When Whitman sold you Levi’s.
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute, says Robin Williams, playing an English teacher at an all white male fictional prep school. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.
The ad debuts during Super Bowl XLVIII and is watched by 111 million members of the human race.
And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering: these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love: these are what we stay alive for.
At 14, when I didn’t know what I was alive for, I discovered Dead Poets Society on TNT or TBS in my grandparents’ basement. Literature, in the form of Hollywood inspirational sentimentality, conquered me for the first time. I asked my parents for the VHS for Christmas. I asked for Leaves of Grass.
Williams clenches his fist: To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life! Of the questions of these recurring…
The ad is the latest in a line of commercials excerpting the work of dead poets. The Levi’s Go Forth! campaign weds poems by Whitman, Byron, others, with visuals of young models sprinting and striving. A man with a Native American accent reads Bukowski: “Your life is your life / don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.” I remember a debate with my friend Eli about these ads, which ran during the London riots and the peak of the Occupy movement. I felt Levi’s had appropriated poetry and political activism as a way to sell jeans, to which Eli replied: would you rather have a capitalist ad making activism look cool, or more models pouting and strutting?
Is the Super Bowl the world’s most populist poem?
A fortune spent pumping Whitman’s words through millions of American surround-sound systems.
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish
Researching the Levi’s ads, I find The Inspiration Room, an internet hub for “the latest creative inspirations,” an archive of countless ads and music videos meant to motivate and inspire.
Impossible is nothing. Adidas.
Your life is your life. Levi’s. Bukowski.
Find your greatness. Nike.
Find your line and go beyond it. Red Bull.
O you youths, western youths / So impatient, full of action. Levi’s. Whitman.
Fighting, devotion, dust – perhaps a name. Levi’s. Byron.
Think different. Apple.
Become legendary. Nike.
At the same time the Apple ad was airing, an exhibit curated by Kenneth Goldsmith, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Simon Castets launched in Zurich. Titled Poetry will be made by all!, the show featured the work of poets age 25 and under, an attempt to prove that poetry is far from dead. They claimed the digital age, under the guidance of Conceptualism and Flarf, had opened the gates for ‘anyone’ to write poetry, though its worth noting a massive portion of this ‘all’ have no idea every word they say or type is poetry, that an educated few, myself included, mine the disembodied words of the populace for poems. Poetry will be made by all, but only the privileged will call it poetry.
What good amid these, O me, O life? / Answer. / That you are here – that life exists, and identity, / that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’ Robin Williams repeats: That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’ What will your verse be?
I watched Dead Poets Society alone in my room roughly once a month for two years in high school. Mostly when depressed. Escape through sex and substances came later. I was escaping into the possibility of verse.
Produced in 1988, one year before Dead Poets Society, Voices and Visions is a series of one hour video biographies of Whitman, Crane, Eliot and other dead poets. Brought to me by South Carolina Educational Television, Voices and Visions functions as educational tool, vessel for context, reasons for students to ‘care’ about poetry. The Whitman episode tells me Leaves of Grass was “unlike anything before it” and “anything after.” White male talking heads in front of bookshelves assure me of Whitman’s ‘importance.’ B-roll of nature, of the masses walking, endless trains of the faithless, as a re-enactor reads poetry as voiceover, gateway drug to the page, one hour Walt commercial.
Whitman wrapped in Williams, wrapped
In Tom Schulman’s Academy Award-winning
Screenplay, wrapped in video
Of mountains, of waterfalls, cathedrals,
Plazas. Nesting doll of boost.
We read and write poetry
Because we’re members. Ice rink,
High school band, EDM show. Each location:
An iPad Air. Necessary to sustain life.
Technology. Verse. Shots of Scuba diving.
Kabuki dance. Jellyfish. Poetry will be made
With jellyfish. A couple watches video
Of themselves skiing, contributing
A verse. A pixel of time. A verse. A transfer
Of medium. Widening girth
Of poetry. Verse, valueless
Ink stain on the marketplace, resurrected
By character, celebrity, household name, inside
bed of narrative, persuading
Consumer demographics that ‘living’
Is poetry, your life
Is your life, Impossible
Is nothing, inspiring
Fiction, stripped of visuals
Transferred into ad copy
Control-C yawp and paste
Anything worthy of video
Is poetry. Hockey players are poets. Kabuki
Is poetry. Poets chase tornados. Poetry
On the oil rig. Poetry in the coral.
On the ferry. Crossing the virtual
Yellow first down line
Into poem. A company
Named for a fruit, at the forefront
Of the global marketplace, hawking
A product, Air, under the label ‘Poetry’