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The Business of Poetry
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Leadership in Poetry and Public Policy 

As a medium for celebrating the unique relationship each person has with the world, poetry has long been the voice of truth and a restorer of perspective in history. In South Africa the upsurge of youth interest in poetry, the increased importance of praise poets in business and the role that culture plays in marketing is invigorating the role of poetry in commerce. This is underscored by the role that poets are playing in developing business leadership and the heightened search for meaning in the workplace. Once a stranger to industry, poetry is now becoming an increasingly appreciated business and management tool. Mandy de Waal investigates.

Once upon a time there lived an emperor who was vain and insecure. One morning he decided that it would buoy his spirits immeasurably if he had the best attire in the kingdom. He got the best tailors to make him the best suit in the kingdom. Now these craftsmen were smart and knew how to extract value from customers. They hatched an incredible plan. They told the Emperor they had the finest cloth in the world but only people who were incredibly wise could see this cloth. The Emperor, of course, fell for their proposal and before long the tailors, the Emperor, the courtiers and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men were madly enamoured with this non-existent cloth, which was sewn with non-existent thread to make a non-existent suit. You know the rest. The Emperor paraded through his kingdom completely naked and everybody fawned about him. That is, of course, until a young boy stepped forward and shouted: “The Emperor has no clothes on.” The moral of the story? The tailors were consultants and the young boy, a poet.

Ezra Pound eloquently summed up the role of the poet with his urging them to “make it anew.” Throughout time great poets have sought to see society and the world with a new lens, carving a courageous, challenging and at times dangerous role for themselves. History is littered with the bodies of dead writers or exiled poets who dared to speak the truth. Chinese born poet Jun Feng was imprisoned and forced into exile and Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet died in exile after being the only major writer to speak out against the Armenian massacres. In South Africa many poets were imprisoned or exiled during Apartheid. The poet’s voice is often one of social conscience and because of their ability to see things from a different perspective; poets are often verbal activists in the face of corruption and exploitation. Their power is their ability to touch the hearts and minds of people with power, influencing mass opinion.

Activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa spent much of his life protesting the exploitation of his native people, the Ogoni, who came under threat when their homeland was targeted for oil extraction by Shell in the late fifties. In his book “Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy,” Saro-Wiwa tells how the Ogoni had "been gradually ground to dust by the combined effort of the multinational oil company, Shell Petroleum Development Company, the murderous ethnic majority in Nigeria and the country’s military dictatorships.” Two years later Saro-Wiwa was honoured by receiving the Right Livelihood Award for exemplary courage in striving non-violently for the rights of the Ogoni people. Scarcely a year later despite an outcry from the international community he was hanged in what was largely seen as judicious murder by the hands of the Nigerian military government. 

Dance your anger 
and your joys
dance the guns
into silence. 
Dance. Dance. Dance…

Ken Saro-Wiwa

“Poets serve as a watchdog,” says Russell Kaschula, Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch and visiting Professor in communication and media studies at Goucher College in the US. “The language of poetry is passion and truth. Poets have the ability to be open and criticise society and it is when politicians interfere with that ability to be truthful that the frontline of freedom of speech is eroded in society. This is what happened to poets who were exiled under apartheid.” 

Kaschula, whose main areas of expertise are poetry and intercultural studies, says the events surrounding the popular poet ZS Qungule’s exile are a good case in point. “The imbongi or praise singer’s right to speak freely and without censure came under serious pressure in the 1980s when the voice of protest that characterised Xhosa izibongo was driven underground to serve small-minded politics,” says Kaschula who relates how Qungule was arrested for his protest against the manner in which the then King Sebata Dalinyebo, King of the Tembus, was detained and deposed in favour of a pro-Government Bantustan chief. A similar fate befell Melikhaya Mbutuma who was repeatedly harassed by the police because of his protest poetry. “The descriptor ‘Praise Poet’ is a bit of a misnomer because praise poetry isn’t always about worship. Praise poets have the ability and the licence to be critical,” says Kaschula who adds that poets are often a barometer for freedom of speech. “When politicians interfere with the ability to be truthful or critical, the frontline of the freedom of speech is eroded. If you can censor the oral word, the written is next.” 

