Bubbles for the 21st Century

perfectly dreadful, highly lucrative

In 1885, the painter John Everett Millais — once a member of the rebellious Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, at this point already a pillar of the establishment and a freshly created baronet — produced a perfectly dreadful picture called ‘Bubbles’. The copyright, sold by Millais to The Illustrated London News, was sold on by them to Pears’ Soap for use as an advert. Victorian intellectual society was scandalised — the word ‘degradation’ was flung about, not least by characters in best-selling novels, honestly you’d have thought the world were about to end.

Now watch this video poem by Luke Wright, responding to a recent trend of poets appearing in TV adverts for, among other things, the Nationwide building society (NB NOT a bank) and Jeep Renegade: https://youtu.be/ikkV_pLCAl4.

To be fair, Luke is only saying on YouTube things that have been grumbling along in private between poets for months, and saying them better than most — but the objection is no less Victorian and, frankly, just as ludicrous. Some thoughts:

1. If there must be poems, let’s have them written by poets.

It seems that “poetry” is very much the thing at the moment, and employing actual poets has to be better than getting copy-writers, advertising executives or unpaid interns to try their hand. There is a frightening amount of this kind of thing going on — the lame doggerel on the front cover of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe brochure springs to mind, or the London Underground posters rightly taken apart here:


but the absolute prize has to go to this effort (takes a little finding, they’re so proud of it they’ve hidden in the text in a drop-down box halfway down the page, but my god it’s worth it):


The message that poetry is any old rubbish as long as it rhymes seems to me to be much more offensive than a few competent writers making some money.

2. Who says poetry has to be right on?

Since the collapse of the mass market for poetry (which seems to have coincided with the rise of radio in the 1920s), poets, prevented from achieving any kind of real-world success, have comforted themselves with the thought that ours is a noble calling, essentially progressive and healthy for the individual and for society.

A comforting thought and a noble aspiration — but raised to the level of dogma it tends, like all dogmas, to distort one’s view of the world and conceal what’s really happening. I’m not so interested here in the questions of whether it’s in fact true that poetry is essentially progressive, or even who has the right to pronounce on what poetry essentially is (and isn’t), rather to trace one such distortion by way of example.

Luke starts his poem by quoting lines written by George the Poet to advertise the Jeep Renegade. George’s poem is an exhortation to break from the herd, express your individuality, etc. etc. by buying this particular kind of expensive car. Luke’s point is that George has betrayed his “anger from the street” by allowing it to be exploited in this way.

But who’s exploiting who? A cursory internet search reveals that George the Poet is the product of grammar school and, er, Kings College Cambridge. It seems to me at least as plausible to argue that George is rather cleverly exploiting the lazy assumption that all young black poets are a) angry and b) “from the street” to earn himself a fat commission. In which case, calling him out for “selling out” is just buying in to the strategy.

The real stories here are: Graduates of elite educational establishments have all sorts of ways to make money. Consumerism uses the rhetoric of individuality to mask enforced conformity. It’s a shitty, divided, exploitative setup we inhabit. Lots to criticize here, but none of it really about poetry.

3. Poetry does not need protecting.

Actors appear in adverts all the time but that doesn’t mean that all drama is compromised. I understand that if you’ve worked long and hard at being a big fish in a small pond, it must be disorienting when the pond suddenly and massively expands. But as long as there are kids in playgrounds rhyming as they skip, inventing rude versions of pop songs or alliterative nicknames for their teachers — which is forever — poetry is safe. Humans play + humans have language = humans play with language, is all.