An HR person reading some poetry yesterday. Photo: Shutterstock

Friday 9th October 2015

Bad to verse

Eight poems every HR person should know

The world this week paused in celebration of National Poetry Day, and we at HRville were no exception.

As Robert Browning was broadcast over the tannoy at Covent Garden station, and Twitter users of artistic bent wooed online crushes with a spot of Keats, we scoured our shelves to bring you eight poems every HR person should know.

From night shift woes to conflict resolution, and from recruiting older workers to keeping amorous colleagues in check, what can we learn from the likes of Tennyson and Plath?

  1. Philip Larkin: Toads
Larkin. Photo: CC

Larkin, famously, was a Poet with a Proper Job. A librarian at Hull University, he disliked the giddy whirl of literary London and preferred to live a quiet life up north.

He cannot, however, have been particularly easy to manage, as Toads testifies. Every workplace has one of these – the employee who just can’t be arsed. Take a look at the opening verses:

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Pity the HR department dealing with this level of passive-aggressive resentment. (“Ah, were I courageous enough/ To shout Stuff your pension!”).

The solution? One is tempted to suggest firmer objectives and more frequent appraisals. Alas, the only permanent solution to the ‘toad work’ is retirement, so it might be a better idea to get that fellow from the outplacement agency over.

  1. Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Ulysses
Tennyson. Photo: CC

Do not despair, however – encouragement comes by way of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (serving up some hipster realness), whose peerless poem Ulysses is a rousing call to arms for those who have absolutely no intention of going gentle into that good night.

Tennyson envisages the Homeric hero Ulysses bored out of his tree after his journeys are over. Is he going to take retirement lying down? Is he heck as like!

He sees his ships in the bay and calls out to his old shipmates and comrades for one last glorious hurrah – “Come, my friends,/ ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

I like to imagine Ulysses having a ‘To Do’ list pinned above his desk, looking something like this:

Wed 19th Feb:
Strive ✓
Seek ✓
Find ✓
Yield ✗

Anyway, it’s a salutary reminder that your recruitment pool shouldn’t exclude people over the age of 35.

  1. William Blake: The Chimney Sweeper
Blake. Picture: CC

You can’t beat dear old William Blake for a bit of social conscience, and The Chimney Sweeper is about as bleeding-heart as you can get. Perhaps it’s worth sending a copy to Theresa May. (Get off of that soapbox, Perry – Ed.).

Read it and sob:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep!’…

The little chimney sweep cops it and winds up in heaven, poor lad. True, we’re long past the days of sending adorable barefoot urchins down the chimney, but as every HR person knows even the most boring desk-bound job comes with its perils.

Next time you doubt the importance of employee wellbeing, remember the little chimney sweep. Nobody wants an employee dead of a stress-induced coronary, even if it does mean “He’d have God for his father & never want joy.”

  1. Iliad, Book 1 – Agamemnon and Achilles
Achilles (left). Picture: CC

You’re all familiar with Homer’s Iliad, of course. Gods, heroes, swords, sandals, boffing in tents.

What you may not know is that the entire sorry business basically comes down to a lack of mediation skills.

Book I of the Iliad devotes a fair few lines to Achilles and his bitter quarrel with his boss Agamemnon, who threatens to run off with his favourite slave-girl. (The Greeks, of course, were not noted for parity of the sexes).

Various people try and pour oil on troubled waters, but to no avail. It’s not until (spoiler alert!) Achilles’ BFF Patroclus dies that he pulls his sandals up.

Granted, long-running feuds between employees rarely end in war and/or 15,693 lines of epic verse, but it’s still a lesson worth learning.

  1. Sylvia Plath, Night Shift
Plath. Photo: CC

What on earth did Plath know about shift working? Well: perhaps nothing, in the conventional sense – but still, in Night Shift she perfectly captures the strangeness of working in the small hours while normal folk sleep sound:

It was not a heart, beating.
That muted boom, that clangor
Far off, not blood in the ears
Drumming up and fever
To impose on the evening.
The noise came from outside…

One for those struggling to empathise with a dead-eyed shift worker apparently unable to manage simple admin tasks.

  1. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Blacksmith
Longfellow. Photo: CC

Look, I’m sorry to do this to you, but since I’ve subjected myself to this, one of the worst poems ever to abuse my eyeballs with its leaden rhyme and sentimentality, I feel you should all suffer, too.

Born in 1807, Longfellow was the most successful American poet of his day. The Blacksmith is typical of his lyric and benevolently preachy style. Brace yourselves:


Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

When you’ve quite finished envisaging this strapping gentleman being all manly all over the place, consider the rousing final verse, which would make a fitting speech at any Reward and Recognition presentation:

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

  1. Christopher Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to his Love
Marlowe. Picture: CC

Passions don’t half seem to flourish under the glare of the office strip-light, in hushed whispers beside the water-cooler, and in the second-class train carriage on the way to the biannual sales conference in Milton Keynes.

According to Marlowe, sixteenth-century shepherds were a particularly amorous bunch, more likely to be keeping an eye on the local talent than on the job in hand.

“Come live with me and be my love!” he trills, probably paying absolutely no attention to the half-a-dozen lambs getting savaged by the local fox. “And we will all the pleasures prove…”

Now, look. It may be that the object of his attentions is well up for proving all the pleasures like the absolute clappers, in which case the greatest fault here is perhaps a certain lack of dedication to the job.

Equally, however, the poor woman might have been fending him off ever since that time at the Christmas party when she did an ill-advised Jägerbomb under the mistletoe, in which case we have a bit of sexual harassment in the workplace on our hands and no amount of ‘fragrant posies’ is going to cut it.

  1. Anne Sexton: Doctors
Sexton. Photo: CC

There can be few sectors more stressful for HR than the NHS. What with devastating funding cuts, zero hours contracts and young doctors marching on Downing Street, one of our most beloved institutions is under siege. (What did I say about your soapbox? – Ed.).

In that context, this wonderful poem about doctors (or ‘Health Care Practitioners’, as I daresay I should call them) by Anne Sexton is a bit of a tonic:


They work with herbs
and penicillin
They work with gentleness
and the scalpel.
They dig out the cancer,
close an incision
and say a prayer
to the poverty of the skin.

It’s a love-song to the profession, but also a reminder that “They are not Gods/ though they would like to be;/ they are only a human/ trying to fix up a human.”

Humans fixing things for humans? Now that, if ever there was one, is a fitting topic for poetry.

About the author

Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry writes for various publications including the Guardian, the Spectator and the Oldie. She has written on travel, food, law, politics, books, theatre, building insulation, religion, the Gothic, feminism and film. She has been a civil servant, a legal administrator, a university lecturer, a shop assistant and an artist's model.