- Postmodern Promos
Archibald MacLeish declared, “a poem should not mean but be,” but of course he didn’t mean it. MacLeish’s poems meant perhaps too much, and sang too little, to submit to his definition. Marianne Moore wrote of a poet’s ability to create imaginary gardens with real toads in them, and so to create being out of meaning. More than any of the other moderns, Hart Crane self-consciously created poetry as MEDIUM and wanted language to spring us to somewhere beyond language. This unmediated medium remained, however problematically, “natural”; the poem was an organism that grew on its own; it was the poet’s truly born child.
Crane incorporated advertising language into his myth in “The River” section of The Bridge as if pre-packaged language could also be used as a springboard to a non-linguistic realm. But what happens when the order of transmission is reversed, when advertising copy coopts poetry, when the medium becomes the media, when the only poetry that most people encounter comes in the guise of slogans like “I wanna be like Mike” (which refers us to a basketball player and culture hero whose very style is “poetic”)? In this contemporary example, of course, advertising language is so strong that it has the ability to change the names by which we know our heroes—no one though of Michael Jordan as “Mike” until Gatorade (not, unfortunately, the company with the sight-rhyme, “Nike”) needed to transform the hero to make him rhyme, make him even more friendly (is it possible?) to consumer culture.
Marjorie Perloff’s provocative claim in Radical Artifice is that advertising language is that of Modernist poetry; advertising’s tenets were not laid down so much by Madison Avenue as by Ezra Pound. “Exact treatment of the thing, accuracy of presentation, precise definition—these Poundian principles have now been transferred to the realm of copywriting” (94), she argues (and I wonder it we might not find more irony still in the word itself, “copy write”; “copy right”; “copyright”). Perloff, ever an exact and able close-reader, takes the following billboard message in hand to show that, “as the ‘look’ of the standard poem begins to be replicated on the billboard or the greeting card, an interesting exchange begins to occur” (100):
O. R. LUMPKIN. BODY-
WRECKS OUR SPECIAL-
TY. WE TAKE THE DENT
OUT OF ACCIDENT.
“Surely,” she enjoins, pointing to the lineation of this “free verse” bit of advertising, with its clever wordplay and enjambment, “the next time we have an accident, this memorable punning will stick in our minds and draw us to O. R. Lumpkin rather than some other body shop” (100). This “standard poem” might well be printed in The New Yorker or Poetry or American Poetry Review (the latter with a photo of Mr. Lumpkin himself, no doubt). The punning begins, of course, with Mr. Lumpkin, who takes our lumps and makes them right again.
Advertising’s power, of course, lies in its simulation of authenticity; the potential consumer may know that the American Express card ads that show the familial love between father and daughter are “artificial,” and still wipe tears from her eyes. Hence Dan Quayle’s insistence that television should show us a more authentic version of ourselves. And so authenticity becomes a form of nostalgia. Crucial to this sense of authenticity, Perloff would claim, is its presentation—as in the Lumpkin ad—through the medium of free verse, which we think of as “natural” and unmediated through the artifice of traditional forms. “Free verse = freedom; open form = open mind, open heart: for almost half a century,” writes Perloff, “these equations have been accepted as axiomatic, the corollary of what has come to be called, with respect to poetic language, the ‘natural look.’” I suspect that she means us to hear the conflation of poetic language with hairstyle, and the attendant confusion between image and “self,” whatever that is; Perloff’s persistent attacks on the univocal lyric over...