WHO SAYS POETRY DOESN’T PAY

Posted by | October 01, 2009 | Making a living | 4 Comments

I’m a writer at an advertising agency. My job is to understand our clients’ business at least as well as they do and deftly influence the public favor of their products, services or brand.

I’m also a poet. Not in the “my ad copy is Laureate-worthy” sense, mind you. My graduate degree is in poetry – specifically the writing of it. An interesting choice for an Army veteran to be sure.

In truth, I always thought I would teach writing, composition and literature at a college or university. That’s traditionally how poets are able to make a living and work on their craft (there are my favorite exceptions, Doc Williams and Mr. Stevens, though). But life has a way of not always following best-laid plans.

Not long after I joined my first advertising agency, I was told that my background and experience in writing poetry and the military do not count toward experience in writing for advertising. From a tenure point of view, I guess I agree (although the pain and suffering that a poet/veteran experiences for his art is an eerie parallel to that of an advertising writer…it should count).

But my agreement ends there. Having now been in the ad business a while, I’ve come to see the basic tenets of writing poetry are one and the same for writing ads:
1. Economy of words – my guess is that, while it is a bastion of our literary canon, maybe one in a thousand have read Beowulf by choice. The Volkswagen “Lemon” ad from the 60’s on the other hand…
2. Voice – no one likes to read words that lie there on the page like…well…ink. If they don’t echo the truth of your Grandmother’s sage advice, or make you snap to attention like a barking drill sergeant, they’re silent.
3. Relevance – it never matters what the subject matter is…only that the writer closes the gap between ambivalence and action. Moves the needle from ignorance to understanding.
4. Imagination – the best writing – further, the best ideas – make connections between the practical and the fanciful. They leap…and we’re cool with following.
5. Fearlessness – Like my mom told me when she was teaching my how to drive: “He who hesitates is lost.” Creativity or art that hesitates is not creative. It’s merely safe. And where does that get you?

William Maynard of the Bates agency, I think, would agree. In David Ogilvie’s book On Advertising, he was quoted as (now famously) saying:

“Most good copywriters fall into two categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.”

I loved the quote for it’s truth (and personal vindication) the first time I read it. Still do. But the interesting (and, admittedly, motivating) part of the quote is what comes next:

“If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.”

I guess this poet’s right where he needs to be.


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