Poetic Configuration of Policy Guidelines

Poetry-making and Policy-making

- / -

Part E of Poetry-making and Policy-making: Arranging a Marriage between Beauty and the Beast (1993)

It is assumed here that any higher order of significance and coherence could only emerge if the conventional obsession with "reconciling" policy differences, through reducing or eliminating them, is resisted. The question is whether imaginative use of aesthetic skills can be used to configure strong differences to create a larger pattern of order. It is then the aesthetic properties of that pattern which hold essentially incompatible elements in relationship. This relationship is then to be seen in terms of complementarity, both aesthetic and functional. It is the aesthetic properties that ensure coherence and comprehensibility. It is the functional properties which ensure appropriateness, social relevance and operational sustainability.

But there remains the continuing challenge of the kind of configuration that would be meaningful and useful from both an aesthetic and a policy perspective. To be realistic this configuration would itself have to structured on principles that reflected the inherent "opposition" between aesthetic and policy perspectives.

There is much scope for discovering and exploring suitable configurative structures. Approaching the matter from the aesthetic side, one might consider some patterning based on the nine Muses of Greek mythology, or on the eight Rasas of Indian aesthetics. From the management side, there are many clusterings of 5-10 functions, including team roles, hierarchical functions, and the like. Neither responds to the basic challenge of explicitly configuring both aesthetic and functional dimensions, although it could be argued that functional dimensions are implicit in the set of Rasas.

There is a long tradition of expressing wisdom concerning the future in poetic form, with or without the appropriate policy responses. In the distant past this merges necessarily into expression of religious and philosophic understanding. Sri Aurobindo noted that the rishis of ancient India were knowers of the divine as well as kavis, poet-seers, who expressed the eternal truths they intuitively grasped in poetic hymns that are now known as the Rigveda. The voluminous collection of verses making up the Rigveda is divided into ten mandalas which may be understood as song cycles. A mandala is thus to be understood as the synthesis of numerous distinct elements in a unified scheme. Apparent chaos and complexity are simplified into a pattern.

The musical allegories of the Rig Veda and of Plato, have been intriguingly analyzed by Ernest G McClain (1978) as a coded expression of policy relevance. Thomas Cleary (1990), translator of the Taoist classic the Huananzi, which he renders as The Tao of Politics states: "The book of the masters of Huainan is a record of sayings on civilization, culture and government. More detailed and explicit that either of its great forerunners, Lao Tzu's 'Tao Te Ching', and the 'Chuang-tzu', it embraces the full range of natural, social, and spiritual sciences encompassed in classical Taoism. It links environmental husbandry, personal development, and sociopolitical evolution into a comprehensive vision of human life." (p. vii).

These works, together with the I Ching, all served as sets of guidelines for imperial policy making. Like other Chinese guidelines for action, they make use of poetic form in which metaphor plays a major role. In Europe the quatrains of Nostradamus have been valued at the highest level over the centuries. This approach continues with publication of such books as The Tao of Management by Bob Messing (1989). The poetic text of the I Ching has been adapted as a metaphor for policy-making challenges (Union of International Associations, 1991).

It may well be asked whether the poetic form was deliberately used in order to conceal or because any other literary mode would have been inappropriate. It is more interesting to question whether the poetic mode enabled insights to be communicated which could not otherwise have been communicated. It is possible that "proto-insights" could only be expressed through metaphoric allusion, namely that over-definition was either impossible or inappropriate.

What then might be the dimensions important to any such configuration? Can they be worded so as to be meaningful both in aesthetic and management terms? Consider the following candidates:

1. Thematic choice

Whether art or policy, an initial step common to both is usually a choice of theme. A poem has a theme which is developed and celebrated. A policy addresses a thematic concern which is defined in part by that to which the policy accords attention. The origins of the theme in each case are equally mysterious -- whatever the explanations after the fact. Both poets and policy-makers respond to tensions in their environment for which the chosen theme emerges as the most strategic resolution. The theme may spring "full- formed" into the mind of either or emerge as a unifying theme after much consideration of what subsequently become details.

