Poetry at Work, Chapter 1: How to Recognize a Poet

If there is such a thing as a poetic movie, the 2016 film Paterson is perhaps the archetype. The actor Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson, who listens to the conversations of his passengers, colleagues, and friends, and to his own interior conversations, and writes poetry. He works in Paterson, New Jersey, and the man Paterson and the town Paterson eventually come to be seen as of the same essence. Person becomes place becomes person. Poetry constitutes a sizeable portion of the dialogue.

William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams

Not coincidentally, Paterson also happens to be the hometown of the modernist poet William Carlos Williams, who practiced medicine there. Over a period of decades, he wrote a five-book collection entitled – what else? – Paterson (among a lot of other works). Williams was a physician, and he was a poet. Like the bus driver in the movie, Williams recognized and recorded the poetry of his daily work.

I was in my 30s before I discovered the poetry in work, and in my 50s before I understood it. Others saw the poet in me long before I did; perhaps it was my habit of walking around, soundlessly mouthing words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, as I was writing speeches. Some executive did management by walking around; I did speechwriting by walking around. More than once I was stopped and asked if I was feeling okay.

Poets at work always tend to be oddities. They’re introverts in a business culture that idolizes teamwork. They point out the things that everyone sees but no one else will say. They can often be politically incorrect. They see the flaw, or flaws, in the grand project the entire organization has embraced as its reason for existence (at least this week). When feeling charitable, colleagues think of poets as conscientious objectors. It’s better than the terrible and career-ending judgment of “not a team player.”

Poetry at Work mainBut the poets at work are also the ones who articulate the higher aspirations we have buried within us, who speak to the everyday but lift us to the heavens. They speak to the nobility of work, why it’s important, and why it is good. The workplace becomes dreary and gray without them.

Have you met the poet at work? He or she is there, even if they’re not particularly obvious; not all of them wander around mouthing words to themselves. They are usually the people who make you realize that what you do is worthwhile and that you yourself have intrinsic value because you were made that way.

From Poetry at Work: “The poetry of William Carlos Williams cannot really be separated from his work as a physician. I suspect that his work as a physician cannot be separated from his poetry, either. Both are faces of the same person, a whole person—a man who wrote poetry with a doctor’s eye and practiced medicine with the compassion of a poet.”

Related: The Writing Life: Paterson’s Blank Page.


glynn-young-e1535760697686Glynn Young is the fiction editor at Literary Life.

He is an award-winning speechwriter and public relations executive and is a Fellow of the Public Relations Society of America and a member of the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame. He blogs at Faith, Fiction, Friends. Glynn is the author of three published novels in the Dancing Priest series – Dancing Priest (2012), A Light Shining (2013), Dancing King (2017), and Dancing Prophet (2018). He is the author of the non-fiction book Poetry at Work. He is also a contributing editor at Tweetspeak Poetry.

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