The Poetry of Questions (and Vice Versa)

March 2023

When we look at how inquiry-is-change — how inquiry-and-change is a simultaneous moment in human systems — we start seeing the power of it. It is something I’ve called ‘the exponential inquiry effect’ to indicate how our first questions, like the early stage of a snowball, can grow into exponential tipping point movements. That’s why, in the practice of [Appreciative Inquiry] in leadership, we say: “We live in worlds our questions create.”

– David Cooperrider, “Appreciative Inquiry in a Broken World”

The poetry of and from questions

According to, the origins of the word “poem” are Latin and Greek: “<Latin poēma<Greek poíēma poem, something made, equivalent to poiē-, variant stem of poieîn to make + -ma suffix denoting result.”  Arguably, by this definition “poetry” is not confined to sonnets, haiku and limericks, etc. but technically encompasses emergent creation in any form.  In this way, poems and Cooperrider’s “first questions” serve similar purposes.  The world you inhabit – as a leader, parent, artist, friend or community member and everything else – is a poem, made through your questions.  Our lives are an experience generated and proliferated by our inquiries.  (“[T]ry to love the questions themselves…Live the questions,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously exhorted.)

While such an abstract idea might sound like flakey, unsubstantial or irrelevant stuff – particularly when it comes to serious hard-core leadership – consider poet and corporate consultant David Whyte’s shocking contention that “poetry is language against which we have no defenses.”  Too easily dismissed as superfluous, poetry is actually the raw speech of unvarnished reality: of life, of death and of the cosmic mischief that contains them both.  Poetry is the unfurling expression of this gorgeous yet broken world, the manifestation of the wayward path down which humanity’s greedy, distracted absence to our vital questions has taken us thus far.  The choices we, as individuals, make about our presence to our questions carry stark implications for the concrete poetry of leadership: parsimonious questions narrow our attention and therefore limit our results, whereas generous and surprising questions are the affirmative gift of an energetic curiosity that keeps on giving.

Let me offer a brief practical example from the early days of my leadership coaching practice, about fourteen years ago.  I was posing a series of exploratory questions to one of my first clients, a government appointee with a serious dilemma, who described her situation in detail and then paused, looking at me expectantly.  My mind began scrambling to formulate an interrogatory that would impress her as she urged me forward by saying, “Aren’t you going to ask me the next question?”  Suddenly I decided to take the risk of surrendering my egoic, performance-oriented attachments to how the conversation was going.  For a moment I completely let go of my own agenda, and out of purely curious presence I inquired, “What is the next question?”  This, in turn, elicited a worlds-creating query from the client!  As in this instance, one hallmark of authentic poetry is its emergent properties: i.e., it is not just greater than the sum of its parts (in this case, me and the client), but something new altogether (a mutually-held open space of abundant potential).  Leaders who learn to inhabit such presence have magic at their fingertips.

Poetry is at the heart of the call to leadership

Maybe because of the accelerating VUCA and BANI conditions of the new millennium, for the past couple of decades I have been returning with increasing frequency to the grounding practice of reading poetry, which has been a primary solace of mine ever since college.  Starting around 2016, I have also noticed a more widespread cultural instinct to turn to poetry for wisdom amidst the cascading crises that our global societies – e.g., American democracy’s immature and racialized struggles with violence over public discourse – have been metabolizing non-stop in recent years.  At Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration ceremony, the iridescent star of the occasion was not the president but the young Black writer and activist Amanda Gorman, whose poem of lament and challenge in the wake of the January 6th insurrection, “The Hill We Climb,” still reverberates.  The poem concluded that “there is always light,/if only we’re brave enough to see it,/if only we’re brave enough to be it.”  Obviously, Gorman’s “ifs” force us to ask ourselves the heart-breaking, tantalizing and world-creating compound question, Does this country – the home of the brave – have enough courage to see the light, and be the light?

It seems to me that the interior inquiry at the heart of any call to leadership is poetry, the world-creating “first question” Cooperrider describes.  But it’s interesting: poetry must sneak up on us and address us sideways, or in metaphor, or in the silent spaces between the words or lines or stanzas, because the truths that we sense lie beneath the grand illusion we take to be reality are likewise ineffable.  (Silence is language, too; paradoxically, it’s often what’s not said that resonates, and enables us to touch the truth.)  Poems, like generous questions, cleverly position us – intimately and sometimes frighteningly – within the “first questions” of our presence, which is where the future is born.  For instance, is this not one of the most poignant implied inquiries any of us can possibly make at certain inflection points in life, if we can endure contemplating what worlds it creates?  From David Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness”: “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet/confinement of your aloneness/to learn/anything or anyone/that does not bring you alive/is too small for you.”

Reading recommendation:

A perfect “starter” collection for leaders is Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems edited by Phyllis Cole-Day and Ruby R. Wilson (Grayson Books, 2017), reviewed here in the Leadership Library.

P.S. added March 3, 2023: I also highly recommend this just-published interview of poet Jane Hirshfield on the Ezra Klein podcast, entitled “The Art of Noticing – and Appreciating – Our Dizzying World.”

“Breathe until/you feel/your bigness, until the sun/rises in your veins. Breathe/until you stop needing/anything/to be different.” From “The Cure for It All” by Julia Fehrenbacher in The Poetry of Presence. (Photo: Radiating sunlight bathes the palm oasis in Andreas Canyon, on the land of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Susan Palmer, February 2023.)

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