A shy male lawyer recently informed Lavinia Greenlaw that he wouldn't be coming to her inaugural poetry workshop at Mishcon de Reya. When the newly appointed poet-in-residence at the Princess of Wales's law firm asked him why this was so, he replied: "Because I don't want anyone to know I write poetry."
Greenlaw, who since her appointment has won this year's pounds 1,000 Forward Prize for the year's best poem, took this apparent stumbling-block in her stride. "It's very important," she says, "to understand that people are not going to find it easy to share something like poetry with their work colleagues. They can send me poems through the e-mail and we need never meet, if they wish."
Anthony Julius, is credited with the initiative. He is the partner who advised Diana, Princess of Wales in her pounds 15m divorce settlement, and who now plans to divorce his own wife of 21 years and marry the journalist Dina Rabinovitch, the daughter of an ultra-orthodox rabbi. He is the firm's head of litigation, and a respected writer who last year published a critique of TS Eliot's anti-Semitism. But he has, says Greenlaw, deliberately kept a low profile, and did not volunteer to take part in the first workshop.
The Mishcon de Reya project, though trail-blazing, is not unique. This year Barnsley Football club appointed a poet to chronicle its historic entrance to the Premiership. The Poetry Society is looking at other ways to bring poets to the world of business, and to this end has given Marks & Spencer pounds 5,000 of its pounds 450,000 National Lottery grant to fund a poet- in-residence. Chris Meade, the society's director, says that more poets in company posts can be expected.
The Mishcon project at first encountered cynicism from some of its own lawyers, who felt that the pounds 10,000 for one half day a week could have been better spent. But eventually they opted for this means of supporting the arts, while at the same time bringing light relief to lawyers who pride themselves on working 25-hour days. The nature of the arrangement was first made clear to Greenlaw when she met the unusually heavyweight interview panel, comprising the poet Tom Paulin, Chris Meade, and Anthony Julius.
At a party to welcome her to the firm, 120 staff, half the workforce, turned out to say hello. At first it must have looked as if the diminutive, 35-year-old, self-effacing poet - who had not known any lawyers before she met the firm - was in danger of being drowned in a sea of loud voices and pinstriped suits. Since then she has found her own way of making her presence felt.
Explains Greenlaw: "Every week, when I come in, I put a different poem in the e-mail with some comment. Throughout the day people write back with their own poems or suggestions for poems. Some people are baffled, others are provoked."
She also goes on office walk-abouts, where her encounters have already produced one or two knee-jerk reactions to poets and poetry.
"People who have not read a poem for perhaps 30 years, or since they left school, suddenly look at me and think, `a poet, poetry; what do I know about poetry?' During a fire drill I found myself on the fire escape talking about Coleridge."
All staff in the firm, from receptionists to senior partners, are invited to join the workshops. The first, held last last month, was so heavily oversubscribed that Greenlaw was forced to limit the number of participants to 10. But of those 10, three said work commitments prevented them from joining the group at the last minute. They were all men.
She is very keen to overcome any language barriers, and so get to grips with the "bland corporate speak" which, she complains, has infected the professions. Greenlaw, who had no experience of the legal profession before she joined Mishcon, says lawyers "can be very fuddy-duddy or slippery in their use of speech. Some have suggested that I would be frustrated by the dryness or extreme fluency of their language."
People still ask her for words which rhyme with solicitor, in the belief that she is some kind of law firm laureate, paid to produce corporate doggerel, and employed to be at the beck and call of the partners.
But Greenlaw has discovered that poets and lawyers have much in common. Apart from Dante and Ovid, whom she names as poets who trained in the law, she homes in on the shared use of words as tools to construct persuasive arguments.
At a makeshift workshop, Alex George, 27 - one of the three lawyers who did not turn up last time - professes his disappointment at missing out. He supports Greenlaw's proposal that every fortnight a poem is posted in the lift, and recommends Philip Larkin's poem "For Sidney Bechet".
The discussion moves on to the value of learning poems by heart. Greenlaw mentions a book by Ted Hughes that uses visual aids as a memory trigger to remember poems. Alex thinks that "associated images" might cloud the words, and act as a smoke screen to the reader's interpretation of the poem.
Helen Scott, a marketing secretary, who also attends the makeshift meeting, is a resting actress. She says she was so captured by a poem by Emily Dickinson which Greenlaw had sent round on the e-mail that she went out and bought a collection of Dickinson's verse.
Greenlaw hopes she too will find something here that will enrich her own poetry. She intends to accompany lawyers to court to get an impression of legal words in action.
But don't expect anything too soon, or any ditties with lots of words rhyming with Diana - or even Dina - and Mishcon de Reya.Reuse content