2. Appropriateness

Both poets and policy-makers are sensitive to some form of appropriateness which designers such as Christopher Alexander (1964) often refer to as "goodness of fit". Potential elements have to "feel right" -- a term also used by both managers and interior decorators. Appropriateness is a major consideration in the thematic choice. Both poem and policy may be termed "well-crafted" when completed. As the poet Osip Mandelstam declared: "The consciousness of itself as being right is the most precious thing of all about poetry." Henry Gifford (1986) stresses however: "The 'rightness' of poetry is not to be confused with the 'correctness' of party dogma, as Mayakovsky and other poets in the Soviet era found to their discomfort." (p. 27)

3. Imagination and originality

Whilst creative imagination is naturally vital to poets as a key to rendering their work attractive, it is also important to policy-makers in seeking to move beyond tired programme formulae which no longer enthuse either those who implement them or those for whom they are designed. Policies are often criticized for being unimaginative. The dearth of useful new ideas is currently deplored. It is not sufficient that a theme should be appropriate, in both cases it has to be characterized by originality.

4. Challenge

Beyond originality, it is important for many artists and policy-makers to effectively challenge existing mind-sets and modes of response. In many ways both seek to reform and reinterpret -- rather than simply to extrapolate and elaborate. Originality, however imaginative, does not necessarily carry such a challenge. In both cases the challenge may involve undermining or destroying cherished older patterns of response -- in order to create space for the emergence of the new. Unfortunately in the case of policy-making, the most challenged have been those in developing and former socialist countries, not those in the industrialized countries responsible for the elaboration of modern policy skills.

5. Insight capture and control

Neither works of art nor policies are formulated in a vacuum. Both depend on "antennae" through which the rich variety of perceptions and understandings of others are sensed. They are the "material" with which, or on which, both work. Insight capture is therefore an important process. Artists are renowned for bathing in reality to soak up such insights. Policy-makers are renowned for the questionable procedures and consultations through which they derive their insights -- "from the people". In both cases requisite variety is an important consideration in being able to generate a product which effectively "controls" the experience of that external variety.

6. Acknowledging / Honouring / Dignifying

Much art is designed to recognize, dignify or honour some phenomenon or experience, whether renowned or exceptionally commonplace, whether person or object. Poetry continually strives to refine experience of ordinary events and make them extraordinary. Policies are themselves frequently articulated by specifically "recognizing" some hitherto neglected human or natural condition on which action is called for. They may also acknowledge previous initiatives and honour the foresight of those responsible for them (as with the Marshall Plan). It is a way of establishing historical continuity and precedent. This may of course be all they do.

7. Coherence and integrity

It is perhaps debateable whether every work of art needs to be "coherent", but even if it is a celebration of incoherence, a measure of coherence is required for it to be appreciated. Coherence results from the parts integrating into some larger whole -- whether explicit or implied. It is an important feature of any policy. Policies can be severely criticized for containing any "contradictions" that detract from such coherence.

8. Energy holding / Enthralling

For any work of art to succeed, it must hold the attention, often to the point of being enthralling -- in the best and worst senses of the term. The dynamics must work so as to be self-sustaining -- so that the work remains alive. In this sense it is often described as "having energy" or "being full of energy". This quality is a real challenge to policy-making. There is a need to create policies which are "alive" and attract support (and supporters) -- especially given the multitude of policies that are effectively "dead", and experienced as such (Judge, 1988). A policy that is alive evokes and channels collective energy, whether solely in the form of attention and directed concern, or also in the movement of funds and goods. Such notions have been reinterpreted for contemporary society by R G H Siu (1974).

