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Product Placement in Modern Poetry

Glittering fragments in Cummings, Crane, Betjamin, and Seidel.

Early in the twentieth century, E.E. Cummings was as hot against materialist society as only a poet living on a trust fund can be. Along with his love lyrics that achieved notoriety by fragmenting all over the page like sexy grenades, he wrote poems that were meant to be satires. In his 1926 collection Is 5, the star among the would-be satirical poems was “poem, or beauty hurts mr. vinal. (Always playing tricks with typography, Cummings might have put the title in capitals specifically so that later editors of anthologies, when they cited it accurately in the contents list, would look as if they had made a mistake.) In the poem’s opening stanzas, capitalist America is mockingly addressed:

take it from me kiddo
believe me
my country, ’tis of

you, land of the Cluett
Shirt Boston Garter and Spearmint
Girl With The Wrigley Eyes (of you
land of the Arrow Ide
and Earl &
Wilson
Collars) of you i
sing: land of Abraham Lincoln and Lydia E. Pinkham,
land above all of Just Add Hot Water And Serve—
from every B.V.D.

let freedom ring

All those brand names were fresh contemporary references at the time. Any American reader would have spotted them with ease. Later on, it would have taken consultation with an old-timer or several trips to the library. Reading the poem for the first time in Australia in the late fifties, I committed the lines to memory without having a clue what the proper names referred to, except perhaps for Abraham Lincoln and Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, which had been handed out by American troops all over the Pacific area with such liberality that it was a byword even in Japan. Nowadays we can all look up the names on a machine. The reader will come away from an hour of Googling with a lot of information. In 1929, a few years after the poem was written, Cluett Peabody, makers of shirts, took over the Arrow brand, and in 1985 the remnants of Cluett Peabody were absorbed into the gtb (Gold Toe Brands) Holding Corp, which today still holds the licensing rights to the “Sanforized” process of pre-shrinking fabric, originally devised by Sanford L. Cluett himself. In the advertising for Arrow shirts, the Arrow man, a predecessor of the Marlboro man but dressed up for an elegant evening out instead of being dressed down for the West, was a painted fantasy by the eminent commercial artist, J.C. Leyendecker.

Though he didn’t exist, the Arrow man drew up to seventeen thousand fan letters a day: a fact worth filing away if you are trying to convince yourself that there will never be enough American voters to put Sarah Palin in the White House. Securing an immortality somewhat more certain than the one conferred by Cummings’s poem, the Arrow man can also be encountered in chapter seven of The Great Gatsby. Ide collars were manufactured by George P. Ide & Co. and had nothing to do with today’s Integrated Drive Electronics. Lydia E. Pinkham’s highly successful herbal medicine might have owed some of its popularity among women to an impressive ethanol content. The standard treatment for acute menstrual pains at the time was to remove the ovaries, so getting slightly blotto was no doubt an attractive alternative. The poem was a few years too early to record that the firm of Bradley, Voorhees & Day hired Johnny Weissmuller to be the face, as we would now say, of their product, bvd men’s underwear, but their advertising already carried the slogan “Next to Myself I Like bvdBest.” Since bvd was purchased in 1976 by Fruit of the Loom, and since, in 2002, Fruit of the Loom was in turn purchased by Berkshire Hathaway, the original acronym is currently under the control of none other than Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world. Buffett, judging from his parsimonious ways, probably wears the product under his business suit. But in a sense he would be wearing it even if he dressed more expensively, because bvd has entered the American version of the English language as a general term for any brand of men’s underwear.

Today we are used to the idea that a free market economy, except when it collapses, goes on changing and growing inexorably, with a multifariousness that can be analyzed only up to a point, and never fully described. No matter how dumb, every artist and intellectual has caught up with what Ferdinand Lassalle tried to tell Karl Marx: that capitalism was something far more complex and productive than he, Marx, could honestly reduce to a formula. Marx preferred to believe that capitalism was heading towards extinction. And indeed, in the twenties there was a crisis on the way, but it was still boom time when Cummings was writing satirical poems in Greenwich Village. The commercial world had a creative force of its own, to which the creative artists could not help responding, even when they despised it politically. Hart Crane scattered brand names throughout his long poem The Bridge. A monumental novel much less read now that it once was, U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, is punctuated with free-form poetic rhapsodies full of industrial facts and names. Those passages are by far the liveliest parts of the book. Many of the names are unrecognizable now, but strangely they remain as enticing as when he first transcribed them. The same applies to the trademarks in Cummings’s early poems.