While politics and poetry has enjoyed a relationship knitted with barbed wire, the connection between poets and business has been less direct. This is largely because poets have operated outside the realms of traditional business and corporate institutions have not considered poetry as relevant. This looks set to change for a number of reasons. Poets are making inroads into corporations as consultants and harbingers of meaning and leadership development, while in another context poets are taking aim at corrupt corporations, extending their role as a societal watch dog to embrace economics. In South Africa praise poets are becoming a part of labour relations and with the surge of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) now act as cultural attaches for leadership. Another strong trend is the rise of poetry amongst the country’s youth who are giving poetic expression to their disenchantment.

“South African businesses should be asking themselves what their role will be in the evolution of our collective culture and therefore in the evolution of the market,” says youth marketing specialist Andrew Miller. A writer and poet, Miller is often called to speak at conferences and to offer counsel on youth marketing because of his keen understanding of the sector. He is also a founding member of the spoken word poetry collective, Reunited Siblings. “South Africa’s youth are shaping a modern, urban identity that is only partially informed by western or liberal democratic values. South African businesses are not operating in a strictly western culture or economy, although the majority of them are geared solely around this culture. Those who become literate and conversant in urban, Africanised poetry and culture will stay on top of the evolution of the South African market and will therefore be better positioned to make more money,” he says adding that underground and commercial hip hop poets in this country frequently take aim at capitalism. He quotes lyrics from all female hip hop group, Godessa, as a case in point. 

It’s like a multi corporation wants complete invasion of my senses 
I sense this game of rands and cents complain when brands can lend their name and space 
to setting up new trends
campaigns offend public and individual expression again…

The need to understand an emerging new culture is a sentiment echoed by Kaschula: “The problem with marketers is that they are monolingual and they are not culturally aware. They only speak one language largely and they are not aware of societal issues outside of their demographic.” Kaschula advocates that the ideal marketing person in South Africa should be multi-lingual with a strong appreciation of the cultural diversity of this country.” He adds that poetry and culture are considerations in BEE where new philosophies and leadership styles will shape the way business is done in this country. 

“I saw a great cartoon the other day which paints the picture of an office where white people gawking from behind desks when the black director walks in with a praise poet in traditional garb. In the cartoon the white people are looking scared and perplexed, which is a strong commentary on black empowerment, affirmative action and the fear white people have of the cultural aspects that come with this,” says Kaschula, adding: “Praise poetry is considered the highest form of verbal art and people who can produce this are often found in close proximity to people in power or important positions.”

He believes that praise poets will become a bigger part of business and cites the example of Sasol who hired a praise poet to convince the workers to come back to work. “Business can manipulate this once they realise the emotional sway between workers and the poets,” he says adding that this wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term. “Authenticity is an important facet of poetry because the poet represents the middle ground between people in power and the people on the ground. If people cotton on to the fact that a poet has been bought over then the poet will lose his credibility and be displaced.”

Both Kaschula and Miller believe that poets have a powerful role to play in business in terms of creating cultural understanding, being the voice of the people, being used to influence people and to convey messages to people in power about how workers feel about issues as disparate as working conditions or products. They say poetry can bridge a gap between business and workers and consumers, as long as poets play the role of mediators and not propagandists.

The Poetry of Leadership

One poet who has become a mainstay of corporate life and is entrenching himself with business leaders is Irish borne David Whyte. In an industrial conversation that largely centres on bottom line performance, funding growth and increasing turnover, Whyte has introduced a new lexicon that speaks to the heart and soul. Using poetry to bring understanding to the process of change, he has helped clients such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, American Express, Boeing, Kodak, Toyota and Nedcor to understand individual and organisational creativity and apply that understanding to vitalise and transform the workplace. Whyte believes that work presents our greatest opportunity for self-discovery and growth, yet is the one place where we are least ourselves. Whyte says: “Our bodies can be present in our work but our hearts, minds and imaginations can be placed firmly in neutral or engaged elsewhere.” The danger he believes is that work is a powerful force in the shaping of our identity and if we do our work unthinkingly, Whyte maintains, it can shape us away into nothing. 

