American poetry has defined business mainly by excluding it. Business does not exist in the world of poetry, and therefore by implication it has become everything that poetry is not – a world without imagination, enlightenment, or perception. It is the universe from which poetry is trying to escape.
- Dana Gioia, “Business and Poetry,” in Can Poetry Matter?
Gioia is probably right, because he usually is. But why? Surely the relationships we form at work are as compelling and as debilitating as any Edna Millay or Sylvia Plath wrote about.
Can We Talk?
You know my feelings.
Close enough, anyway, there's no need
To tell you my heart.
It would do no good.
If desire commanded affection
I would already be
Your line manager,
Next up for promotion,
Policymaker tagged for a bonus and,
One day, options.
It doesn’t all have to be about feelings, either. There is a poetry of ideas. Muriel Rukeyser wrote about ideas like peace and war and justice and even literature in a most concrete and disturbing way. Similarly, what is industry but concretizing ideas, and then monetizing them?
Every day at 4:00 I wheel my bin
Around the office, collecting
Really awful ideas. I've met
Some stinkers. Offshoring
Office services was one, it smelled
Pretty bad, and so did virtualization
Of HVAC, which would have saved
Millions (euros or dollars), but just
Reeked. I don't mind. I've got an n90 mask,
And blue plastic gloves, like
Airport security. We used
To take them out and burn them, but now
We recycle. It's greener. That one
Got through while I was on leave.
Walt Whitman, that most American of poets and most poetic of Americans, wrote about taking the Brooklyn Ferry. There is nothing that tastes and smells more of business than the commute home from it. Maybe for once Dana Gioia got it wrong. Maybe Americans do make poetry about their work.
The Water Trade in Newark, New Jersey
Women wait with brush and rag to service
The men whose scuffed shoes plunge for trains
To Little Silver and Long Branch. One yields
Himself to them, delicately thrilled, debauched,
For shining. The P.A. calling “next to arrive”
Flogs on the crowd of jealous, down-turned eyes
To board their moving trains and flee, as best
They can, the water trade, in Newark.