There is a paradox here, which needs to be unpacked on the level of language, because by now there is no other level on which it exists. My own solution would be to say that the writers were taking on a fresh supply of vocabulary. As a sponge can’t resist liquids, they were bound to respond to the linguistic bustle of the printed advertising and the radio hoopla. Theoretically they might have despised the land of Just Add Hot Water And Serve, but in practice they loved the slogans. Readymade cheap poetry, the scraps of advertising copy, properly mounted in a poem, could be made to look expensive, in just the way that Picasso could mount a scrap of newspaper in a collage and make it look as interesting as a pot carried by a slave girl on a Pompeian wall—ephemerality perpetuated.

Not all poets since that time of discovery have taken immediately detectable advantage of the fresh supply of language. Like all new tricks it soon looked old hat if pursued to excess, and Robert Frost, who can plausibly be put forward as the greatest modern poet of them all, never touched it: in his verse an axe was just an axe. Not even the achingly up-to-date W.H. Auden supplied brand names for “the tigerish blazer and the dove-like shoe.” But many poets, and some of them among the most striking in their diction, have, at least partway, followed the same course in connecting now and always. It’s one of the biggest differences I can see between the English language poetry of the modern era and the poetry of all the eras preceding. In pre-modern poetry, Shakespeare, who mentioned everything, would probably have name checked products if he could, but there were few goods with the maker’s name on them: though he would specify the street or town which had given origin to a certain cut of sleeve, Lady Macbeth at her most wild would never have been the face of Vivienne Westwood, even if Shakespeare had known that a louche female designer of that name had a studio under the castle eaves.

You do get the sense, however, that Milton, though he could stuff a verse paragraph full of classical furniture until it groaned, wouldn’t have raided a supply of contemporary proper names, had such a thing existed. There was a conviction, which he inherited and concentrated, that too much concern with the evanescent blocked the way to the eternal. It wasn’t remarkable, then, that Pope, a meticulous recorderof the knickknacks on a young lady’s dressing table in The Rape of the Lock, named no name that might not have been remembered. Nor, moving on, is the same forbearance remarkable in Tennyson, whose infallibly musical ear would certainly have picked up on, say, an Emes & Barnard sterling silver mustard pot if he had thought such a reference advisable. Hopkins, who could see everything, seems not to have seen an advertisement in a newspaper. Hardy, in his poem about the Titanic, never mentioned the ship’s name, though you might have thought that it sounded classical enough. But then suddenly, only a little further into the twentieth century, poets in the English language were pulling words off billboards the way that late nineteenth-century French painters had put billboards in their paintings, and probably for the same reasons.

There had been a philosophical shift: if not in philosophy, then in the arts. It had finally been recognized that the artificially generated language of here and now could be continuous with the everlasting. It didn’t guarantee the everlasting, and even today so keen-eyed a poet as Seamus Heaney will tell you everything about a plough except the name of its manufacturer: but a reference system in the temporal present was no longer held to be the enemy of a poem’s bid for long life. For poetry, the modernizing process had begun in France, and well before the painters made the same change visible. Victor Hugo began the breaking down of the standard poeticized diction that the French call poncif, and the brilliantly original Tristan Corbière, for whom Paris was one enormous brocante full of used objects crying out to be mentioned, led the whole of his short life while Renoir was still getting into his stride, and Monet was still editing the landscapes in front of his eyes so that smokestacks were magically eliminated. In all histories of modern literature, it’s a standard theme that modern poetry in English really got started when Pound and Eliot picked up on such Frenchmen as Laforgue, but really the influence was already operating in the fin-de-siècle English poet Ernest Dowson, in whose poems the protagonists were drowsy with absinthe. 

