Editor’s Note: I will neither say that poetry is a dead nor a dying art. Okay, if you are a dedicated reader of this Saturday Poetry Series, you are able to quote me as saying that today’s is a world in which poetry is nearly as much of a dead language as Latin. Nearly.
There was once a time when poets were revered. Today poets have day jobs. When I read the rich history of poetry in this world, when I hear of the great Ovid, of Shakespeare, of Homer, I wonder what happened? What did Alan Ginsberg do right that the rest of us are doing wrong? How is is that in my life’s fairytale, once upon a time there was a famous poet, and now there is none? Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss aside, save Maya Angelou, what average American reads poetry at all, let alone knows a living, writing poet by name?
What, then, can be done to make poetry viable in the 21st century? What can we learn from other arts that now flourish? Like so much in today’s America, perhaps the answer lies with commercialization.
I make this statement in the wake of Okla Elliot’s profound article, Living in the Dollar-Amount Democracy. The essence of Elliot’s article is that we as consumers can make the world a place we want to live in by speaking in the only language that today’s America understands: money. As consumers, we tell companies that we support or oppose their practices by buying or not buying their products. So if consumerism is our true democracy, if our voices will be heard only in dollars, how does poetry flourish in today’s market?
Levi’s might have an answer for us. With their most recent “Go Forth” campaign, Levi’s is using the poetry of Walt Whitman to sell their product. In its “America” ad, a recording of what some believe to be Whitman’s own voice bellows, reading an excerpt from his poem America, as an artsy black and white film portrays a vision of today’s America. In its “O Pioneers!” ad, a narrator reads an excerpt from Whitman’s poem Pioneers! O Pioneers! (from his famous work, Leaves of Grass), while yet another artsy film shows us images of today’s pioneers – the youth of this country. And while Levi’s jeans are (of course) featured throughout both commercials, in both ads neither the “Go Forth” campaign phrase nor the Levi’s logo are prominently featured until the end, until the art has been given its due spotlight.
I must say, I love poetry getting exposure, in any form. And in both ads I appreciate that the Levis logo flashes only at the end – that the poem is not itself commercialized. I appreciate that art is given its due, that poetry is at the core of this commercial campaign, and that in being used in such a way it is not, in my opinion, being cheapened. At least it is not being cheapened any more than is inherently required for a piece of art to be used to sell a product. And, perhaps most importantly, this campaign is spreading the poetry of Walt Whitman to a whole new generation, a generation which otherwise may never have known him.
I am not saying that the commercialization of poetry is ideal or that in a Utopian society poetry would have to “sell out” to be beloved. I am saying that in a world where money talks, and is often all that can be heard, perhaps we as artists have to adapt and commercialize poetry if we want it to proliferate like any other money-fueled art. Bravo to Levi’s for sharing Walt Whitman with today’s youth. I hope they’re listening.