John Keats, the famous 19th century poet, became part of the Italian family holiday this summer.
Dragging hefty luggage up to our 3rd floor apartment in central Rome’s searing heat, we eventually recovered to learn ’26 Piazza di Spagna’ (next to the Spanish Steps) was also Keats’ place of rest. In-fact, the floor below us was a museum dedicated to the great man.
Curiosity sparked (be assured, my literary knowledge wouldn’t fill a postcard) I selected one of the many biographies made available in our apartment. His life fascinated me.
Born in 1795, Keats discovered his poetic ability as a teenager and then worked tirelessly to fulfil his talent. He gave up his studies (to be a surgeon) so he could focus solely on writing; his first work was published in the Examiner when he was 20 (1816). Even though the death of his parents led to a life of poverty he never wavered from his passion. His poetry is now world-renowned but it was decades after his death before his work was really recognised. Tuberculosis cut his life tragically short and he died in Rome aged 25.
Absorbed in 200 year-old history I instinctively sensed a strong weave of entrepreneurial fabric in Keats’ character. Even though his life was difficult, his poetry is centred around creative imagination as well as beauty and typically possesses an optimistic view of the world. Living at a time of the industrial revolution his ‘romantic‘ writing helped forge a new brand of poetry that veered from the status quo. And Keats found that just like today, if you’re going to be different, you have to be thick skinned.
The critics of the time were often savage with their reviews of his work. For example, when the now famous Endymion was published in the Examiner in 1818, Keats’ poetry was condemned. But in a letter to a friend, he demonstrates real resilience in his philosophical outlook as well as deep strength of character:
“In Endymion I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the soundings, the quicksands and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe and took tea and comfortable advice – I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest…”
Seeking an audience
By choosing to earn his living as a poet Keats had to publish his work to make money. And just like the start-up who must develop and sell a new service or product, he had to connect with an audience.
As entrepreneurs know only too well, the journey to the point where a relationship with an audience is sustainable can be fraught with difficulty and setback. Fear of rejection and failure as well as criticism from others (the journey’s ‘rocks’ and ‘quicksands’) unfortunately prevent many ideas from leaving the ‘harbour’. Having faith and being prepared to ‘leap headlong into the sea’ requires bravery and a measure of self-belief.
It seems to me that the poet and entrepreneur share a similar space. Creating something completely new requires skill, imagination and a certain talent. Being prepared and able to share the new creation publicly opens up a world of new experience and invokes a common suite of positive and negative feelings that all need to be understood and harnessed.
So how can you use poetry to connect with and reach your audience?
There’s a ‘library’ of poems out there which have all been written to inspire people to make the most of their lives. Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem entitled ‘If’ (which Andy Murray will have read part of on his walk out to win Wimbledon in 2013) is a famous example. Less well known is the beautifully written ‘How do you tackle your work’ by Edgar Guest and I’m grateful to Acme Printing for helping me find the wonderfully apt second verse:
“You can do as much as you think you can,
But you’ll never accomplish more;
If you’re afraid of yourself, young man,
There’s little for you in store.
For failure comes from the inside first,
It’s there if we only knew it,
And you can win, though you face the worst,
If you feel that you’re going to do it.”
You’ll also find several suitable references to Dead Poets Society on the web; but if you’re serious about including or embedding the use of poems more widely within your own work, I thoroughly recommend the Poetry Foundation as an excellent source of great material.
And of course, if you are seeking someone who is a seasoned user of poetry in teaching and training circles, I suggest you make contact with the highly engaging Alistair Fee – a well renowned thought leader and Professor of Innovation at Queens University Belfast. Professor Fee is convinced that poetry adds real value in class.
“The joy of poetry” says Alistair “is enjoying clever use of language in which meaning is squeezed into a few words and where the reader has to use imagination to ferret out the deep significance. And innovators and entrepreneurs must work like poets because they require patience, tenacity, determination, vision and commitment in order to succeed.”
Professor Fee also says that poems such as ‘Rough Country’ (Dana Gioia) really work with students because the words encourage a sense of risk and ‘true grit’.
“Students want to be released,” says Alistair. “They want to be told that one is allowed to be bold and daring, that we need explorers and tough guys who dare to think differently and do things that many will not attempt…”
Whether an Italian holiday counts as exploration I’m not sure. But homeward bound and gazing from my window seat aboard the plane, I considered how best to reference poetry and hitchhiking. With the Italian Dolomites beneath me and only the occasional wisp of cloud between us the answer appeared quite naturally and I felt compelled to write.
Life that meanders on even keel
Suffers usual mists n’ wasteful feel
So seize it now, head up, alone
Step out to failure, and test unknown
Be brave, accept rejection’s wrath
In patience, sense the strength you have
For fortune’s arrows will be drawn
Rejoice the time of distance worn
Engage the giving, discover new
Beliefs, perspectives and what’s true
And as each odyssey finds its end
Stand proud once more and go again.
Like the hitchhiker, the entrepreneur travels a different path and thus gains new perspectives. Self-reliance and the ability to deal with uncertainty are important traits; the ongoing pursuit of goals requires strength of character, resilience and the acceptance that failure and rejection are constant companions. Every journey offers up fresh opportunities to meet new people, learn and discover personal ‘highs’ (and lows) that were otherwise untouchable. Ultimately, each journey must end – and the process starts again.
Key Learning Points: Poetry is a powerful vehicle with which to engage people who seek enterprise and entrepreneurship skills. Poems may not be in vogue, but leaders of an audience must be brave, different and able to rise above failure as well as the critics.