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Saturday 25 February 2017

Poetry and Advertising

Poetry has recently been making an appearance in advertising. In particular, Nationwide has employed a bunch of spoken word artists to write some cutesy pieces that are tangentially related to mortgages and the like. The poems themselves are pretty forgettable, in my opinion. Of far more interest is the manner in which their mere existence has, predictably, sparked epicycles of soul-searching among the wider poetical community.

Consider this diatribe from Luke Wright:

I’ve no idea whether or not he has a particular, self-proclaimed ‘renegade’ poet in mind. Either way there are problems. On the one hand, not all poets claim to be renegades. People write poetry for all kinds of reasons. I write poetry in large part to amuse children, not to ‘smash the system’. Others may well be writers for hire – in my view, a good deal of advertising displays undoubted artistry.

On the other hand, it is true that quite a lot of poets do think of themselves as renegades. Would this then preclude them from doing Nationwide ads (or any other ads)? I don’t see why. When I listen to Luke, or anyone else, tell me what poets should and shouldn’t do, my instinct is to do the opposite. In this context, the most renegade act would be to do the ad, not to refrain from doing it because someone important and influential told me not to. “If you want to be a renegade, don’t sell me a fucking car”. Perhaps the real renegade would respond: TAKE THE FUCKING CAR LUKE!”

Luke’s objections seem to be both moral and aesthetic. In terms of morality, he claims that anyone who chooses to use their poetic skills to sell anything “sells out everyone”. Does he mean that they sell out other poets as individuals, or that they sell out poetry itself as an art form? Again, there are problems either way. On the one hand, I don’t see why someone’s decision to use their art (assuming it is art) for a particular purpose constitutes an affront or a betrayal of other artists as individuals. None of the Nationwide poets are stopping Luke from doing whatever he wants with his poetry, and being very successful with it. And it’s not as if he means that they are stopping him from doing the Nationwide ads, which he doesn’t want to do in the first place! So how are they selling him, or anyone else, out? Surely this is just a case of write and let write.

Maybe he means they are debasing not individual poets but poetry itself. This takes us from morality to aesthetics, to the issue of what poetry is for, and the presumption that it has to be renegade and counter-cultural. As I’ve said, not all poets claim to be these things. Perhaps he means that poets must be these things in order to be any good: he claims that what first attracted him to poetry was its “snarl and menace”. Well good for him. But to say that if poetry doesn’t have these things it is no good would be to discount a lot of (good) poetry.

Advertising presents poets with a two-pronged challenge. Firstly, it may present a political challenge. This is only a challenge if one’s politics is at odds with what is being advertised, or with the notion of advertising itself. It also presents an artistic challenge: how can one write ‘to order’ and still produce something that is authentic and artful? I remain neutral as to whether the Nationwide poets accomplished this. Luke, by his own admission, was not able to achieve it with his “awful wedding verse”. It is a challenge to be sure, but it is a challenge I would probably take up. I would also like to be able to pay the rent in the process.  

Wednesday 22 February 2017

IF I WAS A FOOD - workshop idea

Earlier this month I shared a workshop idea based on 'If I was an animal'. This general idea can apply almost to an infinite number of things. In yesterday's poetry lunch club at Plashet School, where I regularly work, we wrote poems about food. The format I provided was based on the template 'if I was a food I would be...', but pupils were as ever to take this idea in any number of directions. Here are a selection of poetical ideas that emerged.

If I was a food I would be a pineapple
Sweet and sour, hard to cut
My hair a volcano of greenery
My skin full of spikes
No one can touch me
I'm fierceful [sic]

by Eliona Year 7

If I was a fruit I would be a mango
Rough to cut but soft and sweet
on the inside.
A hard heart inside but a sweet flavour
in the middle
A tropical flavour to show
the unique difference in me

by Farha Year 7

Varieties of taste
Are not my style
I wanted to be simple
but I had a failure
of being simple
of a same taste
same, simple life
Today I was asked
What am I
If I was a food
And if I was a food
I'd be a soft smooth bun
Which has the same taste
I wouldn't be unique
I wouldn't be anyone's saviour
I'd be normal
Finally normal

by Taniya Year 9

If I was a food I would be couscous
because I can be sweet and sometimes salty
If I was a food I'd be an onion pastry
because I have a weird personality
If I was a food I would be a chicken burger
because I'm a very filling person
If I was a food I would be a potato salad
because I can be nice however a bit jumbled with mixed colourful emotions.

by Safiyah Year 9

Image result for couscous

Tuesday 21 February 2017


Bridges attach.
Bridges connect.
A bridge is a shortcut.
A bridge can protect.
Cross a bridge
if you don’t want to get

A bridge is like
an outstretched hand.
It joins together
separate lands.
A bridge says “hello
you’re looking grand

A bridge holds you up.
A bridge reaches wide.
It lets you visit
another side.
If you jump of a bridge
you will surely die
(don’t try).

