Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Commercial Poetry: Definition and Overview

Commercial Poetry

"Poetry, like bread, is for everyone."

- Nicaraguan poet Roque Dalton

What is "commercial poetry"?

To many, it is an oxymoron:

  1. "Poetry doesn't pay!"

  2. “There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money, either.” - Robert Graves

  3. "Art should never be compromised by popular appeal."

To others it is an anachronism, harkening back to a time when poetry was in every newspaper and magazine, when poets were like today's rock starts and a person could make $500,000 from one poem.

Commercial poetry is defined as any verse or free verse written for and marketed to an audience beyond poets themselves. While the expressions are hardly interchangeable, commercial poetry is often associated with popular and even traditional poetry. It is distinguished from "poets' poetry", which is related to "academic" or "literary" poetry--the kinds found primarily in books, literary magazines and webzines. Typically, novice poetry is writer-centered. Poets' poetry is, by definition, writers-centered. Commercial poetry is audience-centered. Among its many types are:

  • Occasional: Inaugurations, weddings, funerals, retirements, graduations, speeches, etc.

    Few can speak with the eloquence of a poet. There may be enumerable opportunities for poets to write personalized verse for special occasions. How many wedding planners are there in your state/province? In your country? In the English-speaking world?

  • Entertainment: Humour, drama, romance, etc.

    This is the category which has declined most precipitously in the last century. Humourous verse still appears occasionally in trades like Playboy and The Readers' Digest, but reliance on the page is a questionable strategy. What about other media? Is dramatic poetry really dead? Would an audience know or care that a play or film is in blank verse? Far more common is the embedding of poetry into films like "Dead Poets Society" and "Poetic Justice", or on television episodes.

    If you (and your publisher?) cannot distance yourself from books as a medium, consider Contest Publication marketing. I love this idea because it is based on audience participation: contribute to an anthology of contemporary performance- and audience-oriented poems. The publisher holds a contest for the best video presentation of any of these poems. The video can be anything from a camcorded recital to a vignette or slideshow. Entrants need only post their efforts on a site like YouTube and email the URL to contest organizers. No entry fee.

  • Educational: Didactic, historical, elegies, etc.

    Any lesson/synopsis on any [not too serious] subject benefits from verse.

    Find out what documentary films are being produced. Write a poem on that subject and see if they can use it, perhaps as a preface or coda.

    Can you think of anything more boring than assembly instructions? Imagine doing some in verse for, say, a toy manufacturer. This may be the one time that commerical poets need to think inside the box!

  • Promotional: Commercial jingles, political speechwriting/sloganeering, praise poems, etc.

    In the early 1970s, my editor won $1,000,000 by writing a grand total of five words before retiring on the proceeds. At $200,000 per word, that may seem like serious coin, but it's chickenfeed compared to what can be made today by producing the next motto of a large corporation. Similarly, Will I Am hasn't been a pauper since his rendition of "Yes We Can" hit the airwaves.

    Breaking into the speechwriting business is surprisingly easy. Go to a candidate's website and start typing. Indeed, this is a rare opportunity for popularizing free verse or prose poetry. (For obvious reasons, most commercial poetry is verse.)

    The jingles business may seem tougher; there are countless ad agencies standing in line in front of us. Nevertheless, those think tanks and their sponsors aren't shy about approaching anyone who produces words that might sell their products.

  • Appreciational: Greeting cards, praise poems, etc.

    Greeting cards are the single most lucrative poetry market--even larger than a successful pop song. What if Hallmark isn't hiring, though? Hold that thought!

  • Kitsch: On T-Shirts, crests, placemats, plaques, photos, paraphernalia, buses, etc.

    Take a photo, type a poem overtop of it, add a logo and send it to a restaurant chain. Repeat as necessary.

    Write an epic poem with a local setting. Guilt your town council into printing it out, one stanza at a time, on signs along a scenic path. Continue doing this so that, for variety, the poems can be rotated on different walkways around town. Argue that it encourages fitness.

    Add some class to an establishment with a poetry staircase, as seen on Dorianne Laux's Facebook page: patrons read one or two lines on each step as they ascend. Present it as a safety feature, encouraging people to slow down and "watch their step".

    Write a stunner sonnet. Show it to no one but the transit authority, encouraging them to put one line on each bus, trolley or train as part of a contest to see who can reconstruct the entire poem. Tell them it will boost interest in public transportation.

  • Niche: Special interests: particular sports, games, hobbies or occupations.

    Most unions, professions, and pastimes have a ruling body that produces a glossy bulletin for its members or afficionados. Some even have television access, as with the NFL Network. Given the lack of competition--many won't have had a poem submitted in decades--publishing in these paying venues is often a slam dunk.

  • Juvenilia: Nursery rhymes, "teenspleen", etc.

    The deaths of Dr. Suess and Charles Bukowski have created something of a vacuum.

  • Song lyrics: Theme songs to movies and TV shows, popular songs, operas, etc.

