Frank O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art. Wallace Stevens spent time in insurance and law. Lucille Clifton was a claims clerk. All of these lives were at the ready when I finished my MFA years ago and stared down the question of “what will you ever do with poetry?”
The answer is this: I’m a content manager at Leff. And I use poetry in my work every day.
Content, communications, and professional relationships all benefit from the structural principles of poetry writing. When I’m mapping strategy for a client, developing key messaging, or even crafting an email, I’m writing a kind of poem. I’ve found the following five concepts learned from poetry to be particularly useful in my work.
Economy of language
Verbosity is the enemy of efficacy: how can we say the most with the least? Some poets work on the unit of the line or within the constraints of a form like a sonnet (innovative writers identify and understand the form so they can break it and make something new and unexpected). Others focus on the potential of the stanza or the speed of reading created by line breaks and enjambment. But ultimately, the work begins and lives on the level of the word. What language is at the heart of the story a company or author wants to tell? When I build a poem or develop messaging for a new product, I list words on an index card and revisit them to make sure each term is doing ample work with nothing wasted.
Context and word choice
I read a surprising amount of Shakespeare in high school, primarily because of an English teacher obsessed with British culture. After Princess Diana died, she wept and stroked her rattail braid while she made the class write letters of condolence to the royal family. We talked about the burnish’d throne of Cleopatra and the connotations of “burnished”—specifically, polishing by hand—when considering the most desired leader of the ancient world.
Where is that throne in content development? It shows up everywhere, in situation-specific disguises. “Build” means more than “create” for clients in a certain field: it connotes strength, purpose, and visions of industry. “Looking ahead” is a preview, whereas “focused on the future” is a mission statement. Knowing a company’s goals and culture determines which words are used—and how.
The space between stanzas and the surrounding whiteness of a page do ample work in a poem. They give the reader a place to rest, and they enhance meaning with silence. Text on a website or in a presentation—or even short paragraphs in a thought-leadership article—work in a similar way. We scan more than we read, particularly online. When developing content for an online audience, I think about how to use space to create an environment for reflection and a chance to let the meaning of the words resonate.
Clarity and mystery
Some of the most effective poems use everyday language in a way that feels uncanny. They work because they urge us to see the familiar in a way that makes us stand outside preconceived meaning. Like good poetry, good content marketing demands a balance between explicit and implicit. A clear, overarching perspective on business innovation might technically achieve a company’s goals, but alluding to parallel narratives about profit, change, or influence can make the content distinct.
Writing poetry and developing content are both highly iterative processes. Though it’s possible for writers to create something exceptional on the first draft—or multiple great works in rapid succession—those rare instances aren’t reflective of the many rounds of edits usually required to produce a polished piece of work.
Writing workshops conditioned me to process feedback, incorporate notes, and defend certain choices while reexamining others. Workshopping is about listening, revising, experimenting, and cultivating humility, and anyone working in content development or content strategy will recognize the importance of these skills. If a poem confuses or alienates a writing workshop, there’s a chance its readership will be limited unless the writer makes changes; if an author resists certain word choices or stylistic decisions, then a greater audience may struggle with the overall messaging.
A poem, a product strategy, a presentation, a blog: none are truly finished until many hands have polished—burnished?—them for a final audience.