Of all of the common misconceptions about poetry – that it’s only for depressed people, that it needs to be cryptic, that it has to rhyme – one stands head and shoulders above the others as the one I hate most of all.
It’s the belief that to write good poetry, you have to hurt yourself.
That’s not the way that the trope is usually expressed. Usually, it’s communicated closer to something like “You have to be willing to get vulnerable to be a poet.” And actually, that’s a sentiment I largely agree with. But so many poets misinterpret what that operative word, “vulnerable,” really means – and in doing so, they internalize a toxic and limiting idea about what it takes to actualize as an artist.
See, when some poets – young poets especially – think about vulnerability in their art, they think about baring their souls, lancing the scabs off of decades-old wounds and raining endless pain onto the page. I don’t mean to come across as dismissive of emotionally intimate writing or writing that excavates trauma, as this sort of writing does take immense courage and can be deeply meaningful for the writer and their audience.
But I also find this to be an extremely limiting way of thinking about what it means to be vulnerable as an artist.
In my mind, vulnerability means trying out a new form you know nothing about. It means wandering away from the themes you feel most comfortable in towards those that are unfamiliar for the sake of seeing how much wider an imagination can bloom. It means seeking out the constructive feedback that is often painful but is given in service of allowing the poet to clarify their voice and stand more firmly in their creative power.
When we think about vulnerability simply as a thing we “say,” rather than a thing we also seek, request, or create by moving towards what we don’t understand, we miss out on some of the most meaningful growth and acquisition of resilience the person unzipping scar after scar is searching for.
I urge leaders to aspire to internalize a similarly expansive conception of vulnerability. The heart-to-hearts we have with our teams are crucial, but our willingness to seek tough feedback, to take strategic risks, and to hunt for skill-building opportunities that remind us what it feels like to have our expertise humbled are just as crucial for our ability to drive growth and disruption – and yet they’re also the easiest to perceive as secondary, and subsequently neglect.
And sure – in the short term, we can certainly get away with disregarding any one of those forms of vulnerability.
But in the long-term, our willingness to pursue them bit by bit is what separates the specialists from the virtuosos.