    If you don't have musical skills you can find a busker on any street corner--they're almost as numerous as poets. The typical approach is to write songs and hope to crack the radio market directly. Yeah, good luck with that!

    A much easier course is to write theme songs for movies or television pilots. In the time it took you to read this far hundreds of films went into production. Seeing what a great theme song can do for a movie, you'd think the music would be a high priority for directors. You'd be wrong.

    One day before they were supposed to begin final editing, the producers of "The Thomas Crown Affair" suddenly realized they didn't have a theme song. Overnight, one of them managed to hit a grand slam: "Windmills of Your Mind". Get your song into the hands of anyone on the set--even a lowly Production Assistant--and you may be surprised at how quickly it is gobbled up.

If you dream of winning a Nobel, Pulitzer or Griffin Prize you are a literary poet. If you fantasize about winning an Oscar, Emmy or CLIO, you are a commercial poet. Do you submit your work primarily to art-related publishers? Or do you seek an audience larger than the average tea room?

Consider these seemingly contradictory fact lists:

  1. Expressed as a percentage of the population, fewer people purchase or read poetry than at any time in the past.

  2. Only a tiny minority of people living today can cite a single line of contemporary poetry.

  3. Not one person is making a comfortable living from the publication of poetry in books, magazines and webzines.

  4. Few people can name more than 3 living poets or the title of a single volume of contemporary poetry.

  1. That there is more money being made today from verse--a mere subset of poetry--than at any time in human history.

  2. More people listen to verse today than at any time in human history.

  3. The biggest selling author of the 20th century wrote nothing but rhyming verse.

  4. Poets rank among the best known celebrities.

How can both sets of facts be true?

The answer lies in how precisely we use the terms "poet" or "poetry". If we are talking about "literary poetry", the stuff we read in existing e-zines, magazines and books, the first list pertains. Only when we use the broader, dictionary definition of poetry does the second set of facts come into play. The nursery rhyme, the advertising jingle, the songs we listen to on our radios and IPods, many of the slogans we see on bumper stickers, greeting card doggerel, these are all poetry. N.B.: No one specified good poetry. Yet.

Consider these two poems:

  • You'll wonder where the yellow went
    when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

  • That time of year thou mayst in me behold
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
    Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
    Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
    In me thou seest the twilight of such day
    As after sunset fadeth in the west,
    Which by and by black night doth take away,
    Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
    In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
    That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
    As the death-bed whereon it must expire
    Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
    This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Shakespeare's Sonnet LXXIII needs no defence. It might be a consensus choice as the greatest poem of all time. Nevertheless, the jingle has considerable technical merit, too. Note the effective "w" alliteration, the perfect vowel-by-vowel rhyme of "yellow went" and "Pepsodent", the metronome-breaking anapest starting L2, the positional assonance of short and long "u" sounds in the first foot of each line and the repetition of "r" sounds in the ensuing syllables, "-er where" and "your". All of these may explain why, despite our best efforts to lose it, this jingle sticks in our minds long after we've forgotten others of that ilk and era.

Both poems are masterpieces of their genres. Before you guffaw at the notion that they are equal, consider the viewpoint of the sponsor and ask yourself: "How many tubes of toothpaste did Sonnet LXXIII sell?" Each genre has its own aims and poems can only be judged based on their success at achieving those targets. Even if we believe one genre inherently superior to another we must bear in mind the famous Payton-Suey joke:

Chicago running backs Walter Payton and Matt Suey were camping in the arctic. Payton dashed into their tent and began hurriedly donning his track shoes. Suey asked what was happening. Payton explained that a hungry polar bear was on its way.

"You can't outrun a polar bear!" scoffed Suey.

"I don't need to," countered Payton. "I just need to outrun you!"

To be a successful commercial poet you don't need to be the best poet alive. You don't even need to be the best commercial poet around. You just need to be at least as good as anyone else in that specific genre or contest.

The key words are imagination and initiative. There is a story told in some detail of a woman who made custom greeting cards to order. Just before major holidays she would set up a kiosk in an area heavily trafficked by forgetful, procrastinating business people (there's another kind?). The customer would select a floral design and a poem before the recipient's full name was entered into a laptop. Why the full name, when only the first will appear on the card? Because before printing it out the lady could warn the customer that someone had already bought that same card for that person--maybe even that same customer the year before! (I did say "forgetful", right?) The entrepreneur would fold the paper, fresh out of the printer, into a card and then, as a final touch, scent the envelope to match the floral design. The lady charged an exhorbitant price but, because the recipients loved the cards so much, no one complained. When you clear $4,000 on a Valentines Day lunch hour you really don't have to work more than a week or two a year.

Quality and Qualities

We shouldn't assume that commercial poetry appeals only to non-poets. The greatest commercial poet of all time, William Shakespeare, kept the Globe and Blackfriars theatres alive selling [dramatic] poetry into a population decimated by the bubonic plague.

