Can Reading Poetry Ruin Your Career?

A new column from a 9 to 5-er who fears too much poetry could get him fired.

by Jeff Gordinier
This poetry thing—it’s starting to worry me.

The way some people talk about it, you’d think reading a poem every morning was like swallowing a capsule of cod liver oil: it sharpens your vision, expands your lungs, wards off the plague. It’s a psychic antitoxin. It reconnects you with the world around you. It’s good for you.

I’m not so sure about that. I mean, yeah, okay, it’s true that you can swim around in a great poem and find yourself caught up in a concentrated moment of clarity and stillness. My point is, are concentrated moments of clarity and stillness really what you want in your life? Doesn’t that kind of sound like a recipe for disaster, at least from a career standpoint?

Every time I’m on the commuter train heading into Manhattan and I’m reading a poem and I get hit by that whole clarity-and-stillness thing, I start to wonder why the hell I’m even going to work. All of a sudden I’m like Jim Carrey on the LIRR in that opening scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: I need to focus, I need to be on my game, I need to banish any stray and wispy self-undermining impulses, I need to be tidy and sharp and hard, I need to do all these things if I want to realize my ambitions, and yet I want to get off at the next station and hop a train headed in the opposite direction. And look, I can’t do that! I can’t go wandering around a beach contemplating Kate Winslet and the nature of love and memory. I’ve got a family to feed.

The other morning, as I sat yawning on the 8:13 express while plenty of good, responsible Americans around me got on their handheld devices and started pecking out important instructions to their underlings and real estate agents, I came across a short poem by Robert Bly, a haunting four-liner called “Watering the Horse.”

“How strange to think of giving up all ambition!” Bly writes in the poem. “Suddenly I see with such clear eyes / The white flake of snow / That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!”

At first I thought: Yes! He’s right! Clear eyes! Look around: There’s the wake of a Canadian freighter on the surface of the Hudson River, the summer-green cliffs of the Palisades, the blur of cars on the George Washington Bridge.

Then I thought: Jesus, what am I doing? I’ve got work to do. Why am I contemplating this river-and-cliff stuff? I ought to be on my handheld device tapping away important instructions to somebody; otherwise I’ll look lazy. And I don’t even own a handheld device! Focus, damn it! Look, I’m happy for Mr. Bly that he’s got time to think about horses and snowflakes, but I’m guessing property taxes in Minnesota are a lot lower than they are here in Westchester County. Giving up all ambition is not an option for me. If I don’t stay on the ball, I’m doomed.

All of those how-to-succeed-in-business books tell you that you’ve got to be “proactive” when it comes to personal advancement, but I don’t feel very proactive when I’m reading poetry. I don’t feel active at all. The British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg once put out an album called Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, and the truth of the matter is built right into that title: You can’t. I’ve tried. The taxman looks at you as though you’re crazy. (People always talk about how tax forms are hard to understand? Well, they’re a cakewalk compared to anything by Joshua Clover.)

Anyway, this is exactly why poetry’s starting to worry me. Because the more I read poems like “Watering the Horse,” the more I crave them. Before you know it, “Watering the Horse” has led to Wallace Stevens and his blackbirds, and William Carlos Williams and his plums in the icebox, and Kay Ryan and her hailstorm, and Allen Ginsberg and his supermarket in California, and Mary Oliver and her blackberries, and Galway Kinnell and his blackberries (what is it about blackberries?), and Wordsworth gazing at London from the Westminster Bridge. Before you know it, there are entire 20-minute blank-out sessions on that morning express train when I’m not paying attention to whether the fund allocation in my 401(k) is aggressive enough, or whether my four-year-old daughter is on the fast track to the Ivy League, or whether my boss still sees me as a crucial part of the team.

And that’s a problem. Because really, if you’re not paying close attention to that stuff every minute of the day, you’re not going to get ahead.

Why we continue to have a National Poetry Month in this country is a mystery to me, because if everybody really did read and write and listen to a ton of poetry in a single month, American productivity would go down the drain, and our economy’s already got enough trouble as it is. Commuters would be blowing off their morning trains and pulling over to the side of the highway to look at shafts of sunlight on the sides of office buildings. Cubicle drones, spellbound by Sylvia Plath, would be calling in sick with that old 24-hour-stomach-virus excuse. The stock market would flatline.

