It was either 2013 or 2014. I don’t remember the year as precisely as I do the moment. And honestly, I don’t even remember the poem. It’s the act of the poem that I recall viscerally.
I was several years into being an executive director and we were, as an organization, trying to find our footing on a path to centering race equity and justice in our work. I sensed at the board level anxieties about the pace of change, about alienating longtime stakeholders, about what financial resources would or would not be around the bend. It was the first board meeting of a newly elected board chair. We gathered around the conference table, each of us trying to find our second wind at 5:00 p.m., and he said, “Before we begin, I’d like to read a poem.”
In choosing to read a poem as his first leadership act as a board chair, he declared that the board space would be one driven as much by the heart as by the mind. He declared it a space of meaning-making, not merely decision-making. As an executive director, it said to me, “I am going to help you. You can count on this space being useful to the organization’s journey.”
Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist at the University of Exeter, did a small study that compared brain activity in response to types of language. “When the team specifically compared poetry to prose, they found evidence that poetry activates brain regions associated with introspection—such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes.” So many of the spaces we create in organizational life are prose rather than poetry, aren’t they?
Poetry, even the simple act of someone reading a poem that means something to them to start a meeting, can shift a space in powerful ways, conveying that people are invited to engage emotionally and creatively. And we need shifted spaces to have the conversations we have never had.
Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner—what is it?
if not intensified by the sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.1
—Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell
So much of what’s difficult about leadership concerns knowing. I should know what to do. I do know what to do, but others can’t yet see it. I think I know what to do, but perhaps I am missing something crucial. Regardless of what I “know,” we need to arrive at knowing collectively. And on it goes. As leaders, our relationship to knowing is at a permanent boil. We must get very comfortable moving forward while still finding out.
The sublime thing about reading a poem is to surrender to the possibility of not knowing. As I read a poem for the first time, I may find an immediate affinity, or I may find myself immediately adrift. I may break through to an understanding in two or three reads of it, or it may take 30 or 40 to hear even reliable hints of what I am actually being told. With some poems, I decide that I am never going to know; with others, I fall in love without ever fully making sense of them entirely.
But the surrender of reading poetry, like that of exercising leadership, is anything but powerless. However implausibly, it actually fortifies our relationship to self and to those we touch. There is great power in a seeker’s surrender.
Poetry is not resting on the given,
but a questing towards what might otherwise be.2
As leaders, we arrange incessantly. We arrange ideas. We arrange teams. We arrange resources. We arrange partnerships. Arranging and rearranging to get closer to a vision, we pay compulsive attention to organizational syntax.
Reading poetry strengthens our observation and appreciation for what goes where. Bliss comes in noticing each word’s selection and placement, even as we register the words’ cumulative effect. This is a remarkable parallel to the day-to-day design leaders do. We pursue elegance and amplification through, and on behalf of, all of an organization’s elements.
But there is a caution here too. Where we put things certainly matters, but perhaps less than the care and the delight we take in picking them up. Putting them in play. In motion. Even the most intentional syntax is, after all, a means to a mysterious, unknowable end.
Let the end come
as the best parts of living have come
unsought and undeserved
- “Ah, not to be cut off,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, as cited in Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, p. 339.
- As quoted by Maggie Doherty in “The Long Awakening of Adrienne Rich,” The New Yorker, November 23, 2020.
- From Dove’s poem “Last Words,” The New Yorker, January 18, 2021.