In Search of a More Poetic Workplace

Reading poetry can stimulate the brain in ways that could improve your employees’ ability to serve customers and help your company grow.

When you think of poetry, you may think of home libraries and personal pursuits, but there also could be a place for poetry in offices.

I started life with dreams of becoming a creative writer, and I still write short stories on my own literary blog, ImaginationTigers, but in my work life, I have long put literature out of my head. Well, mostly put it out of my head. When I worked in-person in an office, I had an Emily Bronte poem tacked over my desk. The poem, if anyone bothered to read it, gave off vibes of escape and wanting to be left alone in nature. From a career ambition standpoint, it probably wasn’t the smartest message to send.

However, I highly doubt anyone ever stopped to read it. Many people assume they won’t understand it, and if they do, that it will be of no use to them.

Late the night before I wrote this blog, I was awake looking up poems online that I particularly like, including “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake, “Because I could not stop for death” by Emily Dickenson, and “Awake Ye Muses Nine, Sing Me a Strain Divine,” also by Emily Dickenson. I felt rundown, and needed an infusion of something that would be joyful and consoling without pragmatic purpose.

Yet I wondered if the poetry I turn to sometimes for enjoyment and enrichment could have its place in workforce management. That’s when I found “How Reading Literature and Poems Can Improve Your Employee Results” on Open Sourced Workplace.

James Collins notes how reading poetry can stimulate the brain in ways that could improve your employees’ ability to serve customers and help your company grow.

For example, he notes that poetry triggers an emotional response, and that it improves cognitive functioning. That 2 p.m. slump employees have been known to experience after lunch? What if you had a small library in your office or online with poetry or excerpts from larger works of literature that employees could use to refresh their minds and spirits? You could even incentivize them to visit the library, offering the opportunity to earn extra vacation days. Employees could submit a paragraph after reading a selection from the library that summarizes what they think the literary selection is about, and how and why it lifts their spirits, and, possibly, ideas it gave them about their work. At the end of every month, an appointed person in the Learning or Human Resources department would review the entries, and choose the best one, with the winner earning an extra vacation day.

It’s worth strongly encouraging employees to read fiction and poetry. “In fact, poetry pushes the boundaries of language, stretching the traditional meaning and sounds of words. Researchers say that while trying to process those extraordinary linguistic acrobatics, our brain functioning reaches its peak levels, which helps to strengthen our overall cognitive health,” Collins writes.

I read poetry for 5 to 10 minutes every night before bed, and I am always reading a novel. At the moment, I have embarked on the ambitious project of reading the whole “In Search of Lost Time” series by Marcel Proust, which my late mother gifted to me years ago. It’s challenging with sentences that are so long you can lose track of what the author was talking about at the beginning of a sentence by the time you reach the end. There are aspects of the first book in the series, “Swann’s Way,” that, nevertheless, I am enjoying. At the same time, the challenge of reading this book sometimes seems to make my brain sharper. I still fall into slumps (especially when I’m overworked), but the more I read, the sharper and faster my brain seems to function.

It’s important when reading literature to allow yourself to sample a variety of forms. For instance, I just finished reading Emily Bronte’s collected poems, and now am reading the spring 1982 edition of the literary journal, Poetry Northwest, which I found on one of the used book carts outside the famous Strand Book Store here in New York City. Similarly, I likely will break up the Proust series with more modern novels. Like your employees’ non-literary pursuits in your office, it’s best to avoid repetition and monotony.

That means that a corporate repository of poetry and literature should include classic, older works and the most modern selections, such as from The Best American Poetry series, which releases a new edition each year.

Collins writes that reading a complex work of poetry can even help employees learn how to do their assignments more efficiently: “Sidney Harman, the founder of Harman Industries, asked his senior staff to hire poets as managers as he believes they have an original system of thinking. In other words, they can look at the most complex environments and reduce their complexity so they become more understandable for others.”

A company that takes the time to collect and catalog a small, but meaningful, literary library shows employees that its leaders are well-rounded, “big picture” thinkers. A company with a library for employees shows itself to be capable of understanding the elements beneath the surface that drive people to do their best work.

Does your organization have a literary library available to employees? What would it take for your organization to assemble one, make it available to employees, and encourage them to use it?