Poetry and Drama
Capitalism and its future is serious stuff, but not necessarily the most important. For that I turn to poetry and drama. These both play on the perennial chords of our lives. They confront our human predicaments, our mixture of hope and despair; they offer us no solutions but give us images we can ponder late into the night, images that sink into our subconscious. Great poetry and great drama remain relevant across time. Keats and Yeats still tingle our senses; Shakespeare and Sophocles continue to be performed today.
We each have our favorites. My own chosen poet would be John Donne, the 16th-century poet priest who wrote some of the loveliest love poems ever. For a sampling of his work, try John Donne: A Selection of His Poetry (1950). I first fell in thrall to his language as a college lad, but, unlike most youthful infatuations, this one has lasted all my life. On change Donne writes:
To live in one land is captivity,
To run all countries, a wild roguery;
Waters stink soon, if in one place they bide,
And in the vast sea are more putrified:
But when they kiss one bank, and leaving this,
Never look back, but the next bank do kiss,
Then are they purest; Change is the nursery
Of music, joy, life and eternity.
I love his mix of the earthy and the spiritual, his struggle between his desires and his aspirations, his honesty with himself and the way he is always arguing and thinking aloud in his poems, even when he is distressed. Donne’s doubts and conflicts mirror mine, while his language turns them into music for a troubled heart. We all, I think, need comforters like these to turn to.
As for drama, I have been profoundly affected by Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). It is better to see this performed in the flesh than just to read it if the opportunity is there. Watching it, you are forced to realize that to make your life into a sort of lie is catastrophic, both for yourself and for those who love you, or once did. It is also a reminder of how heartless organizations can be, or sometimes have to be. It is the sort of play that leaves the audience so drained at the end that they almost forget to applaud. This is the gutsy reality of life, laid out before you, not entertainment as most people understand it, or escapism.
In a busy life it is easy to bury oneself in one’s work and ignore the wider world. At a peak moment of my professional career my wife commented that I had become the most boring man she knew. I realized then that I was in danger of focusing too narrowly on the immediate rather than the possibly more important. Preparing this essay has made me realize even more how much these particular books have shaped my own view of the world, enlarged my horizons, and, with luck, made me a less boring companion.
[email protected], a renowned observer of business life, lives in London and is the author of many books and articles. His most recent book is The Elephant and the Flea: Reflections of a Reluctant Capitalist (Harvard Business School Press, 2002). Others include The Age of Paradox (Harvard Business School Press, 1994), The Age of Unreason (Harvard Business School Press, 1989), and The New Alchemists: How Visionary People Make Something out of Nothing (Trafalgar Square, 2001), with photography by his wife, Elizabeth Handy.