Who: You
What: Your Phone
When: Now/Since the 1890s
Where: Probably your pocket.

“Open Door” features audio, video, and online media to document dynamic interactions between poetry and its audience. “Open Door” showcases performance, scholarship, and engagement outside the usual boundaries of slams, workshops, and book publications. This week: The Blackberry in your pocket.


David Placek [founder of Lexicon, the company that created the names for such products as the Blackberry, the Swiffer, the Pentium chip, and Dasani water] maintains that the best name brands, like poems, work by compressing into a single euphonious word an array of specific, resonant meanings and associations.

That’s a passage from “Famous Names,” an article by John Colapinto, in the October 3rd issue of the New Yorker. David Placek is right, of course, about the names his company came up with being little poems. In fact, he could have been more specific: they’re not just poems, they’re Symbolist poems.

The greatest of Symbolists Stéphane Mallarmé, in his Crise de vers describes the poetry he admires as “le vers qui de plusiers vocables refait un mot total, neuf, étranger à la langue et comme incantatoire” (“verse that from its constituents makes up a total word, new, strange to the language and like an incantation”). For him, the poem itself was a single word. And like the words coined by the people at Lexicon, Mallarmé’s total word gives us “an array of specific, resonant meanings and associations” rather than something more defined and limited.

In 1891, L’Echo de Paris ran an interview with Mallarmé in which he derided French poetry’s old guard, the Parnassians. The distinction he draws between their ideals and his own takes us a good way toward understanding the nature of the Symbolist poem:

…the Parnassians… still, in the manner of old philosophers and rhetoricians, treat their subjects directly. I believe, to the contrary, that there must only be allusion. The contemplation of objects, the images that soar from the reveries they have induced, constitute the song. The Parnassians, who take the object in its entirety and show it, lack mystery; they take away from readers the delicious joy that arises when they believe that their own minds are creating. To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which derives from the pleasure of step-by-step discovery; to suggest, that is the dream. It is the perfect use of this mystery that constitutes the symbol…

The poem will suggest, and incite images and reveries in the mind of the reader, much as the word “Blackberry” brings to mind the seriousness and the sleekness of high technology associated with “black” and the fun, happiness, and freshness associated with “berry.” It also brings about another association with fruit, which in the context of information technology invokes Apple, which connects to ideas of innovation, high standards, and the David who challenges Microsoft’s stodgy Goliath.

We've become used to product names concocted in this way, so it's difficult for us to grasp how this means of creating brand names is specific to an advanced state of the consumer economy. The naming conventions that gave us "Blackberry" are represent a real departure from earlier naming conventions. "Blackberry" is not a brand name like those of the earlier industrial period, when a product was called “Murphy’s Oil” because it was oil, and sold by Murphy.

The art of suggestion is at the center of the Symbolist project. As Paul Verlaine put it in his poem “Art poétique”:

And you must not
Select your words without some vagueness:
Nothing is more precious than the gray song
The joins the uncertain to the precise.

For we still want nuance,
Not color, nothing but nuance!
Only nuance affiances
Dream to dream and the flute to the horn!

But if suggestion is the center of Symbolism, allusion lies quite close by. As Yeats put it in Ideas of Good and Evil, true poetry comes from a long tradition of known tales, images, and symbols, and the words of poetry gain power by “borrow[ing] their beauty from those that used them before” who will see the words of the poem:

…moving before a half-faded curtain embroidered with kings and queens, their loves and battles and their days out hunting, or else with holy letters and images of so great an antiquity that nobody can tell the god or goddess they would commend to an unfading memory.

A semiotician or anthropologist would probably speak of cultural codes and points of reference rather than a tapestry, but the point would be much the same: through allusion, one suggests, one points toward, an overall effect. Whether the oblique and suggestive references are to Kathleen Ni Houlihan (to draw an example from Yeats) or Apple Computer is neither here nor there.

From its very inception, Symbolism has been viewed with suspicion. Won’t it cut the poem off from the common reader? Won’t it be strange, difficult, inaccessible? Mallarmé’s interviewer, the journalist Jules Huret, certainly thought so. “We are approaching,” he said, after listening to Mallarmé talk about suggestion and mystery, “an area that brings up a serious objection I intended to raise—Obscurity!” And yet, when we think about how the “Murphy’s Oil” school of naming products has been shunted aside my the infinitely more sophisticated world of “Blackberry” and “Dasani” and “the Swiffer,” we have to recognize that, at some fundamental level, the Symbolist poetic has triumphed. It thrives, even—and, backed by huge corporate advertising budgets, it has become ubiquitous. And it clearly isn’t inaccessible to the average consumer, to say nothing of the average reader of poetry. We live in a most unlikely era, in which the Symbolist poem rides triumphantly through the marketplace.

