The '59 poet was corny and dumb, just this side of Maynard G. Krebs. This one is, well, plain cool. The performer, Downtown poet pioneer Max Blagg, reading his poem "What Fits?", pulls it off with real panache. If what was once called postmodernism (remember that?) had something to do with the annihilation of the border between the commercial and the arty, this is one of the rare examples of a pomo poem.
Nevertheless, when I first saw this spot, I remembered thinking, "yes, but why a poet? Since when did this arcane identity become (post)modern and cool again?"
My guess (I suppose an obvious one, so I'd love to hear others), is that in an age of over-hype, one needs to claim the difference offered by anti-hype (i.e. the non-commercial) to make a dent (a major theme in advertising that runs from the 60s Volkswagen "Lemon" Ad, through the present). In this light, poetry becomes cool because, as Mallarme put it:
"Only one person has the right to be an anarchist, me, the poet, because I alone produce something that society doesn't want, in exchange for which it gives me nothing to live on."
Now, check out this Levi spot, from last year, where cool expands into a National Identity:
America the Beautiful and the Cool
What's striking for me in this ad is its invocation of "America". Drawing on a heartbreaking setting (I've read a good deal of it was shot in post-Katrina New Orleans) a new generation is about to take the helm, to set about rebuilding the country in the somber light of calamity. And it's scored to a recording of Whitman's actual voice -- a scratchy reading of his patriotic "Pioneers O Pioneers".
The idea that poetry is "off the grid" when it comes not only to commerce but popularity itself, makes it an object of both scorn and praise. The late, great sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, located the form's exceptionalism in the fact that it was often thought of as the most disinterested (in worldly power or profit) of the disinterested "fine" arts. It was thought of as more pure.
One of the reasons governments invent "offices" like those of "Poet Laureate" (or support the arts at all), is to signify that they're not just about money and power -- but the "true human values" they aim to serve and protect. Whitman, our Shakespeare, is sometimes showcased at governmental arts events. Even (at one time) rowdy, populist forms like the Poetry Slam and Spoken Word have appeared at the Whitehouse (and met with a general media acceptance that troubles their founders).
Poetry and Catastrophe
But I keep going back to the fact that the Levi spots were filmed in post-Katrina New Orleans. Does this promise of "real humanity" have something to do with why poetry seems to resurface during times of National tragedy? After 9/11, people made a habit of emailing each other poems like Auden's "September 1, 1939" and Shelley's "Ozymandias". Thoughts?