In order to appreciate the contribution that Whyte makes to business, lecturer and business consultant Retha Alberts believes one needs to put him and his work in the context of the new world of work and the changing role of business in society. Alberts is a specialist in Strategic Thinking, Corporate Governance and Ethics, as well as Leadership Development and lectures on these subjects at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. Alberts also works and lectures in Stockholm for the Applied International Management Programme and lectures to African business leaders in Sweden.

“Due to the fast pace at which decisions are taken and the dynamics of the external environment, people sometimes find it difficult to make sense of business itself and particularly of their own role in all of it,” says Alberts. “Employees no longer have a clear, ‘grand narrative’ according to which they can plan and organise their careers or their personal lives. This has been a cause of uncertainty and existential anxiety for most people. More than before, people seem to be increasingly searching for authenticity and for more meaning in business.”

Meaning and belonging are a strong theme of Whyte’s public talks, his work with business and his poetry. “There is a tremendous breadth and texture and colour to human life,” says Whyte, adding “it is this breadth and texture that poetry celebrates and works with. The poetic tradition has an understanding that each person has a particular way of being in the world and a particular way of belonging to the world. And that each person has a way of finding their particular place through the imagination. That the imagination is not the ability to think things up but the faith you would have in the images which reside in you at any one time. These images are actually making sense of an incredibly complicated and quite often chaotic world around you. The life of the imagination is the life of faith of your particular belonging in the world.”

Whyte talks of the human existence as a constant dialogue with life and of making a friend of the unknown. “If you can’t make a friend with the unknown then life will always appear as a kind of enemy or something that is constantly at your throat.” In the uncertainty that has become global markets and shifting economies, the question of a companionship with the unknown is a question of our time. “The severest test of work today is not of our strategies but of our imaginations and identities. For a human being, finding good work and doing good work is one of the ultimate ways of making a break for freedom,” writes Whyte in “Crossing The Unknown Sea: Work and the Shaping of Identity.” He believes that as humans we must understand that we carry enough burdens in the outer world not to want to replicate that same sense of burden in our inner selves.

For a world that has been consumed with power and the pursuit of profits, Whyte’s injunctions can come as relief. “Engaging with poetry aligns the power of the mind with the power of the heart and could play an increasingly important role in creating a totally new, changed business culture,” says Alberts. “Whyte challenges us all by asking us to rethink our daily habits and assumptions – through his poetry he forces us to look inside ourselves and to reflect on our own journeys.”

“Poets like David Whyte encourage us to explore and revisit our own ‘fiercer edges of life’ and because of this he and poets of his calibre will play an increasingly important role in business,” says Alberts. “Our personal journeys and the search for identity and self-actualisation, become more understandable and hopefully more meaningful, using poetry. In my own work with people in various organisations, I increasingly find an intense and earnest yearning for another way. People who seek to get away from business-as-usual to business-as-it-could be. Corporate business leaders repetitively express their yearning for “more meaning” in business,” she adds.

What is certain is that business requires new approaches and transformative thinking both in terms of the way it relates to consumers and interacts with culture, as well as the role it plays in people’s lives. Poets will no longer live outside the fringes of business but will become increasingly commonplace within the heart of the corporation as cultural decoders, praise singers, mediators between management and labour and as a facilitator for forging a new paradigm for leadership.

Mandy de Waal (mandy@soulcircle.co.za) is an award-winning communications consultant, writer, public speaker and founder of SoulCircle (Pty) Ltd (www.soulcircle.co.za). SoulCircle is a pioneering company that improves human and business performance through knowledge, wisdom and experience. A catalyst for mindshift, SoulCircle engages business and society on archetypal issues through transformative experiences hosted by some of the world’s best thinkers. 


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Last Updated: 01-02-2007