Lately I’ve been trying to apply some reasonable limits to my poetry consumption. I don’t want it to get out of hand. If we’re talking about general parameters, I guess I try to keep in mind Frank O’Hara and his “lunch poems.” Maybe if I can just streamline things so that I’m thinking about poetry only when I go across the street to get a plate of chicken tikka masala for lunch, I’ll be okay. In fact, just last week I flipped to O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them,” in which he slips out of an office somewhere (“It’s my lunch hour, so I go / for a walk. . . .”) and muses on the swarm of Times Square at noon: the hot sun, the neon, the cheeseburgers, the magazine stands.

O’Hara seems to have the right idea. Go ahead and take your little walk around the block, sure, but don’t wander too far. A guy wants to keep his job, right? Yeah, I think I’m going to have to look at my whole poetry fixation the way O’Hara puts it toward the end of the poem: “A glass of papaya juice / and back to work.”
Originally Published: October 2, 2006


On November 13, 2006 at 11:15am eduard wrote:
I agree with your comments, but the problem is

not with the poetry it is with our burning desire

of getting ahead. I think that we should not put

ourself to one extreme or the other but rather

reach them both at once.


On January 5, 2007 at 7:42pm Susan wrote:
Check out Dana Gioia's poem "In Cheever Country." It's about the same commute down the Hudson.

On February 4, 2007 at 6:54pm Alan wrote:
"Then there was the issue of clothing: Would my indie-rock T-shirt be appropriate at the sushi place, or would it come across as too downscale, in which case would I need to change in the car? Oh, and, my rental car looked a little putzy—wouldn’t it make more sense to take Jeremy’s SUV, this being L.A. and all?"

Seems like poetry is the last thing YOU need to worry about, champ!

On June 8, 2007 at 9:20am Terry Marie Jeffery Venzant wrote:
I think we need to find a balance in life. Sure we need to work, take care of ourselves, raise our children, and interact with each other. Above all of that we need to connect with our inner being. What better way than through poetry. The medium of it, the expansiveness of it is so complete in itself. It allows us to be who we are... or are not.... So, I am not trying to defend the activity of poetry but commend the fact that Poetry is. And I love

On March 28, 2008 at 8:38am Chris Lopez wrote:
I may be wrong but I think that people are missing the irony of Jeff's piece.

On May 4, 2008 at 7:39am Cjoyce Lyons wrote:
Dear Ones, I am old now, and I feel that I may tell all of you that poetry is what we reserve for ourselves, our mind, our sanity.......... that softness and calm after a rage or heartbreak or loss or too much is the gold weight that tips our mind's scale back to balance. Indulge moderately....

PS We still have National Poetry Month, because there are still some warriors who refuse to die...Count me one!!!

On July 8, 2008 at 3:32pm Cindy Calix wrote:
I must say that I agree with Cjoyce...the overwhelming battles that we have to fight cannot be fought without the beauty we find around us...if we take in too much of the perspectives of the world, and not enough of our own, then is when we lose ourselves...find beauty in everything, even in work

On January 17, 2009 at 5:12pm Sarah Bowman wrote:
What a great piece! Very funny & Enjoyable. People - lighten up or switch out the papaya juice from some prune juice.

On November 15, 2009 at 6:41pm animal Monday wrote:

Poetry is for those of us whose careers have already crashed and burned--and who therefore have nothing left to lose. We need Wallace Stevens to tell us that the only thing that matters are those damn blackbirds, that Sunday mornings really are about the complacencies of the peignoir. Because that's what we who have failed have left--days on end of Sunday mornings. What was it Hemingway said? "Life breaks us all?" Poetry makes us strong where we are broken, Ernest. Poetry teaches us that surrender isn't that bad after all, especially if the war is long lost. Poetry keeps those of us who wave from the shore remembering the self we'd thought we lost to the water.

On February 24, 2010 at 11:25am John Burgoon wrote:
It's OK, Jeff, don't despair! Poets can't hurt you! Just introduce a little jazz "call and response" to get yourself back into the saddle:

How bad to think of giving up all ambition! Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
How this slight loss of get-up-n-go
Is eroding my 401k!

On February 24, 2010 at 9:01pm John Carmichael wrote:
That is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

I actually took Bly's lead, threw my iPhone out the window, started reading Basho, and hiking in the canyons with my dogs.

the temple bell stops
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers

Three months later I was separated, broke, and having the time of my life.


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 Jeff   Gordinier


Jeff Gordinier is the author of X Saves the World and has written for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Details, Esquire, GQ, Elle, Spin, Creative Nonfiction, and Entertainment Weekly. His work has been included in anthologies such as Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Food Writing, and Best Creative Nonfiction. He lives close to the Hudson River with his wife and two children.

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