Poetry to soothe the creative soul

T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost provide copy for two campaigns; an observer wanes poetic.

Marketing Magazine, June 26, 2000   

I got a job upon my graduation and briefly filled with boundless, bold elation, began my work in this small, smart ad shop producing work that soon put it on top.


Boutique, they called it, widely praised and lauded for all the buying that its campaigns prodded. The prizes from our peers for smart creative just proved that others’ work was vegetative. But then the place got swallowed by one bigger. My all-too-hip reaction? Just a snigger. “This will not change the sterling work we’re doing,” I said then. But now I’m stewing. A new assignment landed with a thud. I’m stuck, because it’s doomed to be a dud. It says a week from now the client needs a new campaign that buying frenzy feeds; some powerful but low-key stuff — real stoic — that makes a simple purchase seem heroic. And could we kind of tart it up real classy? I, stumped, stare out the window, blank and glassy. “How did I get here?” I am thinking now; not whether I will do this job, but how.


Then I recall those years of English lit. And slapping palm to forehead, yell, “That’s it!” I’ll use some poetry just like the kind I studied freshman year then left behind. Sure — all those couch potatoes ought to know those lines from Frost about the woods and snow. Or what’s that spot — that one for AIG — that cops some lines from Eliot’s “Alfred P”? Yeah, “Prufrock,” right, and uses them instead to talk of risk and what may lie ahead, and why you shouldn’t fear the future, but rush headlong to tomorrow — leave your rut! And didn’t monster.com use some Frost (or lean upon his muse at no great cost) with lines they lifted from “The Road Not Taken” for people whose career choice was mistaken, encouraging them, “Quit your crummy job and find a new one,” quoting long-dead Bob about those roads diverging in a wood and that their Web site each careerist should consult to find some work that didn’t suck and thereby keep their souls and earn a buck?


I’ll flip through those anthologies by Norton, find something right, trim lines, refine and shorten some ancient poet’s work, change its intent and thus to newer purposes see bent some beautiful if half-forgotten verse. (Whatever I could write would just be worse.) Now that should mean the right amount of class and upper-crust cachet. But now, alas, I have to find a poem that will fire the itch to spend in each prospective buyer whose aim I must ensure is to aspire to clamber up the food chain ever higher. It can’t insult the audience or come across in such a way that they’ll feel dumb. They have to know it’s poetry; it’s art, and recognizing it makes them feel smart. It’s got to be some dead guy, that’s for sure. It can’t be someone living — they’re too pure. (That’s not quite true, for Maya Angelou has sold her work for advertising too.) Departed poets still make better sense: less likely to demand some recompense. God knows they’re not paid much, not even now. But better steal the milk than buy the cow. Still better, if the poet’s old enough, we will not have to pay to use the stuff. More recent writers still might have estates, surviving kin in tight financial straits whose vigilant attorneys will demand emolument with greedy outstretched hand. I think we’ll find the very best refrain by searching in the vast public domain.


But whose lines could we best appropriate? Whose work could rightly be described as great, but not so good as to engender hate? Which poet shall we set upon this task? Whose work will serve, but not make clients ask, “Why is the tag line in that ad so strange? The copy baffles. Can’t we rearrange it just a bit to get our point across?” (We can’t refuse, you know, they are the boss.) Not anything obscure by ancient Greeks, no Coleridge or Poe — those guys were freaks. Miss Dickinson? Too prim, or else too flaky. Bill Wordsworth? No, the recognition’s shaky. We must make certain that we’re sure to stay the hell away from E.S.V. Millay. Walt Whitman’s works are all too goddamn long.


And we can’t use J. A. Prufrock’s “Love Song” — that AIG spot beat us to the punch. I’d go with Shakespeare, but I have a hunch his stuff’s been used too much. No Ezra Pound. What other poets lie beneath the ground? Some Auden, maybe? William Butler Yeats?


O curse these cruel, capricious, crazy fates that force us for our clientele to simper and sell not with a bang but with a whimper.