9. Focus

Many works of art have a focus, or may effectively build such a focus through the juxtaposition and dynamic of their elements. This may be described as the "point" of such a work which may thus be said to "make a point". It might also be described as the "angle" from which the theme is approached. Policies too have a focus to the extent that they have a fundamental purpose or objective towards which the component elements are designed to work. Some are indeed designed simply to "make a point". The question "what's the angle" is a common challenge in the management world. Policies may be severely criticized for lacking focus and having no real purpose. A policy is effectively a focusing of the collective will. In management terms it needs to offer "leverage" to be successful.

10. Resonance and relevance

Few of the above features are independent. In the case of a work of art, their interdependence is ensured by lines or patterns of resonance linking the component elements. In the case of poetry such resonance may be achieved by rhyming and metaphor. In the case of music many harmonic devices establish links between the different parts of the work. A policy is considered well-crafted when the different parts reinforce each other as part of a larger whole which may be described in system terms, and as flows of information.

Chemistry has had to develop a theory of resonance in order to represent certain kinds of molecules. The normal state of such molecules can only be understood as a continuing alternation between a set of complementary alternatives. The molecule is thus conceived as resonating among the several valence-bound structures, or rather to have a structure that is a resonance hybrid of perhaps five of these structures - - each of which is less stable than the pattern of resonance as a whole.

It has been argued that as a metaphor resonance hybrids could well provide the key to the conception, design and operation of coalitions of people or groups which could not cohere for any length of time in one single form but could be stable if the coalition alternated between several complementary forms. Underlying this possibility, the metaphor is also of interest to the integration of incompatible perspectives, paradigms and policies without eroding their distinctiveness in some simplistic compromise. It opens the way to more fruitful discussions both about how alternation between the opposing answers characteristic of a complex society can be improved and about the kinds of social structures that could be based upon such patterns of alternation. Patterns of resonance are of course fundamental to poetry-making.

11. Rhythm and pacing

There is a rhythm to most works of art, whether in the movement of the eye or in the way in which the work is designed to be heard. Clearly this is most explicit in poetry, music and the dramatic arts. In addition to its role in ensuring the pattern of resonance noted above, rhythm ensures the entrainment of the passive observer into a role as active participant -- if only in its potential effect on the pulse. Policy-making tends to be insensitive to rhythm and to processes of involvement although the latter are increasingly a major concern -- and the notion of work rhythm has long been a vital concern to many. Most ongoing management processes are however firmly based on regular cycles linked to the calendar (yearly, monthly, etc) and with very few variations to this monotonous regularity. Timing is a major consideration in launching a policy and phasing its implementation. The standard business motto might even be adapted to "timing is money".

12. Image building

Many artistic works strive to build and sustain an image through the variety of devices employed. This is notably the case with poetry. Policy-makers are also increasingly concerned with creating an image in the eyes of their publics, critics and rivals. Public relations at the service of managers is specifically concerned with "image building". In a world of media "sound bites" and "photo opportunities", policy-making may be essentially a process of building and sustaining an attractive image. The appearance of imaginative and appropriate approaches may matter more than the reality. For many political purposes, image building now creates that reality.

13. Complementarity

This concept of fundamental importance to physics may be understood as the interrelationship, completion or perfection brought about by one or more elements supplementing, being dependent upon, or standing in polar opposition to another. The situation in quantum physics has been considered a reflection of the application of an all- pervasive principle determining the approach to the unity of knowledge exemplified by the wave/particle concepts of light. Situations in psychology and biology also present equivalent complementary aspects.

It has been argued by De Nicolas (1978) that the Rig Veda requires four complementary conceptual languages, rather than one, in order to convey the contrasting natures of its meaning. The four languages then function as four spaces of discourse within which human action takes place and from which any given statement in the text gains meaning. The languages show the human situation within disparate linguistic contexts embodying different ways of viewing the world. Complementarity in this sense is also vital in poetry to reflect insights which cannot be adequately captured by single metaphors in isolation.

14. Metaphor

It is unnecessary to comment at this point on the fundamental importance of metaphor to the arts and especially to poetry. Its importance to policy-making has also been noted above.

(Text continues....)

creative commons license
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.