How Great Poetry Helps Leaders Prevail

When I learned the news of Seamus Heaney’s death a few weeks ago, I was instantly reminded of an essay he wrote in the New York Times a few weeks before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the essay, he wrote eloquently about the power of poetry, using the poem “Incantation” by Czeslaw Milosz as an example. It was during this time that Mr. Heaney provided such a timeless illustration of how great poetry–and great art in general–can lift up, inspire and help people endure and prevail in challenging times.

The fact that I still remembered Mr. Heaney’s essay so clearly after so many years speaks to the power of his words. In fact, I can clearly recall sitting in the kitchen with my father-in-law, relaxing with the family on a Sunday afternoon, when he reached across the table and handed me a section of the newspaper. “This essay,” he said, “is remarkable.”

I read and then re-read the essay several times. And, perhaps it’s impact on my thinking would have been left in the past, limited in my memory to a few weeks in 2001. However, in the months that followed, I often turned and returned to Mr. Heaney’s essay and Mr. Milosz’s beautiful poem. The tumultuous next few months included my move to a new city, the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the rapid decline of the IT consulting firm I had helped to start and resulting layoffs of good friends, and, most traumatically, my mother’s death after a protracted battle with cancer. Their words bolstered me during this time, proving the truth of Mr. Heaney’s central thesis and deepening my love of poetry.

Mr. Heaney’s essay begins with a few lines from “Incantation” and a description of the thoughts and feelings they evoke.

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.

No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,

No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.

It puts what should be above things as they are.

It does not know Jew from Greek nor slave from master.


It is thrilling to hear the ideal possibilities of human life stated so unambiguously and unrepentantly. For a moment, the dirty slate of history seems to have been wiped clean. The lines return us to the bliss of beginnings. They tempt us to credit all over again liberations promised by the Enlightenment and harmonies envisaged by the scholastics, to believe that the deep well of religious and humanist value may still be unpolluted.

Despite their power, Mr. Heaney describes these lines as problematic, for the weight of history runs counter to them. The rest of the poem, he tells us, has a certain frantic, and even comic, meter and pitch when read in the original Polish. This bit of irony saves the poem from illusion and sentimentality. As Mr. Heaney puts it, “…the tragic understanding that coexists with the apparent innocence of his claims only makes those claims all the more unyielding and indispensable.”

He goes on to argue that great poetry remains answerable to things “that should be” above “what they are.”  This, I believe, is where poetry can bolster and support leaders. Anyone who desires to lead is forced to acknowledge the prevalence of numerous obstacles while maintaining faith in the possibility of a desired future.

When William Faulkner accepted the Nobel prize for The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying in 1950, he also spoke of the need for poetry and literature to nurture the human spirit–a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

The poet’s, writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

As the economist and writer Umair Haque often advocates, “Read the good stuff, daily…Don’t fill your mind up with junk food.” Poetry can help leaders inspire, endure and prevail. It can help them become “artists of human possibility.”

Mr. Heaney concludes his essay with the final lines of “Incantation” and a reminder of a conviction that most of us share–a conviction that could be adopted as a text by leaders everywhere.

Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia

And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.

As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth.

The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.

Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.

Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

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