Workin' Words

Poet David Whyte visits Tucson to help government and business employees keep language real.

In the west of Ireland, when they say something will "set you straight," according to poet David Whyte, it means that "you have to look the world in the eyes and you don't like what you're seeing, but at least it's the truth."

Unlike the typical language of business and government, poetry will set us straight, he says, since poetry is too authentic to allow lies. That's one of the messages he'll bring to Tucson today as he speaks to government and local business employees in two presentations sponsored by the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

Whyte has carved a unique niche in the worlds of poetry and business. In 1986, he left his career as a marine biologist to became a full-time poet, something that didn't exactly elicit a rousing "Great career move!" from anyone. But Whyte, son of an Irish mother and Yorkshire father, believed his destiny was to help bring poetry back into the mainstream of North America and Western Europe.

Since then, he has become an internationally-known consultant to companies such as Boeing, BP, AT&T, Honeywell, Mayo Clinic, Shell Oil and others, including the League of California Cities, where he began working with city governments.

Using poetry--his and that of others-- he demonstrates how authentic language can start real conversations in the workplace. "Poetry is about getting the most precise picture of what is really going on," he says. "The language we've inherited in the work world is simply not able to do that."

Take Enron, for instance, a subject much on his mind these days. "The amazing thing about the Enron debacle is that we realize how much of our society and our media has been Enronized," he explains.

The language of the business world was used to cover up all that was rotten in the company. "It's the way any language used for manipulation eventually corrupts," he says. "I'm sure none of those executives sat down and said, 'Let's screw the employees.' And none of them said, 'Let's line our own pockets." But it was all done in proxy language in which it's all fine and dandy on the surface-- it's dressed up--but everyone knows that's what's happening. They'll have some justification for it, in some wonderful corporate-speak somewhere, and all of these incredibly polite conversations had just awful consequences at the end."

It's these unreal conversations that Whyte seeks to end, that clinical, strategic language that becomes so incredibly expensive for the humans involved as well as in dollars and cents. Part of the reason we engage in so many of them at work is because "our investment in second-hand experience far outweighs our willingness to trust our own direct experience," he says. "You get a certain energy or direction behind certain language, and the language may be completely untrue and inaccurate, and people will not challenge the original language that's being used."

Fortunately, poetry is able to tackle the problems humanity faces. "It gives people metaphors big enough for what is going on," explains Whyte. The cold-blooded, strategic doublespeak of work is totally unable to deal with what really happens there, a sort of "Shakespeare writ large," he says, with "dramatic entrances and exits, blood on the floor, passionate speeches, suicides, and assassinations at night." These places are crammed with human passion and the need to belong.

Enron holds such a metaphor, according to Whyte. He'll soon be going to London to do a presentation with Richard Olivier, Laurence Olivier's son, called "Leading at the Edge of Chaos," in which they'll use Hamlet to help explain what happened at Enron. "It's a perfect parallel for 'something rotten in Denmark,'" he says.

Whyte believes the same thing is happening with distorted language about terrorism coming out of Washington. "There's a kind of neurosis where terrorism is being used to manipulate people in the worst way," Whyte says. "It's terribly corrupt and terribly dangerous, I think."

He says the French, who are being criticized for not supporting the U.S. in the so-called war on terrorism, are "actually a voice of sanity. They're saying, you can't look at everything in the world now through the lens of terrorism. It's simply not true, and it's simply not a good way of creating a future."

So what does all this have to do with Tucson? City Manager James Keene heard Whyte during his time as the city manager of Berkeley, Calif., and was favorably impressed. "He explains the role of poetry and language in bringing out the role of the whole human being, which is what comes to work," Keene says.

The message is particularly apt for government employees. "In public life, so much involves communication," says Keene. "What Whyte offers is that there are many ways of communication that can be used. Not necessarily poetry per se, but many ways. Whyte reaffirms for our employees that there's a role for authentic conversation in the workplace, and there's the opportunity to build stronger relationships with our partners in the community."

Many of Whyte's messages for business and government are the same. Yet for government audiences, he helps them see the two customers they're serving--"the people who live in the town and the natural environment that makes your place particularly unique."

Furthermore, he reminds us that public servants have imaginations of their own. "They have to make it an equal conversation so they're not just doing what other people ask them and be proactive and provide something, a preferred future for everyone."

Anyone who works can benefit from Whyte's message.

"We have in a strange way said that work is more important than anything else," he explains, "We're spending more hours there, so if we're not asking the great questions of life in the workplace, we'd only be able to ask them in the 4 or 5 percent of the time that's left to us after work is all done. So I think it's really important we have the language that brings this other revelation into the workplace."