For more than 25 years John Barr has pursued parallel lives as a businessman and a poet. A long-time senior executive at Morgan Stanley, 10 years ago he founded Barr Devlin Associates, an investment banking boutique active in the natural gas industry. The firm was acquired three years ago by Societe Generale. Barr also is president emeritus of the Poetry Society of America, the oldest poetry association in the U.S., and the author of several books of poetry. The most recent is “Grace,” an epic poem based largely on the monologues of Ibn Opcit, an imaginary Caribbean poet and gardner. Barr is part of a long tradition of poet-businesspeople, whose best known representatives include T.S. Eliot, an international banker, and Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive. In a recent conversation with Knowledge at Wharton, Barr spoke about business and poetry—and how each of his worlds energizes the other as long as the two don’t collide.

Knowledge at Wharton: Could you begin by talking about your business activities?

Barr: I spent 18 years at Morgan Stanley as a partner in charge of the public utility practice in the investment banking division. Some 10 years ago, in 1990, I retired and with a couple of partners, we started our own company, Barr Devlin Associates. We continued to do financial advisory work providing merger and acquisition advice to U.S.-based utilities that were dealing with new trends in that industry by merging or restructuring themselves.

We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I sometimes compare our small company to one of those pretzel vendors in Manhattan who is on the right street corner, where everybody wants a hot pretzel. We were in the thick of action in the mid-1990s, when almost all the utility companies in the U.S. wanted to merge. We continue to be in that business and have been investment bankers to half of all the largest deals. There have been almost 20 mergers so far among our utility clients.

We could feel the utilities merger market being transformed in 1997. Deals were changing from stock-for-stock to cash-and-stock transactions, and as a boutique we could not offer the financing service of a large balance sheet. In addition, the utilities merger business was becoming international, with European utilities starting to look at U.S. utilities. Again, as a New York-based boutique, we could not take advantage of that business. So we began to talk to a handful of prime international banks, which all showed an interest in us, and we were very pleased in 1998 to be acquired and become a part of Societe Generale (SG). We are now in our third year with them, all my partners have remained in the business, and we have SG’s balance sheet and global platform together with the Barr Devlin franchise. We have been doing a lot of business.

Knowledge at Wharton: What transactions have you done recently?

Barr: Duke Power—or Duke Energy as it is now called—is a major utility company. In 1997 it used us as financial advisors when it merged with PanEnergy, the second largest gas pipeline company at that time. That merger produced what continues to be the largest utility company in the U.S. It was a great adventure and a benchmark transaction. More recently, we were hired by Enron to sell their utility in Oregon, called Portland General. Closer to home, my partners and I represented Northeast Utilities in Connecticut when the company merged with Con Edison several months ago. That merger will create the largest utility in the Northeast. We have also done smaller transactions all over the country and in Europe. It’s been busy.

Knowledge at Wharton: Has poetry kept you equally busy?

Barr: Until the 1990s I had published my poetry in small magazines, but I hadn’t published any books. The 1990s became a major publishing time for me—I published six books between 1989 and 1999. That started with a series of three limited editions or fine press editions. Those books in 1997 were combined into a trade press edition called “The Hundred Fathom Curve,” which was published by Story Line Press. In 1999 I published “Grace,” which was a major departure from my prior writing.

Knowledge at Wharton: One thing that makes “Grace” striking is your use of Caribbean-like dialect in your writing. You say in your introductory note to the book that the voices in “Grace” use the freedoms of dialect to”get away with murder.” Could you explain that?

Barr: “Getting away with murder” is the perfect phrase for me to deal with the potential discomfort I felt in writing a book which is in black Caribbean language. I’m not black, I’m not Caribbean, and I wasn’t invited to write the book. The debate in poetry in the U.S. today centers around books where writers take on personae that are different than who they are. Getting away with murder, for me, was a literary license to invent a dialect that reads like a Caribbean dialect. It seeks the economy and energy of all dialects, in my view. The people in “Grace,” like Caribbean people, use words with a high metaphoric content. They don’t always bother with suffixes and prefixes—they go for the jugular in terms of efficiency and economy in the way they use language. This is true of all dialects you hear around the world. That is what I was hoping to capture in “Grace.”

Knowledge at Wharton: You clearly took a big risk writing “Grace” the way you did. How do you manage risk in your poetry and in your business?

Barr: There are a lot of great minds—including many at Wharton—who have focused on how you manage business risks of various sorts. The decision by my partners and myself to place our little company within the arms of SG, a larger enterprise, represented one of the ways we chose to manage risk. We saw opportunity from our merger, but we also saw stability in it. As a small company, you are only as good as your next deal. While we did have great good fortune and success as an independent boutique, when we became part of a global business platform—and SG is one of the largest financial institutions in the world—it created a kind of permanence and stability. The cyclicality of our business doesn’t have the same effect on SG that it might have on a small business. The merger was the way we chose to manage that risk and also to increase the upside of the business.

On the poetry side, how do you manage risk? I think it’s not possible to hedge an open commodities position in poetry. Poetry is about risk—but you don’t manage it. That is the big difference between business and poetry. Business is always trying to create an asymmetric relationship between risk and reward—you try to get more reward for less risk—and you try and get more than your fair share of return. That is true of asset management, money management and it’s true of financial advice—we try to help our clients negotiate the best deal possible in a merger.

