AIG’s Pure Poetry

June 8th, 2005 by

Insurance giant AIG is reeling from revelations of improper accounting practices. Maurice Greenberg, the legendary and autocratic driver behind the company’s success (#106 on the Forbes list of wealthiest people), was abruptly removed from his post. In the midst of this classic and prolonged “public relations nightmare,” the company is trying to rebuild public trust. One step is a turn toward the arts.
The current issue of the New Yorker contains a full page add for the company, along with a small booklet of poetry entitled “Well Versed: poems for the road ahead.” You don’t often find major corporations looking to poetry for sustenance and growth. So it’s only fair that we take this effort seriously. In fact, I find myself reading these poems in the context of AIG’s recent turmoil.
Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”
We’ve all read of the “two roads diverging in the yellow wood” and the choice confronting the narrator. Which road to take — the well traveled or the less well traveled? “I took the road less traveled by,/and that has made all the difference.” Ah, but which road did AIG take and what difference did that make?
Rudyard Kipling’s “If”
You probably remember the opening lines: “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Sage advice, from a presumed father to his son. I wonder if the new leadership at AIG has taken these lines to heart: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same/…Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,/And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;/..If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,/Or walk with kings-nor lose the common touch…” For all its success over the past decade, no one ever accused AIG’s leadership of having a “common touch.” Perhaps the new leadership will set this as a goal.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig”
“My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-/It gives a lovely light.” I am tempted to connect this unsafe candle burning practice with accounting procedures at AIG, but I won’t.
The collection includes a number of frequently anthologized poems, along with a nice selection from contemporary poets such as Philip Booth and Lucille Clifton. Most of the poems seem to offer some form of advice or faith in facing an uncertain future. Poetry is good at that: helping us look ahead without telling us exactly what to expect. Reminding us to center not on greed or duplicity, but on the values that really matter.
I’d like to think that in the midst of AIG’s crisis, someone actually read these few poems at AIG’s board meeting, but I’m not that naive. I suspect that board members have no awareness whatsoever of this particular PR project to recapture the public trust. Too bad. A little time for poetry in the board room might help companies avoid the type of mess that AIG finds itself in. Good luck to them, and good luck to the rest of us, too.