Monday, March 26, 2012

Coleridge's Starlings

I have a job that scares a lot of people.

I’m responsible for online media for my company, specifically social media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the corporate blog and a few other related sites and activities.

If you’re not involved in social media, and sometimes even if you are, Twitter and Facebook can look like the Wild West, particularly if your company is involved in a lot of issues. You quickly learn that people will say anything and everything online – profanity and vile language are not uncommon. And people will repeat anything, even things they know aren’t rue. They will launch personal attacks; I was once called the “mouthpiece of Satan.”

Fortunately, there is far more online that is good and worthwhile than is bad. But it can appear to be chaos at times, a strange kind of chaos – chaos with direction, impetus and purpose. It is not unlike the huge flock of starlings that Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw in 1799 while traveling in a coach:

“the starlings drove along like smoke…misty…without volition—now a globe, now…a complete orb into an ellipse… and still it expands and condenses. Some moments glimmering and shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening!”

David Whyte, in The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, says this image haunted Coleridge for the rest of his life.  And Whyte uses Coleridge’s observations and reactions to explore the order and chaos of the corporate workplace.

It’s odd to consider that chaos may be an integral part of corporate life, but it is. Whyte observes it well, and he describes how people working within corporations respond to it. Some deal with it directly; others go to extraordinary lengths to put it off and not deal with it, until disaster happens.

This chaos or darkness is not just corporate; it is also personal. Whyte suggests that one reason we avoid dealing with chaos in the corporate workplace is that it may force us to confront and deal with our own inner chaos.

Here is the interesting part: the chaos may not be ultimately controlled, but it can be dealt with, and that’s at both the corporate and personal levels.

Whyte to considerable lengths to explain chaos theory and his ideas around “strange attractors” or impages we can create to deal with the chaos. It’s interesting—but for me, it’s more the idea of a controlling principle or belief system that is centering: what you understand yourself to be, what your priorities are, what’s important and what truly matters. I sometimes use images to express those things, although not likely in the way meant by Whyte.

Whyte wrote this book almost 20 years ago. It’s still amazingly current (and an updated edition has been published). He has extraordinary insight into corporate life, what works and what doesn’t work. He quotes poet Vachel Lindsay:

The Leaden-Eyed

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s sore crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed,

Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but they seldom reap.
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

“Trying to run complex companies, big or small, by imperial command from the top down, may be the single most unnecessary burden carried by the corporate manager,” Whyte says. “Attempting something that is doomed to fail, they produce a manual of required responses covering all eventualities. Doing this, the system they are forced to employ becomes Byzantine and cumbersome. It also carries an implicit lack of trust in the essential elements of the system—people. Not only that, but hierarchal systems based on power emanating from the top cannot plan for the wild efflorescence of impossible events we call daily life.”

And what we see and hear are Coleridge’s starlings.

We’ve been discussing The Heart Aroused at TweetSpeak Poetry, and this week’s discussion covers chapters 7 (“Coleridge and Complexity”) and 8 (“The Soul of the World”). The discussion, led by Lyla Lindquist, will be posted Wednesday. I will have a final post on the book on Thursday.

Our next book discussion will be L.L. Barkat’s Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity and Writing, starting April 4. I reviewed it here last year. Consider joining the discussion—the fact that it’s a great book on writing is an added bonus.


diana said...

I have just begun this book and find it fascinating and challenging. Thanks for this synopsis of a later chapter and for the questions you push me to consider.

Anonymous said...

big clouds of starlings scare me too...when they strip a vineyard clean before the ripe grapes can be picked.

Angela said...

What a relief it is to realize attempts to "control" are futile...helps me focus on what's important and that which I can affect. Thanks for the book recommendation!