American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Go Forth

with 8 comments


Walt Whitman is so much a part of our world, even still, I’ve not felt the need to mark his occasional appearances in popular culture. But yesterday, in a blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Edwin Torres drew attention to the use of Whitman by Levi’s, and I found myself getting more interested than usual in this sort of appropriation. His post is called “Brand World Atheist,” and in it he describes one of the company’s Whitman ads — which uses the text of “America” — as follows (you can see the ad here):

It’s a 60-second spot that uses a wax-cylinder recording of Whitman reciting the poem, black & white footage, jittery camera-work, and synthed-operatic soundtrack to create a manifesto-themed gauntlet thrown at America’s youth with the phrase “Go Forth” emblazoned as a nicely designed logo on a flapping banner at the end. The spot is basically a poetry video, using beautifully filmed images of the disenfranchised reflecting the poem’s tone without literal interpretation. [1]

And later, after mentioning the company’s “Declaration Gallery” (for leaving your own manifesto; Torres: “but isn’t that what Twitter’s for?”), he writes:

The Go Forth campaign has a patina of self-seriousness in its, “getting a platform to sound out,” …very Rebel Without A Cause. Expertly designed around a unifying theme: to be heard and seen, not even understood, just acknowledged so that you may go forth and discover your voice. Core values in America’s heartland of equal chances, right? Re-imagine America as a teen. Use language in the reinvention of American youth that reflects each generation’s media-drenched libido. And the retro-hooligan implied under the layers of a smoothed-over-DIY-aesthetic is what obscures the poem that tries to mix rebellion with business.

Whatever one thinks of the ad, at least it uses Whitman’s own words. Much worse, to my mind, are the various “wallpapers” (available for download here), which extend the campaign through slogans that sound like Whitman but aren’t. As in the image above, which shows a child running across grass (get it, “leaves of grass”), with the slogan “this country was not built by men in suits.”

When Torres speaks of rebellion mixed with business, he links the word “business” to an advertising memo by T. S. Eliot ( ! ), but Whitman of course also had an appetite for advertising, as Torres knows. Ironically, the Levi’s ad obscures its own commitment to business by obscuring Whitman’s acceptance of business. This, indeed, is what Torres is saying, but quietly. Mark Doty makes the same point more noisily in his own blog post about the campaign:

The contradictions inherent in the Levis ad (America is noble and cracked, jeans belong to everyone but somebody very rich owns the company, work clothing is the language of the people but you look really hot and sexy in them) all seem present for Whitman, too. How can he be a booster for development and forest-clearing (see “Song of the Broad-Axe”) and talk about the nobility of Native Americans”? How can he be at once a spiritual visionary and a tireless self-promoter? How be a sexual radical and an avuncular sage? Do I contradict myself, very well then…

Given these contradictions, it is not necessarily inevitable that Whitman be used as a figure for rebellion when advertisers take him up. Other commercial appropriations are possible. I can imagine, for instance, an ad using “A Song for Occupations” to ballyhoo some diversified multinational. Or an ad for oil development in Alaska using lines from “Passage to India“:

I pass swiftly the picturesque groups, the workmen gather’d,
The gigantic dredging machines …
I see … the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier,
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers,
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle,
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world …
Bridging the three or four thousand miles of land travel,
Tying the Eastern to the Western sea,
The road between Europe and Asia.

Appropriations like that, if handled with the same aplomb as the Levi’s ad, would be much more distressing than the use of an earnest poem like “America” to sell denim pants. By and large, Whitman’s celebrations of manufacture express love for the laborer, not the boss, but one doesn’t have to look far to find muted respect for profit and speculation. Bringing that respect front and center, in contravention of everything else in Whitman, would be much worse, I think, than affirming — for profit’s sake, of course — his loving embrace of any and all.

From Fast Forward I learn that the Levi’s “America” ad was directed by Cary Fukunaga, who won a cinematography award at Sundance. Looking further into Fukunaga’s background, I learn that he filmed the spot in New Orleans (see brief interview here), which explains the allusion to Katrina in the opening shot — a blinking neon sign half buried in water:


This particular sign would be a little too portentous for my taste were it not also the title of Whitman’s poem — a nice acknowledgment of the material fact of the text; the use of the wax cylinder begins to seem more appropriate. The first four of the poem’s six lines then follow:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time. [2]

The ad, then, by beginning with Katrina, begins by ironizing Whitman’s poem, then takes back that irony by affirming the poem’s hopefulness (which is, of course, what makes the ad suitable as advertising). But the touch of irony is enough; it makes Fukunaga’s work — whatever its compromise with big business — a worthy sequel to “Manhatta” (1921), a ten-minute film by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler that also affirms Whitman’s hopefulness. (And Sheeler, as it happens, also worked in the ad industry.)

