Communication is vitally important to building community. Despite this, we are often dreadfully uncreative when it comes to communicating with one another. In institutions and workplaces, meetings often prevail as the dominant form of communication. Our obsession with meetings has extended from the workplace into neighbourhoods as residents meet to create green maps, healthy community initiatives, or plan their next event.
Meetings have their place. In fact, I openly admit that I love meetings. Perhaps it is the face-to-face contact, in a world increasingly reliant on online communication. Perhaps it is because I have spent a good part of my life in communities that emphasize participatory democracy – which more often than not seems to mean meeting to create a lot of committees…that hold more meetings.
Nevertheless, meetings are limited in their usefulness. They often encourage participants to be relatively passive, often reinforce existing power structures, and are rarely physically structured in an inviting manner. In addition, meetings promote a particular way of thinking and acting. I wonder if we should try a completely different approach to conveying our thoughts, feelings and proposals. Instead of meetings filled with rules of order, noisy discussions, or ill-prepared statements, what if we took an approach that encouraged more reflection? For example, could poetry serve as a way to communicate with one-another in a more thoughtful manner? Would it force us to be more selective about what we say and therefore perhaps allow for deeper communication? Would it mean that we need to create more time for silent reflection and preparation?
In Yemen, the value of poetic communication has been recognized for centuries. Balahs, Zamils and Qasidahs are key forms of poetic political expression that have traditionally served to bring about change and influence decision-making. This is an excerpt from a Qasidah composed in 1998 asking the president of Yemen to address the inadequacy of widow’s pensions:
Where is the care for the shattered patient?
Where is the medicine or an examination for the diseases of the body?
My children number from one to ten
Behind the feral wolf, each one’s lot is drawn
[Her] daughters, family, and husband
All of them have sought a sprig of moist basil from me…yet there’s naught
My [only] aim is for a morsel of food, a satisfying life
That has honour, for the lack thereof is the stopping of breath
(Flagg Miller 2002, p. 114)
Organizations such as the World Bank and UNESCO have recognized the importance of this form of communication by funding Literacy through Poetry. This is a Yemen-based project aimed at using poetry and oral tradition to improve literacy and the ability to communicate among women.
The importance of poetry is catching on fast in the corporate world. David Whyte, a poet and Associate Fellow at Templeton College and Said Business School, focuses on how poetry and ‘thoughtful commentary’ can “foster courage and engagement” in corporate workplaces. In What Poetry Brings to Business, Clare Morgan “demonstrates that the skills necessary to talk and think about poetry can be of significant benefit to leaders and strategists, to executives who are facing infinite complexity and who are armed with finite resources in a changing world.”
In neighbourhoods, perhaps a less verbal, more open-air form of poetry is called for. Broadsided focuses on printing and posting one-page publications in coffee shops, telephone poles – even inside airplanes. Check out these simple instructions on spreading your ideas through poetry.
Whether it is in your office, neighbourhood, school, home or local constituency office, perhaps you could shake up your regular meetings with a little poetic communication. I would love to hear about anyone’s adventures in poetic communication, or other ideas about how to convey our thoughts in ways other than traditional meetings.
Certainly an interesting idea, but I’d really like to see how something like this would work in practice. As a high school English teacher I find most people — students and society at large — not just indifferent, but often openly hostile to poetry. At one time poetry was the dominant literary form, today it barely registers. As a result, modern readers (and writers) simply don’t really understand the form and if we don’t understand its underlying structure and conventions, it’s hard to imagine that it would be a useful format to communicate clearly to one and other, especially in a meeting. I think that it might have some value in forcing people out of their comfort zone (in much the same way that having an abstract art activity at a meeting might) and you might solicit some different ideas as a result, but overall I’m not sure that people really have the tools to make use of poetry effectively. Poetry — with its economy of rich language — has so much potential, but in my experience people usually deal with their discomfort over the form with eye rolling and sarcasm — something that you’d want to keep in mind before trying to work into a meeting of any kind.
Firstly, I would endorse the idea that communication needs more channels and methods in order to ensure that key messages, attitudes, values etc can be shared with more people, particularly those who are rejecting conventional media as untrustworthy and biased – or at least with a vested interest. On Scott’s point about the scepticism or lack of interest with which Poetry is treated, I think Clare Morgan’s book merits a closer look. She writes the book in a highly readable form and directly addresses the sceptical reader by recognizing the objections and providing the answers. I do wonder why so many people are ‘anti’ poetry or have rejected it in adult life when we all grew up with a widely used form it called nursery rhymes! Is this the bi-product or our modern education systems?
I really appreciate these comments. Part of the point here is that how we communicate is linked to our personal and cultural backgrounds. I am very comfortable with meetings, but this is a product of whom I am, my past experiences and my skill set. My experience in relying on a certain style of meetings has made me very aware that there are many people who come from cultural backgrounds that see communication in a different light. Gaining a glimpse of their perspectives, and witnessing their modes of communication, has drawn attention to my own occasional dearth of creativity and weakness in listening.
For example, as a school administrator, I had a student who would come to my office and just want to sit silently – for a long time. She explained that where she comes from, this is the norm. People comfortably sit in rooms with one another in silence, which in itself is a form of interaction. When someone had something to say, they said it. People appreciated that words were spoken thoughtfully, following a long silence. Speaking quickly or too frequently could be seen as naive and frustrating. Given my hectic schedule, it took me a while to understand and develop patience for this way of interacting. When I did, I was better for having done so.
I have also had colleagues and students who communicate their point in a meeting or class by telling a story, reciting a poem, or reading a quotation. There are always others in the meeting who flick their pens or itch to open their laptops as they impatiently wait for the speaker to reach their point. For the person telling the story, she is speaking in a way that makes her feel comfortable and in the end, is making an important point just by communicating the point in a way different from the norm in the room.
Poetry is not the only way to think about communication differently. I am keen to continue to explore the ways in which we can expand the contexts in which we communicate in our institutional and place-based communities.
I’ve noticed that these alternative communication forms help break the dominant patterns that we tend to subscribe to currently. Seeing or hearing a poem or other form of creative reflection seems to invite respite and deeper levels of thought in what is often a rapid fire world. Thanks for bringing this forward.
Poetry is not merely a thing – a literary form – but also a process, a way of perceiving the world. In some of the social sciences, including my own discipline – anthropology – there is a democratizing move away from “academic writing” in the direction of new forms of writing that have the potential to attract new readerships within and beyond academia. Mostly, anthropologists have turned to narrative as they experiment with new forms of writing. Since 1990, even major journals of anthropology contain articles that use such narrative conventions as a focus on story, dialogue, and point of view. There is a new emphasis on the human voice, or many voices, competing in their interpretations of experience. Poetry, like narrative, has much to teach academic writers today. From poetry, I have learned about metaphor as a means of “capturing”, evoking and communicating experience. I also have learned a new appreciation of the sensory world. Traditional anthropologists relied almost exclusively on one of their senses – sight. We were observers far more than participants, and what we saw during the course of our research was the source of our understandings and claim to knowledge. With the help of poetry, anthropologists are re-engaging with all of the human senses. A new sensory anthropology is part of the same movement that has given rise to interpretive anthropology, narrative anthropology, and the anthropology of experience. My point is: we need new tools to help us communicate our new understandings to new audiences and readerships. I don’t believe in the feasibility of anthropology written as poetry (at least, not as a way of reaching a broad audience), but I do think that poets and poetry have much to teach us as we search for new ways to engage our students, our peers, and even the general public.