A bridge can be short.
A bridge can be looooooong.
A bridge can get weak
so let’s make it strong.
A bridge is a note
of a colourful song.

A bridge helps us all
to belong.

Image result for build bridges not walls trump

Monday 6 February 2017


This is not going to be a pretentious list. There will be no Proust or Aristotle or Borges. There will be no obscure Russian guys that no one has ever heard of. What follows is a short list of books that, in one way or another, have spoken to me. Perhaps others will find value in the books on this list, but I share it more in a spirit of autobiography than of prescription.

1. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend

I wasn’t an especially keen reader as a kid. I often had to be coaxed into doing it. I discovered the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole at around the same age as the book’s eponymous hero – 13 ¾ . It made me howl with laughter. Not just smile or smirk, but literally howl. I used to wake up my family with my laughter. I related to Adrian’s underdog status, but it must be admitted that the diary format of the book encourages the reader to laugh at him by enabling us to know more than he does. He is a pathetic character, but heroic in his attempt to better himself intellectually in the midst of the stultifying philistinism around him. I have enjoyed following his journey through adulthood, and particularly enjoyed his Wilderness Years, where he is at his most pitiable. Adrian’s breakup with Bianca in that book soothed my own breakup at around the same time.

2. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

What a clich├ęd book to have on a list! Blah blah blah – I don’t care. Many people are apparently made to read this book in Key Stage Three. I think this is too early to appreciate Holden Caulfield’s sense of alienation (indeed, perhaps to read it at school in the first place is to spoil the very point of the book!). I discovered Catcher at precisely the right time in my life. His disdain for the ‘phonies’ around him echoed and articulated my own disdain. I felt like he was both speaking for me and to me, in a very intimate sense. This is the only book that has ever given me that sense of intimacy. I guess a lot of people have had a similar reaction, hence the character’s cult status. When I first read this book it felt like my discovery, and mine alone.

3. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

One of the only science fiction books I have ever attempted to read (another is Brave New World, which I also loved), Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a gentle man with an intellectual disability who submits to an experiment to make him ‘smarter’. The novel is told in the form of ‘progress reports’ written by Charlie, and like Adrian Mole this format offers us a unique glimpse into his journey. We can sense him getting ‘smarter’ as he makes fewer spelling errors and attains greater insights, but we also sense that something crucial yet intangible is being lost. I was brought up to think that intelligence is the most important attribute one could possibly possess, and this book raises important questions: What is intelligence? Does having more of it make you a better person? What things in life are truly valuable? This book has made me think harder about these questions than five years of studying analytic philosophy ever did.

4. When Love Meets Fear by David Richo

In a sense this is a self-help book. It offers practical tips for how to live a life that is more governed by love and less governed by fear. But it is so much more than this; it is a work of philosophy and of poetry, written by a practicing Jungian psychotherapist. A crucial paragraph:

“The foundation of fearlessness is the realization that this fear is all part of me, a confrontation with which is what it takes for me to be who I am. These are the experiences that had to happen in order for me to achieve my destiny. When I see this, I make an agreement with the universe instead of picking a fight with it. If fears come my way, I work with them, I deal with them, because they are part of me. And they would only be coming my way if this were the manner in which my destiny could be achieved. That is the spiritual foundation of fearlessness: how fears work to show me my honeysuckle-thistle path.”

Does that seem like mumbo-jumbo to you? A few years ago it may have seemed like it to me. This book enabled me to open my mind and my heart to other ways of thinking, and to divest myself of attitudes that were not serving me well.

5. The Atlas 

I said near the beginning that I wasn’t an especially keen reader as a kid. This isn’t true. I have always loved to read, it’s just that it took a while for me to enjoy ‘proper’ books, books with ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end’, with ‘characters’ and ‘chapters’ and ‘plots’. My main love was, and is, non-fiction. I have always found atlases beguiling: I love sitting up in bed, with the lamp on, looking at countries that I have never been to and will almost certainly never go to (I hate flying and suffer from anxiety, but those are whole other stories). I love reading the names of strange towns and imagining what they would be like. I love words, and I love imagining things, and I have a huge interest in geography and cultures. I have friends who are avid and intrepid travellers, but I can’t do that. Reading atlases is, for me, the next best thing. It’s great.


You will notice that there is not much poetry on this list, which might be strange coming from a professional poet. The main way that poetry speaks to me is either to make me think “I’m much too stupid to understand that” or to think “I could do better.” Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings gets an honourable mention as a book that has spoken to me. Watching Michael Rosen perform at my school when I was in Year 4 was also hugely transformative. My next list might be: five poems that have changed my life. Stay tuned. 

Image result for adrian mole Image result for catcher in the rye Image result for flowers for algernon Image result for when love meets fear Image result for atlas