by the ferry terminal does breakfast and lunch, but it closed at 6 PM, before my ferry arrived.  I’m told the Ardvasa Hotel has a good pub and is only a mile or so away, so I head down that direction.  I sit outside and enjoyed a wonderful burger (I wouldn't normally order a burger, but this was made with local beef and I'd been mostly vegetarian during my time on Iona).  Rounding out the meal were fries, a salad, and a bottle of Skye Red beer.  The total came to 18 pounds, but as I learned, things are expensive on Skye.  I enjoyed the meal while watching the soft light of the northern latitudes in summer. It was 10:30 when I got back to my hammock.  It had been an exhausting day.  I was in bed by 10:45 and asleep shortly afterwards. 
View while walking back to camp

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

A Poem and an Explanation...

Jimmy Carter at the opening of his Sunday School class
It's been two weeks since I've blogged (or caught up with the blogs of others).  I am not sure why for I haven't been that busy.  But the weather is cooler and I have taken long walks in the evening.  Other evenings I've spent watching Ken Burn's "The Vietnam War" and reading.  Among the books I've been reading has been Diarmaid MacCullouch's The Reformation; David McCullough's The Wright Brothers, Michael Herr's Dispatches (If  you're interested in Vietnam from the soldier's POV, read it); Archibald Ruthledge's Peace in the Heart; and several books of poetry including Anya Krugovoy Silver's Second Bloom.  The other night, I began the poem below after reading a chapter in Ruthledge's book and a number of Silver's poems.  

I still have several drafts of blogs I need to finish and post from my trip in June/July to Scotland, as well as my experiences this weekend as we visited Plains and Andersonville, Georgia.  On Sunday, we were in Jimmy Carter's Sunday School. It was a treat and exceeded my expectations even though we arrived early (6 AM) while it was still dark.  As I joked, I don't normally go to Baptist churches but when I do, it's under the cover of darkness and a former President is teaching Sunday School.  (It was also Jimmy Carter's birthday so in a way I felt that I along with a few hundred other folks crashed his party).  Now for the poem: 


There is a section in the Hastings Cemetery where children who died during or before birth are buried.  This area is at the back corner of the cemetery, on a ledge overlooking the river. A few years ago during a spring flood, some of the graves were lost to the Thornapple, a river that flows into the Grand and then in Lake Michigan as its waters make its way to the sea.

Bury me with the children who died prematurely
and planted in simple graves, at the back of the cemetery,
far from the gaze of the mourner, ‘cept broken-hearted parents.

Bury me under a huge sycamore,
whose broad leaves shade the ground in summer
and white bark appears ghostly on a foggy morn.

Bury me where the river makes its sharp bend
its swift waters carving into the bank.
There, I can hear the river’s call as it rushes past. 

Bury me close to the ledge where in a few years or maybe a century,
a spring flood will free me and those kids
and I’ll lead them on a grand adventure.

In our box boats we’ll shoot through the gates of the Middleville and Irving dams,
forgetting the dangers for it no longer matters to the dead.
We’ll laugh as we catch an eddy below and float in circles.

At Alaska, the village-not the state, we’ll shoot the rapids
and when we meet the Grand we’ll chat with those fishing for salmon
and wave to the pedestrians on the bridges at Grand Rapids.

I hope it is night, with waves breaking over the piercing lighthouse,
when we leave the river at Holland, for the lake.  We’ll then float more slowly
watching the lights on shore fade from sight as we navigate by the north star.

Time will slow as we slip from one lake to another
and over those falls at Niagara that terrify all but the dead,
before making our way into Canada and down that great waterway.

And years later, if our wooden boats hold up, we’ll slip out the St. Lawrence
and into the cold waters of the North Atlantic along with ice bergs,
riding the Gulf Stream as it heads north and then east and back south.

We’ll bed down with wintering puffins
and watch whales play as they ply the sea, while we pass
Iceland and the Faroes, Scotland and Ireland, and on beyond the Azores.

Bury me with the children, in the back of the cemetery,
And in time the river will call and we’ll float
to where peaceful waters gather. 

-jg  September 2017