Dowson, however, never quoted the name on the label of the bottle. That came later, and after it did come it never went away. In Eliot’s poems there weren’t just sawdust restaurants with oyster shells, there were abc restaurants with weeping multitudes. Eliot didn’t care that the abc restaurants might not be there one day. As things have turned out, the name abc for restaurants has proved hard to kill—you can visit one in Buenos Aires—but the original chain of restaurants that Eliot was talking about is long gone. He wasn’t betting on their durability, though. He was betting on a sure thing: the way they sounded. The noise the set of initials made was as important to him as the picture it evoked. New words made for new phrases, and did so with an abundance unseen since Elizabethan times. We need to bear this in mind when getting deeply involved in academic discussions about whether the modern poets reintegrated the sensibility that had become dissociated since the metaphysical poets—a key notion of Eliot the critic. Listen hard enough to Eliot the poet, and you can hear something more fundamental than a soldering iron reconnecting loose wires in the apparatus of sense: you can hear an incoming surge of fresh linguistic forms.

Even those poets who did not refer directly to the manufactured names of the commercial world referred to the world of manufactured things. Poetry took in more and more of what was already there, instead of leaving it out in order to remain uncontaminated by evanescence. If the expansion was incremental, it still happened awfully fast. In the poetry of Pound, the revolutionary who now looks merely transitional because he was so far outstripped by what he started, skyscrapers were never mentioned. Yet Pound was still in his manic prime when Auden, in September 1939, took it for granted that he could use skyscrapers for decor:

Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man.

Actually, as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were both already demonstrating elsewhere, Collective Man had more daunting ways of proving his strength than to erect the Chrysler building, but even if the thought was superficial (a weakness that the later, self-punishing version of Auden would have admitted) the phrasing sounded all the more classical for being so contemporary: a seeming anomaly that we will have to deal with eventually. For now, enough to say that Wordsworth and Coleridge had wished to reopen poetry to common speech, and might even have done so, to some of it: but modern poetry did so to all of it, including the common names for all the trappings of energy, illumination, entertainment, and transport. (Tennyson traveled frequently by train but he never mentioned it in a poem: perhaps the thought of the puffing locomotive that took him to see the Queen might have disturbed the landscape of the Idylls of the King.) And this must have been at least partly due to the surrounding centripetal pressure of commercial language, which was just as busily inventive as poetry was, and more energetic for being better paid: for being the product of competition in a stricter sense than any art.

It also had the advantage of being so undeviatingly utilitarian in its aims that it was begging to be hijacked, as an aesthetic duty. Of all the poets of the thirties, John Betjeman pulled the most daring heist. Auden, MacNeice, and Spender were either praised or blamed as Pylon Poets, but they themselves never said who made the pylon. Betjeman unblushingly said who made everything. It was the biggest difference between him and his pre-modern predecessor Kipling. Both of them wrote performance pieces meant to be recited by an amateur standing beside the piano after dinner, but Kipling, though in his poems about India he carefully specified the colonial equipment of the sahibs, seldom mentioned the London shops where they bought their kit. Kipling’s Empire was full of British exports (“In the name of the Empress, the Overland Mail!”) but he rarely cited a brand name for effect. Betjeman never stopped. He wrote whole stanzas full of trademarks, and there were lines that differed from advertising slogans only in having a more finely judged lilt. Even when evoking the immediate past, he brought to the task the cataloging eye and ear of the present.

Scent of Tutti-Frutti-Sen-Sen
    And cheroots upon the floor.