Granted, most commercial poetry is trash but Sturgeon's Revelation, "90% of everything is crud", rules commercial and literary poetry alike. Is this a problem or an opportunity? The cultural "attention deficit disorder" that Edward Hirsch mentions requires that speech be expressed in sound bytes. How can this need for compression be anything but good for poetry?

To quantify this gaping opportunity consider this question: "Does any lyricist believe s/he can't write better verse than Bernie Taupin?"

Quality survives, especially in commercial verse. Leonard Cohen's earliest songs (e.g. "Suzanne", "Bird on a Wire") are still being played on the radio. Does anyone under 50 know or care who The 1910 Fruitgum Company or Grand Funk Railroad were? Look at how many theme songs are written by the greatest lyricists of our time: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Buffy Ste. Marie, etc. The right song can help make a film (e.g. "The Rose", "Moon River", "White Christmas", "Up Where We Belong", "Windmills of Your Mind", etc.). This explains why these authors usually want a percentage of the gross. Would you rather have $100 from this film and $1,000,000 from the next or a flat $1,000 from all of them? (That $1,000 isn't a figure plucked from air; it is exactly what John Stewart made from selling the recording and television rights of "Daydream Believer" to the Monkees.)

Persistent is the notion that "academic" poets are more technically sound than popular ones. Indeed, this used to be true. For example, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were infinitely superior prosodists to Robert Service and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Since then, though, practical commercial poets continue to study the basics while MFA, MA and PhD students graduate without knowing even the most rudimentary aspects of scansion, jargon or technique. The tortoises have left the hares in the dust.

Are there other fundamental differences between the two cultures, commercial and literary? Certainly, not the least of which is the fact that there is no commercial poetry culture. This is less a reflection of their sparse numbers than their:

  • independence/granularity - How much would a jingle writer, a lyricist and a documentary poet have to discuss?

  • competitiveness - "Does Macy's tell Gimbel's?" Canadian translation: "Does Eton's tell The Bay?"

  • anonymity - Who knows who wrote the Pepsodent jingle?

Clearly, there isn't the sense of tshinanu that we see among the literaries. Perhaps owing to the fact that other poets are not their audience, blurbing is a concept foreign to commercial poets.

Skills, Context and Technology

New technology can be viewed in any of three ways:

  • a benign continuation of poetry's existing nature, adding only new venues and media;

    Many remain oblivious or indifferent to technological possibilities. Their online participation, if any, is usually limited to social (e.g. Twitter, Facebook), PoBiz (e.g. Harriet) or "theme theory" (i.e. manifestos arguing that poems about such-and-such are inherently superior to ones about so-and-so, that philosophical or allusive poems are preferable to emotive, dramatic or humourous ones, etc.).

  • an advance, redefining poetry as it takes art into a new realm;

    Poets' poets, perhaps in an attempt to mollify their potential market (i.e. other poets), may argue that novel outlets will somehow expand the definition of poetry, even beyond the "anything goes" stance already taken.

  • a rediscovery of poetry's theatrical origins.

    If we watched a play or movie where the actors were reading from a script would we think the production unprofessional? If so, how do we suppose the public feels about poetry readings?

    Barring concrete poems, acrostics and the like, what is the role of the written word in performance arts like film, theatre and poetry? Answer: none beyond connecting the author with contemporary and future performers.

If we accept poetry as primarily an audiovisual art form, today's successful poet needs to employ other skills, beginning with the ability to perform. Photography, film/video, slide shows, web design, music and promotion are some of these other avenues that may need to be mastered or achieved through networking/collaboration.

The academic poet treats readers like peers or students, expecting a greater appetite and a more fungible definition of poetry. They believe in bulk. Theirs is the poetry book, 'zine or reading. Some will enjoy an occasional slam or open mike. The experience becomes a collage that overloads the senses: an elegy is followed by a bawdy tale, a parable, a joke, then a rant about depersonalization. Audience members feel like foster children being bandied from home to home, or like teenagers learning about the evils of tobacco/alcohol by being forced to smoke/drink until they vomit. The poems blur and compress like disparate movie trailers.

By contrast, commercial poets seem to adopt the "less is more" philosophy, preferring that a poem be isolated from other poems but not from other art forms (e.g. music, theatre, film, etc.).



  1. Another way to identify commercial poems is by their total absence in any on-line venues making it useless to submit because all confine themselves to a single style.

  2. Some of us agree that a poem should be isolated from other poems knowing that its value is lost in a crowd. Literary poem editors cram them into a magazine simply because they are all so similar, like chickens in a coop, because they lack content to distinguish them.

  3. Odd business: lit journals publish lit poems but few poets read lit prose so skip those journals except as markets though not as sources of prosaic knowledge.
    It may be that lit poets are like Esperanto speakers who may be fluent in the language-but have almost no one to talk to.

    1. Poets treat literary magazines as markets = no one reads poetry

      I agree. Mind you, poetry was never meant as a textual experience in the first place.

    2. Love your posts. Any way to reach you by email?

    3. If you type your email here it won't appear. I'll contact you after deleting your email address.

    4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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