For a long time, I had what several of colleagues called the most interesting office at work. Because I was a speechwriter, I was expected to (a) read everything the CEO did, (b) read a lot of business books, particularly popular ones, (c) study books about speechwriting, and (d) read books on current issues. All of which meant I was doing a lot of reading. And the CEO likcd to read the novels of John Updike, just about anything by Charles Dickens, and anything published on the subject of Winston Churchill.
For a reader like me, this was a great job.
One end of my office was floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Another wall had a smaller but still sizeable bookshelf. I also had a row of books on a credenza. It’s no surprise that my office was known as the building library.
My “frequently consulted” books included poetry. That was by design. I had several old American poetry anthologies, and my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature (college textbooks) included considerable poetry by British writers.
Poetry could break writer’s block. Speechwriters run into writer’s block as much as any other kind of writer, perhaps more, because you seem to be writing speeches constantly – speeches to employees, to customers, to investors, to student audiences, to retirees, to trade associations, and more. During my busiest year ever, I wrote 110 major speeches (20 minutes or longer each) and about the same number of minor speeches, like for the United Way campaign or a senior manager’s service anniversary or retirement.
The pace was blistering and conducive to ongoing burnout. You had to do something regularly to prevent writer’s block, not to mention physical collapse.
I read poetry. I read traditional poets for rhyme and meter and cadence. I read modern poets for arresting metaphors. I read all poets to keep myself sane.
It was during this period, which lasted about six years, that I discovered to rediscovered Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, John Milton, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Romantics, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. I reread Beowulfand The Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare’s sonnets. I learned I had gone to the college most closely associated with the Southern Agrarians like Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren.
Not only did reading poetry help me get through or avoid writer’s block, it also helped me write better speeches. Poetry taught me a lot about oral communication, which is what a speech is.
From speechwriting, I moved on to other aspects of communications, although speechwriting stayed part of what I did for a considerable number of years to come.
What stuck was poetry. Reading poetry as a “human restorative” turned out to have application to all kinds of work. The books on the shelves eventually came home. The poetry remained.
From Poetry at Work: “I find inspiration in reading these words that awaken my deadened mind, soften my dulled heart, and invigorate my psyche to move through burnout to a brighter, bolder reality. That’s how I use poetry at work: to restore, clarify, organize, and inspire. I can’t imagine work without it.”