Poems are also about risk because they embrace the unknown and the uncertain. That is why they have excitement and vitality. Poems are long journeys in risk. People don’t write poems because they have figured it all out; they write poems in order to figure it out. A good poem contains and preserves, like an insect in ancient amber, that moment—of figuring something out—forever. That is why poetry cannot seek to manage risk. You can do things technically to preserve the moment of a poem’s creation and make it a timeless enterprise. That is what formal poetry is about—the use of rhyme, meter and structure is important to giving permanence to poetry. But it’s not about managing risk.

Knowledge at Wharton: You once said that you see no conflict between your business and poetic activities because you see both business and poetry as responses of the self to a chaotic world, and that you see yourself as someone who goes around the world transforming that chaos into money and poetry. Could you explore this theme further?

Barr: It’s still a benchmark of how I view the two strange bedfellows that business and poetry sometimes are. Both draw their water out of the same well. Both in their own ways are efforts to seek to bring order to a chaotic and random universe. Business does it in a way that will produce a profit for the shareholders, if it is successful. Poetry creates an order that I would describe as the capture of understanding.

One of the great things we get out of Shakespeare is that once he has articulated something, there’s a comfort level that comes from that. It’s almost like a talisman. It gives one a feeling of control—not in the sense of a control freak, but of control of the unknown and the uncertain. To me, the act of articulation is a basic human response to feelings of uncertainty and even of fear.

That is why in old and ancient literatures, names are so important. If you know a person’s name, you have a kind of power over them. Maybe this goes to the primitive tribal fears of having one’s picture taken, too. A picture becomes a physical possession of a person’s image. There’s a moment in the “Odyssey” where Odysseus and his men have been shipwrecked. The mythical Cyclops asks Odysseus his name, and Odysseus replies, “My name is no man.” It is that ancient encounter with the unknown, where the first thing you try to do is know how to call it. You find that in Shakespeare, and you also find that in the great ancient literatures. That is fundamental to what you get out of writing and reading good poetry.

Knowledge at Wharton: Wallace Stevens was well known as a businessman and as a poet. It is said that he had two compartments in his briefcase: He kept all his business documents on one side, and his poetry manuscripts on the other. In these days of the Palm Pilot, a lot more intermingling is possible. Do you see business and poetry as separate parts of your life, or do they intermingle, with one feeding the other?

Barr: I did not know that Wallace Stevens story, but I love it. He was an orderly man—he was a lawyer for Hartford Insurance in Connecticut, and he had a very logical business side to him. But his poetry went the other way.

Yes, there is a duality to the two sides of the briefcase. But if the poet-businessperson is willing to let the two sides get close to each other, it is a potential source of great energy for both. What do I mean by that? Thirty years ago, people were not as tolerant about a businessman who wrote poetry. It would have been hard for him to be taken seriously by his clients. But today that is not the case. While I did not advertise my poetry when I was in my twenties and thirties, I don’t have any problem with people knowing that now, and they too are fine about it. I think I am probably a better public speaker because of my poetry. I let the poet side of me loose in business situations—not in an irrational sense but in an inventive sense. Imagination can work in any situation it is allowed to. A lot of my work on the business side involves a different kind of creativity, but it is still work of the imagination.

Let me now explore the other side of the argument. I think business can be a source of subject matter for a poet. It took me a long time to open all the doors in my life that I did in writing “Grace.” That book was written over a ten-year period. I came to the realization recently that there were no people in my poetry for the first 30 years of my writing. I wrote first-person, lyric poetry—and in a lot of lyric poetry there is no one except the speaker and nature, or the speaker and art. There is nothing but people in “Grace.” The world of humanity came flooding in for me in “Grace.” That’s an example of letting the business side—or the world of affairs—enter the poetry. There’s a great release in that.

Let me add a footnote. I recently came to realize that I decided to leave Morgan Stanley, where I had happily been for 18 years, in 1989. That was the same year I began to write “Grace.” Looking back, I think that one was my declaration of independence as a businessman, and the other was my declaration of independence as a poet.

Knowledge at Wharton: So you believe that your poetry helps you remain in touch with the imaginative part of yourself, and that contact with your own creativity helps you in business?

Barr: Yes I do. There’s no question about it. As I said before, it’s like drawing water out of the same well.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate the power of letting the two sides—business and poetry—get as close together as possible rather than far apart in a separate briefcase. There’s a story about the early days of atomic energy, before scientists understood it really well. One American scientist had a game that he played with two halves of uranium. The concept of critical mass is that if you let those two halves come together, it would result in a nuclear explosion. If the two are kept separate, it won’t cause an explosion because each half has less than critical mass. Well, this scientist would put these two halves on a table with a geiger counter, and bring them closer and closer together. The geiger counter would soar, and then he would take the two halves away from each other. This is a true story.

One day he made a mistake and the two halves got too close together. There was a nuclear flash, and ultimately everyone in the laboratory died from the radiation exposure. But because they were scientists, all of them noted how many feet away they were from the critical mass. Their data was used as raw material in measuring the effect of nuclear blasts.

The scientist called what he was doing “tickling the dragon’s tail.” My metaphor in all this is that if the poet-businessman decides to ticke the dragon’s tail—and bring the two hemispheres of business and poetry together—he should let them get close but not too close. If it’s done right, it can be a great source of energy.

Knowledge at Wharton: At the end of your career, would you rather be remembered for business or poetry?

Barr: For poetry. Poetry is forever. Business is about providing for one’s family. I’ve never sought a public reputation in business though if it has come, I have been grateful. But in poetry, you hope not just to create a profit for shareholders. You deal with fundamental questions that have vexed humanity since the beginning—life, death, love and all their variations. I’d love to be remembered as some sort of a poet.