Are there poems by Whitman that advertisers would find impossible to appropriate? Probably not. But in trying to think of one, I remembered the sad but not entirely negative lines below:

My Legacy

The business man the acquirer vast,
After assiduous years surveying results, preparing for departure,
Devises houses and lands to his children, bequeaths stocks, goods, funds for a school or hospital,
Leaves money to certain companions to buy tokens, souvenirs of gems and gold.
But I, my life surveying, closing,
With nothing to show to devise from its idle years,
Nor houses nor lands, nor tokens of gems or gold for my friends,
Yet certain remembrances of the war for you, and after you,
And little souvenirs of camps and soldiers, with my love,
I bind together and bequeath in this bundle of songs.


1 [Back to text] In a comment at the Poetry Foundation website, Francisco Aragón draws attention to another Whitman spot for Levi’s, this one in color, using “O Pioneers” as text, with clear-voiced, contemporary speaker in place of the wax-cylindar effect (see it here).

2 [Back to text] The last two lines are missing in the wax cylinder recording as well. It’s too bad, as they link the poem back to another recitation — William Cullen Bryant’s Phi Beta Kappa reading of “The Ages,” which ends:

But thou, my country, thou shalt never fall,
Save with thy children ― thy maternal care,
Thy lavish love, thy blessings showered on all ―
These are thy fetters ― seas and stormy air
Are the wide barrier of thy borders, where,
Among thy gallant sons that guard thee well,
Thou laugh’st at enemies: who shall then declare
The date of thy deep-founded strength, or tell
How happy, in thy lap, the sons of men shall dwell?

Here too America is a “seated Mother, / Chair’d in the adamant of Time.”

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 2, 2009 at 2:55 pm

8 Responses

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  1. “Are there poems by Whitman that advertisers would find impossible to appropriate? ”

    How about Respondez!?

    RESPONDEZ! Respondez!
    (The war is completed—the price is paid—the title is settled beyond recall;)
    Let every one answer! let those who sleep be waked! let none evade!
    Must we still go on with our affectations and sneaking?
    Let me bring this to a close—I pronounce openly for a new distribution of roles;
    Let that which stood in front go behind! and let that which was behind advance to the front and speak;
    Let murderers, bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions!
    Let the old propositions be postponed!
    Let faces and theories be turn’d inside out! let meanings be freely criminal, as well as results!
    Let there be no suggestion above the suggestion of drudgery!
    Let none be pointed toward his destination! (Say! do you know your destination?)
    Let men and women be mock’d with bodies and mock’d with Souls!
    Let the love that waits in them, wait! let it die, or pass stillborn to other spheres!
    Let the sympathy that waits in every man, wait! or let it also pass, a dwarf, to other spheres!
    Let contradictions prevail! let one thing contradict another! and let one line of my poems contradict another!
    Let the people sprawl with yearning, aimless hands! let their tongues be broken! let their eyes be discouraged! let none descend into their hearts with the fresh lusciousness of love!
    (Stifled, O days! O lands! in every public and private corruption!
    Smother’d in thievery, impotence, shamelessness, mountain-high;
    Brazen effrontery, scheming, rolling like ocean’s waves around and upon you, O my days! my lands!
    For not even those thunderstorms, nor fiercest lightnings of the war, have purified the atmosphere;)
    —Let the theory of America still be management, caste, comparison! (Say! what other theory would you?)


    Michael Boughn

    November 2, 2009 at 4:47 pm

  2. Good choice!

    Though even here I can imagine some awful, ironic TV commercial, involving, say, a scruffy looking beggar who looks suspiciously like Walt, haranguing a nice looking woman with lines from “Respondez,” ending with punchline: “When the day is done, why not unwind in your own whirlpool bath?”

    Ben Friedlander

    November 2, 2009 at 7:13 pm

  3. “Prayer of Columbus.”

    Kirsten Silva Gruesz

    November 3, 2009 at 1:34 am

  4. Another good one! There should be a commonplace book: Walt Whitman in Negative.

    At the same time ― and in all seriousness ― wouldn’t this make for a fantastic Amnesty International ad?

    Ben Friedlander

    November 3, 2009 at 6:50 am

  5. I think Levi’s should stage “A Supermarket in California,” where Walt and Ginsberg meet, both wearing Levi’s, both feeling the fruits and vegetables, then getting married in the parking lot.

    Susan M. Schultz

    November 3, 2009 at 4:06 pm

  6. I think using Whitman to sell jeans, to extract from the abstract, your cash: is a delightfully lovely development, that return the shareholders the level of material comfort that displaces any silly thoughts about sweatshops where a lot of jeans are made.

    Where are Levi’s made, please, does anyone know?

    What are the cost – profit ratio per pair, please?

    Thanks very much.

    Desmond Swords

    November 4, 2009 at 9:33 pm

  7. […] it goes about its appeals to our emotions and how it enjoins the viewer as an American subject. “Whatever one thinks of the ad, at least it uses Whitman’s own words,” Ben Friedlander says and more in his extended reflection on the topic. Agreed. But what are […]

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