The following is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave at the recent Copy Cabana conference in Bournemouth. It doesn’t have a straightforward argument or narrative; it’s instead a series of thoughts or vignettes about poetry – performing it and writing it – and some of the overlap between writing copy and writing poems.
These thoughts might or might not hang together – so it might be easier to just think of this as an extended poem.
Part 1: A bathtub can change your life
OK, not a bathtub as such but rather a poem about them. And I don’t exaggerate when I say that the poem – and the book I found it in – changed my life.
The poem is called ‘Bathtubs’, and both it and the book, Ashes for Breakfast, are by a German poet called Durs Grünbein. Here’s a little taste of the poem:
What adorable objects bathtubs are, enamelled
and sleek and altogether
unapproachable with their
heroic curves of wrought-iron
old ladies still frisky
after the menopause.
It was the spring of 2007, and I’d just come back from a weekend in Berlin and was looking for something to commemorate the trip. In those days there was still a Borders bookshop on Oxford Street, so I popped in there one Monday lunch time. Going up the escalator, my eye chanced upon this book. I picked it up, started flicking through it, and please don’t laugh but honestly, it’s as close to a religious moment I’m ever going to have in my life. I vividly remember thinking – what is this stuff? Why don’t the lines go all the way to the end of the page? Why has no one told me you could do this with words?
I knew at that moment that I had found my thing – the thing that I wanted to write, that I will spend the rest of my days writing. Which was quite useful, as I had spent the previous 14 years knowing that I wanted to write and be a writer, but not having any real idea of what to write.
Pretty much the next day I signed up to do an introduction to poetry course at CityLit, a college in London – and that was it. I’ve been trying to be a poet ever since.
Part 2: You sometimes have to stand on tables to get noticed
What no one tells you when you start trying to become a poet is that there isn’t =one single, obvious way of going about it. You end up trying a lot of things, some of which are, in retrospect, ludicrous.
Very early on, well before I was even remotely ready, I agreed to go and do an open mike session at a pub in Hoxton.
(A side note: I know everyone says you should take every opportunity, especially if you don’t know how to do something just figure it out as you go. But be warned – often the sole use of these experiments is to experience the burning pain of embarrassment, because apparently doing something badly is much more valuable when it comes to learning than if you do something well.)
Anyway, I didn’t ask any questions about it – another mistake – I just turned up… to discover that the place was absolutely rammed… with people watching football.
Three people had turned up for the poetry. And there was no microphone.
Now what I should have done was turned tail and fled into the Shoreditch night. Instead, I stood on a table, then bellowed – and I really do mean bellowed, to the point at which I had no voice for the next few days – some very bad poems at those three bemused people.
This was in retrospect an early taste of one of the secrets of poetry that people don’t tell you until later – often you have to win over your readers one by one. I just didn’t realise that that was literally going to be the case.
Part 3: You start more poems than you ever finish
And that’s ok. Poetry is a game of persistence. Often you have to wait for the poems to arrive – there’s one in my book, Ticker-tape, called ‘These things boys do’, which took about a year, from the moment I thought of the idea for it, to actually sending it my editor. Speaking to some other poets, this apparently makes me a fast mover.
The point is that you have to hold your nerve, and trust your instinct that something will turn up. It normally does.
You have to wait on submissions too, hearing about whether you’ve had any joy in persuading a magazine to take your work. The only certainty here is that you will be rejected often, and have the pleasure of waiting a long time to find out.
And this is doubly frustrating because poetry is the only art where you can have a complete, finished piece in less than 30 minutes. It was said of Frank O’Hara – his Meditations in an Emergency was featured in Mad Man – that at parties you could challenge him to write a poem. He would then disappear to the bathroom for 20 minutes or so, to emerge triumphantly with a perfect, flawless poem.
An elegant party trick for sure, but as another of my heroes, Clive James, has said there is no greater pleasure than sitting down in a café with a coffee, knowing that even before you have finished your drink you could have written something that the world will be reading 500 years later.
So to continue to enjoy writing poems, you have to cultivate something I call “patient impatience”. You have to be open to the image, the phrase, the conceit arriving at any moment, and yet you have to not feel or be panicked when nothing is coming, which can be – will be – quite often.
I’m not advocating being passive or doing nothing: you must always be reading, drafting, scribbling. But fallow periods, however long or short, are never just that – there is always something going on under the surface; it just might not seem like it.
Part 4: It takes about 10 years to get good at doing poems
My label mate at Nine Arches Press, the poet Jo Bell, has a theory that 10 years is the average time it takes for someone to be really ready to start publishing their poetry – the poetic equivalent of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice you need to get good at doing anything.
Now, considering the lack of financial rewards on offer, and then the slow process of getting noticed by magazine editors, publishers, radio people, booking agents – basically, you have to really, really want to write poems. Which means that most poets you meet are, how can I put this politely, a little intense.
