Dear Mr. Rasmus,
Firstly, thank you for your exploration of the link between innovation and poetry in your recent article in Fast Company, “How Innovation Is More Poetry Than Science.” As a student and apprentice practitioner of both, I also feel that the common behaviors of each have much to learn from the other, that poetry can make innovation braver and more in tune with the connective features of nominally disparate systems and ideas, and that innovation can teach poetry about collaborative energy and co-generative impact. Several of the points that you made, however, made me wish for clarification or expansion, and when I attempted to clarify and expand on those ideas myself, I generated a few additional grounds for connection, which I’ve separated into the four categories below, entitled: “Invitation,” “Audacity,” “Process,” and “Imagination.”
To aid me in my explication of poetry, its systems, and how they may apply to innovation, I’ve borrowed from the The Life of Poetry, a prose work by mid-20th century activist and poet Muriel Rukeyser, and from Address, the most recent collection of poems by 2012 Guggenheim Fellow and National Poetry Series contributor Elizabeth Willis.
Thank you for your work, and for your readership.
You argue in the final paragraph of your article that: “Poets affect people’s perceptions of the world, and to do that, they must extend their world so that others can interact with it. It isn’t enough to end a poem well, the poem must find a home to be really meaningful.” It is often said that a poem is only as strong as the relationship it develops with its reader. With this in mind, I see the work of a poet as being grounded not in creating meaning nor in affecting the reader, but in inviting the reader to experience the features of their world in a new way. Rukeyser expands upon this idea, enumerating how and what a poem invites: “A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response” (11).
From the perspective of innovation, it seems that social innovators, who are often wedded to their ideas (a feature of innovation which, you note, can harm innovation projects when it becomes extreme) would benefit from seeing their work as an invitation to respond, as a vehicle for igniting participation. To use one of your examples, the iPod is an excellent demonstration of a work of innovation that acts as a vehicle for participation, which is the source of its strength. People, it seems, impact their own perceptions of the world when they encounter new information or present themselves to the world in new ways, inciting a new response. Using this model, the strongest innovations are those that invite participation, as are the strongest poems.
For example, the following excerpt from Willis’s “Take This Poem” invites the reader into personal and political exchange, into a state of Rukeyser’s “total response,” by asking for a range of actions that invite the application of a complete self on the part of the reader: “Take my wife/even if I meant/to keep her/Take my share/I don’t need it/Take as long/as you need to/Take this line/between breathing/and voting” (lines 28-37) The democratizing invitation of total response, and not the hierarchical desire to impact others by means of the poet’s own views is crucial to what innovators can learn from poetry.
You argue earlier that: “Poetry is not about words. Poetry is about the right words. Innovation isn’t about ideas. Innovation is about the right ideas.” Rukeyser challenges this, arguing that poetry is not about being right, but about being brave enough and imaginative enough to see what’s possible: “But the reality of all the arts is that of the imagination. The fear of poetry is an indication that we are cut off from our own reality…Always we need the audacity to speak for more freedom, more imagination, more poetry with all its meanings” (30). Again, if a poem is only as strong as its relationship with a given reader, there are no right words. No poem will impact all readers, no matter how structurally dynamic or formally sound, and there is no poem that does only or always one thing. Innovation, similarly is about the bravest ideas, and about having the audacity and the carefulness to bring them to life.
Willis echoes a commitment to audacity in the poem “May Day”: “I too lived in Arcadia/in a house made of straw/a gutter world of kindness/The poet’s secret is/nothing to lose” (lines 1-5)
You defend poetry from the characterization of those unfamiliar with it by saying: “Many outside of poetry imagine poets as free-form thinkers, sprinkling words along a page until they run out of inspiration. Poets, however, are more architects and tinkerers than verbal Jackson Pollocks.” Pollock, for the record, was both an architect and a tinkerer. Like many poets, he was committed to active, procedural exploration. Through his action paintings, Pollock engaged the formal reaches of what his paintings could do, returning to his central questions and asking them over again by performing the process that generated his gestural abstractions.
Poets, too, are grounded by asking many of the same questions over again and using the poetic process, as you say, to let themselves be surprised. Willis creates within “In Strength Sweetness” both a representative model and a study of how dimensions nest within both poetic process and, at their best, poems themselves: “in your city/its anger/ in your anger/a harbor/ in your harbor/a boat/ in the boat/open sea” (lines 29-32). In their work to create interdisciplinary and multidimensional work, innovators strive for the layers of different ways of thinking, pulled together by the dogged commitment to cutting back, itself a process that you recommend. In order to bring about work of such a multidimensional character, a commitment to process is essential.
You argue at the commencement of the article that: “American state and national legislators and leaders relentlessly harp on the need for STEM (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math that suffers as a marketing tool due to its meaningless abstraction), but this mindset does not recognize the need for well-rounded, culturally connected, researchers and readers who extend themselves beyond simple categories of knowledge in order to create innovation.” However, despite your insistence that cultural connectedness and well-rounded thinking are necessary tools for dynamic innovators, you state that: “As poets need a large vocabulary to precisely convey their meaning, innovators need a deep vocabulary of science and practice, engineering and management, to construct their innovative wares,” stripping innovators of the very ideas of cultural connection and imaginative thinking that you argue earlier are necessary.
Rukeyser argues that imagination is essential to the maintenance of culture, without which innovators would have no context, no forum, and no future: “The security of the imagination lies in calling, all our lives, for more liberty, more rebellion, more belief. As far as we do that, our culture is alive” (30). The maintenance of culture as a living force rests with innovators as much, perhaps, as it does with poets, if innovation seeks to use different features of lived experience to make the world we live in both more expansive and more effective. In order to invite the greatest possible impact, innovation, like poetry, needs to be able to draw from all sources, to be equal parts science and imagination.
Willis models this in “Incidental Knowledge” by creating a poetics in which a range of features of life are relevant to one another: “A poem ends/when the sound of it is finished/ Let me show you this floor swept clean/No strings, no reconstituted lights/ A brick is not a peach/Getting isn’t making/ A color is not a weapon/or an archive of the moon” (lines 13-18) Innovation isn’t more poetry than science if poetry is equal parts science and imagination itself. Innovation, then, becomes strongest when it is equally poetry and science, putting one into conversation with the other.