Sen-Sen was an Edwardian breath-freshener, so by citing the name he was harking back to a time when no poet would have cited it. After WWII, Betjeman was often disparaged as a social throwback, and today, although his prominence is no longer seriously questioned, there is still a remarkable list of important anthologies which do not include any of his work. But at the time his fellow craftsmen knew that he was at least as up-to-date as they were. Geoffrey Grigson might have turned down Betjeman’s poems for New Verse, but Eliot wanted them for The Criterion. There would have been no doubt of Betjeman’s originality if he had taken Faber’s offer when it came. With Eliot in command of the editorial board, Faber already had the power of an establishment institution specifically equipped for deciding which new poets were modern enough to last. But as Alexandra Harris outlines in her excellent book Romantic Moderns—and if only all cultural analysts had her style, scope, and concision—Betjeman stuck with the more fustian house of John Murray because, as a cultural conservationist dedicated to the preservation of a vanishing England, he didn’t want his books to look modern at all. He didn’t want a front cover showing nothing but a typeface: he wanted little drawings of herbaceous festoons and time-honored architectural doodads, like illustrations from Ruskin. He did, however, from within the neat boxes of his four-square stanzas, sound more modern than anybody. And later on Philip Larkin picked up on it. Larkin admired Betjeman so much for his intelligibility and poise that today whole platoons of busy scholars tend not to notice how the admiration was also reflected in a deep technical homage. Larkin might be indebted to Yeats and Hardy, but to Betjeman he is enslaved. The obeisance can be traced through the use of proper names. Betjeman’s longing for beautiful women was translated, when he failed to attain them, into the sensual pleasure of naming their accoutrements: in his wartime poem “Invasion Exercise on the Poultry Farm,” the mouth he yearns to kiss is still, today, otherwise occupied:

Marty rolls a Craven A around her ruby lips.

A reader from outside the British Empire might have needed telling that Craven A was a brand of cigarette, but Betjeman was working on the assumption that the Empire was still a big enough audience for an act which was, on at least one level, vaudeville: he came on, made a topical reference, and paused for the laugh of recognition. Larkin borrowed Betjeman’s gaze in order to read the seaside billboard that featured the beautiful girl who will not survive the seasons and the graffiti artists:

Come to Sunny Prestatyn
Laughed the girl on the poster,
Kneeling up on the sand
In tautened white satin.

Her threatened image is pure and tragic Larkin, but Betjeman’s merriment bubbles underneath. Verve travels.

It could be said that verve is the only thing that does travel. Perhaps we need a more expensive word for it. The word “rhythm” is overworked for something so hard to pin down, but at least it gives you the idea that vocabulary is not enough. The fresh words must lead to a phrase, and the phrase must have impetus, which must help to propel the line, and so on. Otherwise nothing is being built except a lexicon. In twentieth-century America, especially after wwiiopened up the old world to young hopefuls armed with the gi Bill, there were lexically gifted American poets who could join the us (the country whose beauty hurt Mr. Vinal) to a greater, more Europeanized sophistication. In brute fact, the European glossy magazines—French Vogue was the prime example—were already under the control of American capital, but it remained true that Americans were still in search of cultural validation. L.E. Sissman, whose name first came to prominence in the sixties, was an expert at bringing to a poetic narrative the luster of high-end products then deemed exclusive. Here he is in a plush hotel, about to receive his dinner companion, a dizzying young fashion plate called Honor, whom we might imagine as a version of Holly Golightly with her own money, or Paris Hilton with taste:

                                       The maitre d’
Steers for my table, bringing, in his train,
Honor in Pucci, Guccis, and Sassoon
Hair-do, a little younger-looking than
I saw her last at twenty.
           From “Pursuit of Honor, 1946”

Blah blah blah, and bling bling bling. Even then, none of the exclusive stuff excluded anybody who could afford the tab, and it’s all terribly familiar to us now; but it was quite exciting at the time. Just not quite exciting enough. In prose, social notation through the listing of products had been taken a long way by John O’Hara, and J.D. Salinger had already pushed it to its limit. (The limit is reached when anybody can successfully parody the style except the author himself.) In poetry, Sissman was already mining the depths even while he was getting famous for it. There is a big hint here that vocabulary isn’t enough: there has to be a phrase, and quite commonly to be too fascinated with words is a bad preparation for the forming of phrases. When not banging away with a stack of names out of showcase magazines, Sissman could use words from other sources—restaurant menus were a favorite—which told you all too well that he had no real notion of connecting with his readers, except, perhaps, for the purpose of leaving them with the nagging sense that they should get out more:

Aboard, they dine off Chincoteagues, Dover
Sole (hock), endive, rare entrecôte (claret),
And baked Alaska.  
         From “New York: A Summer Funeral”

Not only does it sound indigestible, the sound is indigestible. Sissman had all kinds of gifts—including the rare one of cramming a socially complex narrative into a small space—but he lacked the crucial one that makes you remember a poem. He could place a word so that it stopped you cold, wondering why you were bothering to read him at all. Since his vocabulary was so desperately modern—modern beyond now, more modern than tomorrow—we are forced to deduce that the crucial gift has something to do with establishing an impetus which draws the reader in, and along.

