Write Bloody Awful Poetry

January 2, 2019

In “Frankly Mr. Shankly,” the Smiths’ 1986 ode to ditching your day job, Morrissey croons his resignation to his eponymous boss. His snarky-sincere delivery is amusing as always, but for me, the kicker is this pair of lines near the end:

“Oh, I didn’t realise that you wrote poetry/I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly.”

how writing poetry can make you a better business writer

The joke here is the square, pathetic employer’s last-ditch attempt to demonstrate some soul, but I’ve always sympathized with the older man’s generous vulnerability—here’s a manager trying to persuade a young worker that sensitivity and creativity can be part of a well-rounded professional life. (Though a fat lot of good it does him: In the final verse, he’s sneered at as a “flatulent pain in the ass.”)

Like thousands of other idealistic young Smiths fans before me, I’m more of a Shankly myself these days. And yes, I write bloody awful poetry. I was pretty serious about it in college, and, despite some spotty patches, I’ve continued to pen verse during the 20 years since. As a communications professional, I find it a valuable pastime—and the blind optimism inherent in the start of a new year is the perfect occasion to persuade you, too, to bring some linguistic imagination to your work. So set any fear of embarrassment aside: Here are five ways waxing poetic can make you a more polished communicator…

It’s What You Make of It:
Poetry gets a bad rap in our culture—it’s easily dismissed as wistful romanticism, nursery rhymes or avant-garde abstruseness. Sure, it can be all of these things – but it can also be anything else. Poetry is essentially writing that lavishes extra attention on style, rhythm and form. It can express whatever you wish, and it can be challenging, comforting or any point in between – which makes it great practice for communicating to a variety of different audiences across multiple contexts.

You Put Words Through Their Paces:
Words never have to work harder than they do in poetry. So much poetic work can be described as “expressing the inexpressible” – using words to convey emotions, sensations and experiences that generally don’t come with prefab verbiage attached. Training words to jump and do tricks is especially relevant in today’s world, where new technologies, concepts and combinations are emerging so quickly that we recognize them before we can describe them. If you squint, there’s not much that distinguishes memes from poetry, and vice versa.

Poetry Is Precision:
Good writing always requires careful selection and placement of words—but never more than in poetry. Prose can rely on the momentum of sentences, fueled by conventional words and phrases, to keep the reader engaged—a relatively straightforward trajectory that can smooth over the inevitable bumps in the road. Poetry is a more precarious path, where a single wrong word can completely change your direction, especially when you’re trying to arrive at complex or unfamiliar ideas. Another place where this dynamic applies is social media—between platform constraints and abbreviated attention spans, every character counts.

Verse Opens Up the Possibilities:
So are you going to start writing copy for clients in the form of a sestina? Hopefully not. But experimenting with forms inspires new ideas that you can bring to any kind of writing. If you crave structure, there are many existing forms that can force you to tighten up, from sonnets to limericks. On the other hand, if you want to cut loose, there’s nothing to stop you from creating your own forms, unleashing a rambling stream of consciousness or taking it…

One
Word
At
A
Time

All of it provides fresh ways to shape your thinking, and keeps you limber for whatever unexpected professional challenges get thrown at you. Describe a massively complicated product or service in 100 words or less? You can do that.

Bad Writing Makes You Better:
Okay, maybe you’re intrigued—but why would anyone want to read your dumb poetry? Easy: They don’t have to! I’ve never published any of my poems, and I mostly keep them to myself. You can consider it an extreme form of journaling: I work out my own problems and ideas for my own benefit. It’s mostly bloody awful, of course, and that’s okay. Having a space in my life where I have permission to fail in my writing helps improve my skills for places where the stakes are higher. I get to experiment, make mistakes, do and say insane things, and no one is judging me. And I can curate my best thoughts, polish them up, and bring them elsewhere—to this blog post, for instance!

So, take it from Mr. Shankly, you can keep your job and have fun playing with words at the same time. Sounds like poetry to me.

Jeff is a vice president for content and creativity within Ketchum’s Corporate Communications group.