If Symbolism has won, though, it has won at a game called “the winner loses.” After all, the Parisian Symbolists of the late nineteenth century were dead set against commodification, materialism, and the values of the market. They wanted to be obscure, and nuanced, and to remove poetry from the hands of the merely casual reader. “If,” said Mallarmé in the interview about Symbolism, “a being of average intelligence and insufficient literary preparation should by chance open a book written along these lines and pretend to enjoy it, there would have to be a misunderstanding.”

And why this need for obscurity? In the end, it was a matter of setting up a hierarchy different from the materialist hierarchy of wealth and conspicuous consumption in belle époque Paris. As Mallarmé put it,

The childishness of literature, up to now, has been to believe, for instance, that choosing a certain number of precious stones and writing down their names on a piece of paper, even very precisely, was to make precious stones. Well, no! Poetry being an act of creation, one must draw from the soul of man states, glowing lights, of such absolute purity that, well sung and well lighted, they become the jewels of man: that is what is meant by symbol; that is what is meant by creation, and the word poetry here finds its meaning: it is, in sum, the only possible human creation. And if, in truth, the precious stones with which one adorns oneself do not convey a state of the soul, one has no right to wear them . . .

The Symbolist, with all his subtle, soulful suggestiveness, is opposed not just to the plodding directness of Parnassian poets and Naturalist novelists: he’s opposed to those who would wear gems simply to show off wealth and claim status. He supports a different kind of aristocrat: the aristocrat of the spirit.

There is certainly a kind of Symbolist whose peacocking has less to do with dazzling jewelry than with the dazzling display of the state of his soul. But there’s another kind of Symbolist, too, whose rejection of materialism and the values of the marketplace is even more extreme. This is the type of Symbolist who reaches back through Baudelaire’s theories of correspondences to Swedenborg, and his notions of the spiritual world behind material existence. Mallarmé could write like this, gesturing toward a neo-Platonic ideal world beyond the shadowy world around us. But for a pure, 100-proof dose of this kind of transcendental Symbolism, we can turn to Jean Moréas, and his 1886 manifesto “Le Symbolisme”:

An enemy of didactic pursuits, of declamation, of false sensitivity, of objective description, Symbolist poetry endeavors to clothe the Idea in a form perceptible to the senses that nevertheless does not constitute an ultimate goal in itself, but, while helping to convey the Idea, remains subordinate. The Idea, in turn, must not allow itself to be deprived of the sumptuous trappings of external analogies; for the essential character of the symbol is never to reach the Idea itself.

The Symbolist poem, in this view, doesn’t just appeal to a tapestry of existing cultural associations: it aims at an ineffable, never-quite-grasped world beyond, and better than, the material world. It aims, really, at the divine. And if that was the aim, then to find the Symbolist poetic employed in selling portable email technology and bottled water is a terrible defeat. A set of techniques meant to take us to the realm of the Platonic ideal has, it turns out, gone on to fumble in the greasy till, adding the half-pence to the pence. Of course all those half-pences add up to untold billions, but the point remains the same. In winning at the game of commerce, Symbolism loses the game it set out to play.


But that’s not the whole story. Consider these words, in which John Colapinto continues to describe David Placek’s sense of his company’s work as a kind of poetry. Placek, says Colapinto:

…prefers to emphasize the practical aspects of his work. “I’ve learned that if I use that with prospective clients—‘hey, what we’re creating here is really a poem’—you can see people sort of get concerned,” he told me. “Like, ‘this isn’t really about art here. This is about getting things done.’”

So far we’ve been talking about how Symbolist poetics became immensely popular by becoming a marketing technique—winning the money game and losing the game of sensitive souls. But now we see something quite the opposite at work. Poetry, it seems, is distrusted, even reviled, by American business culture. In the world of utilitarian logic and instrumental reason, the world of getting and spending, poetry raises eyebrows. Certainly this is connected to the relative marginalization of poetry in contemporary America: business culture is, after all, our dominant culture.

But how to think of this? One could look at it as a terrible defeat. Even when they’re using advanced poetic techniques the servants of capital don’t want to embrace poetry. It wasn’t always this way: Tennyson was hugely popular with the business-oriented Victorian bourgeoisie. But now poetry is on the outs, considered worthless for the practical minded. On the other hand, one could look at this very same state of affairs as a triumph. If the Symbolists wanted to associate poetry with values inimical to the marketplace, they’ve clearly done it. Even when their techniques have been appropriated by commerce, they’ve managed to cement in place the notion that poetry and commerce have nothing in common.

In the end, one hardly knows how to describe what’s happened to the Symbolist poetic. Perhaps the best thing is simply to shout out the contradictions: “Symbolist poetry is dead! Long live Symbolist poetry!”

Originally Published: November 4th, 2011

Robert Archambeau's books include Home and Variations (Salt Publishing, 2004), and Laureates and Heretics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). He teaches at Lake Forest College.