April was National Poetry Month. It went unnoticed in board rooms, around water coolers and at job sites throughout Mississippi. But, a little poetry is always good, and it’s never too late for a few well-crafted lines of verse — which brings us to an important, but more often than not, ignored (or never even thought about it), question: Isn’t business an awful lot like poetry?
Think about what you’re doing. Right now. Today. In your cubicle, on your PCS phone or at www.bubbabiz.com. Toiling away in a market-driven capitalistic dungeon, or creating — deals, wealth, opportunities? I choose the latter. Business, at its purest, most elegant and profitable existence, is about creation, and therein, lies its kinship with poetry. And to borrow a line from that irritating Blimpie commercial: It’s a beautiful thing.
Name a poet, any poet…
If I was ever asked what my favorite poem was, my answer would be: “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It’s eight lines written by William Carlos Williams in 1923 that capture the existential essence (and poetry is all about essence) of life for me. I was either in Mrs. Warren’s AP English class at Starkville Academy or Mrs. Minchew’s comp class in college when I first read it. Can’t recall exactly, but I wrote a paper on it and remember (with a little help from “Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing,” Second Edition, Prentice Hall, 1989, page 999) the poem still:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
So, do you get it? I think I do. Really. But, don’t worry. No quizzes today. No essay questions. Just a lighthearted look at how business is like poetry and poetry can make you smile.
“Smile,” you wonder. Indeed.
Besides “The Red Wheelbarrow” and lyrics from R.E.M. tunes, my favorite poetry has to be from Burma Shave signs. Sure, I never have actually seen a Burma Shave sign alongside a hot, black-topped road, but I’ve read about them. Saw one in a museum. Watched a PBS (or maybe it was Discovery or The Learning Channel) documentary on how they developed. How can you not love ‘em:
You Hear Men Praise
Writing in the “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” (The University of North Carolina Press, First Edition, 1989, page 678), Sharon Sharp tells us that “In 1930 travelers on southern roads joined in a rapidly spreading national pastime — reading Burma Shave signs. Set 100 paces apart along the roadside, a series of six signs contained a catchy jingle promoting Burma Shave, a new brushless shaving cream. A typical gem was the jingle ‘Water Heater/ Out of Kilter/ Try the Brushless/ Whisker/ Wilter/ Burma Shave.’ The humorous, often public-spirited advertising tickled the nation’s fancy for almost 40 years, providing a focal point for travelers throughout the country.”
And that’s where poetry and business seem to find themselves most often: advertising. Is there anything more ubiquitous than the snappy (and by “snappy,” I mean “annoying”) jingle? I beg of you, don’t hold that against poetry.
I think that business might come closest to capturing the essence (and remember, poetry is all about essence), the heart, of whatever it is we mean by the American ideal. Picture it: hard work, sweat, long hours, sacrifice, something from nothing, innovation — success. Success.
Business, America’s muse. Perhaps it’s too simplified, romanticized, spun and glossed over, but I’ll buy into it today. And I’ll leave you with Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” (from “Leaves of Grass,” The Deathbed Edition, Simon & Schuster, 1992, page 9):
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her to none else,
The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Read it aloud, and please, no snide comments about Walt from you English majors.
Jim Laird is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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