Poetry is the branch of the entertainment industry that is closest to a religious vocation – a calling rather than a 9-5, regular office hours way of making a living.
When you get a chance, ply any poet with booze – and trust me, it won’t take much – and ask them why? Why do you write this stuff when you could be crashing out popular novels, TV series, Hollywood screenplays?
And eventually, after some faux modest huffing and puffing, you’ll see the glint in the eye. The glint that says, “I really like making patterns out of words on a page; arranging language so that it goes into the ears and the eyes and then captures a heart. Yes, all you other writers can have success, but you do not have what I have, which is a power to change the very atoms of someone’s soul.”
I didn’t say we were rational.
Part 5: Constraints are liberating
You might have guessed by now that most poets are, in addition to everything else, masochists. We have to be, to do this slightly weird, semi-secret thing that we do. And then, on the basis of most contrary evidence, to expect the world to be interested in our outpourings.
And so here’s one of the ways in which poetry and copywriting overlap – most poets love a tight brief, a constraint.
The thing I tell my students – which always makes their faces fall – is: learn to write within the forms, within the rules, because when you break them later, you will do so with a style and a flourish you might not otherwise achieve.
And as in so many things, someone else said this better first, in this case the Irish poet Paul Muldoon: He said: “Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini.”
Part 6: The 17th draft may be charm but probably isn’t
My claim here is that there really is such a thing as over-drafting. You can worry at and rewrite a thing so much that you can effectively kill it, or at least the energy it needs to animate itself, to live in the ear of the reader and the listener. Or you forget the impulse that caused you to want to write the thing in the first place.
It’s a hard thing to spot, but you do have to learn to look out for it. What I’m trying to say is: yes, keep tinkering, keep tuning the words, for that is part of our craft – but part of our craft also has to be knowing when to stop and put down the pen. And I genuinely think that’s something that’s not said enough.
Honestly, the best writers are mostly lazy, and that’s actually the secret of their success. Or am I just projecting here?
Part 7: Copywriting is the unacknowledged patron of contemporary poetry
And by that I don’t just mean agencies bringing in poets to write rhymes for brands – which I have done; for example, a few years ago I gave voice to an apple for a radio ad – which is still the most amount of money I have ever made from a single poem. The ad was very popular in the West Country apparently.
Genuinely, I can’t imagine giving up my day job any time soon. Not just because I can’t afford to – let me be candid with you here. No one ever lives off the money they earn from publishing poems, or even more rarely winning competitions or awards. Poetry is the ultimate ‘slash’ career – we are poets slash lecturers, poets slash teachers, poets slash civil servants and yes, poets slash copywriters.
But also because I think the poetry does make me a better copywriter. Because it does give me something that feeds back into client work. A desire to take a few more risks maybe. A greater ability to weigh up words well perhaps. Bravery in choosing to use outlandish verbs, even. (By the way, using rare or unusual verbs is the quickest way to look like a genius in poetry, at least – this is advice to make the prose wallahs wince.)
Not that clients necessarily appreciate having a versifier write for them. Last year I had a financial services start up as a client. At the first meeting I was introduced as a poet. The CEO fixed me with a gimlet stare and said: “I don’t want any arty farty shit, understand?”
But then: later on in the year I was parachuted into a bit of a crisis job – a large European conglomerate, recently merged, had outsourced writing its new vision and mission to a PR agency. In this case the CEO hated what had been written. I got a call on the Sunday – can you be in Paris tomorrow? I walk into his office on the Monday, and before I even have a chance to say hello, his opening line was: “I hear you’re a poet. Finally, a proper writer.”
I tell you this to aggrandise myself, but also to reassure you that you too can smuggle the poetic, the artful, the magical into even your most workaday copy. Yes it is a struggle. But yes it is possible.
And if you need convincing, let me remind you of some words in Ogilvy on Advertising. The sainted David quotes William Maynard as 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.” And then, genius that he is, Ogilvy ads: “If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.”
As tempting as it is to let Ogilvy have the last word, instead here is a poem of mine that he inspired, called ‘Making a cheese soufflé rise’:
David Ogilvy is swashbuckling opposite me,
wreathed in the blue smoke of his success.?
His expression says, “Do not think that advertising
is not a job for you, that you are too proud to sell.
I burnt my hands in kitchens in Paris, France,
and sir I can tell you these acts of persuasion
you undertake are nothing compared to making?
a cheese soufflé rise under the gaze of an elite
brigade you can never join. And once you are done
examining your navel remember that this is a noble calling,
alerting the world, waking it up, a poster campaign for life.
You are the messenger of a good thing,
whatever your Frankfurt School says, a thing called progress,
a worthy thing for any man who calls himself a man.?
Now, then. Go. Rise. Work.”