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.