The most spectacular American poet at the moment for his use of blue-chip commercial properties is Frederick Seidel. One of those poets who get discovered late in life, he made things hard for himself by neglecting to write separately memorable poems. Instead he wrote, and still writes, poetry: poetry notable chiefly for its rich incidence of branded products so relentlessly top of the range that you and I could never reach them with all our credit cards combined. Now of advanced years, Seidel makes it clear that the writer behind the work still shares the same expensive tastes as the persona within it: like Malcolm Forbes in his dotage, Seidel goes everywhere by motorcycle, but the motorcycles in Seidel’s case are masterpieces by Ducati, built like jewelry and described that way.

Eerily unruffled by the raging slipstream, his suits, when he arrives at his appointment with some young countess who leaves Sissman’s Honor looking like a waitress, are from a firm of Italian tailors you won’t have heard of. The same goes for his shoes: John Lobb produces work boots compared with the things on Seidel’s feet. None of this, alas, sounds very far from product placement: for all the undoubted vigor of his urge to register the minutiae of the privileged life—like Cummings he started off with the support of money from home—there is a stickily over-made-up heaviness to the pictures he paints, rather like a sumptuous yet depressing visual odor that assails you when you flick through an issue of Vanity Fair in search of the articles among the glamour spreads: and somehow the articles, supposedly factual, seem less so in a context where not even Kate Winslet or Anne Hathaway is deemed quite perfect enough, and needs to have her waist trimmed and her legs lengthened. Photoshopping and airbrushing reduce things to an essence, but it is the essence of falsity.

The overload of high-society notation in Seidel’s verse, however, would be less onerous if he could more often develop his phrases into lines. Despite his unfortunate propensity for kiddie rhymes, he can do phrases that pull you in like an Inuit fisherman whose hook is suddenly taken by a killer whale, but only very seldom do you find complete lines forming, and hardly ever does one line generate another, as it once did in an early poem called “Morphine”:

What hasn’t happened isn’t everything
Until in middle age it starts to be.

Seidel, if he had wanted to, could have done that in every poem; have made whole poems instead of piles of glittering fragments; and have never needed to regret being “late for a fitting at Caraceni,” whose bottega—but of course you knew—is situated in Milan. Reading Seidel now, in my own old age, it saddens me that I have spent my long life dressing like a student: like a slob, in fact. I should have put more art into the everyday. Seidel would have given us the makers of Auden’s tigerish blazer and dove-like shoe.

But he was never impressed enough that Auden didn’t. Auden didn’t need to give us the names, because he could give us the rhythm. In his greatest single short poem after wwii, “The Fall of Rome,” Auden carved one line after another that was as contemporary as a Boeing Stratocruiser yet as classical as the tomb of Augustus. The poem concluded with one of his most beautiful quatrains:

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

He didn’t even say where the reindeer were: they were just elsewhere. The rhythm welded the now and the then together. Evocation needs more than notation: it needs impetus. You can’t Just Add Hot Water And Serve. Looking back with as much penetration as I can now achieve with tired eyes, I think I must have guessed that already, during those days in Sydney when I walked around reciting E.E. Cummings to an audience of trees, traffic, and puzzled pedestrians. I didn’t just go for the bric-a-brac satires and the crazily lush love lyrics, I went for lines that verged on nonsense. “To eat flowers and not be afraid.” Not good advice in Australia, which has flowers you should be very afraid of indeed. But whatever he was talking about, even if it was nothing, his phonetic force drove whole poems into my head like golden nails. Fifty years later I’m still trying to figure out just how the propulsive energy that drives a line of poetry joins up with the binding energy that holds a poem together.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Product Placement in Modern Poetry

Glittering fragments in Cummings, Crane, Betjamin, and Seidel.
  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

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