Monday, June 1, 2009

Poetry & Popular Culture Heroes: John Strachan

Just when Poetry & Popular Culture thought it knew every poetry superstar who walked down the red carpet of popular culture, along comes John Strachan, professor of Romantic Literature at the University of Sunderland and author of Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period. Okay, so we knew that Strachan was out there writing. A few years ago, we had occasion to talk about the comparative tonsorial poetics of early 19th-century England and mid 20th-century America, discovering the "barberous" verse connections between P&PC fave Burma-Shave and the British, Romantic-Era, New York City-based barber, poet, and master of self-promotion J.R.D. Huggins. And not too long ago we learned of Strachan's fondness for the poetry of late 18th-century pugilism. So he was on the office radar.

But nothing could have prepared us for Advertising and Satirical Culture in which Strachan walks seemingly straight out of the Romantic Era with the poetry of shoe blacking in one hand and the verse of bear-fat hair oil in the other. Bringing advertising jingles, parodies, and elaborate mock epics together with poetry and puffs written by the age's more recognizable literary figures—Byron, Coleridge, Crabbe, Dickens, Lamb, Wordsworth, and others—Strachan reconstructs an entire sphere of literary activity created and sustained not just by resourceful and ingenious copy writers but by canonical ones as well. Along the way, he manages to argue that some of what literary critics have long identified as the defining characteristics of "Romantic" writing—a focus on the individual, creativity, genius, originality, etc.—are, in fact, also defining characteristics of the age's advertising poetry. Popular poetry, he reveals, didn't have a monopoly on the commercial. And literary poetry, in turn, didn't have a monopoly on genius.

To go about showing this, Strachan spends two chapters surveying the landscape of advertising poetry and the responses it elicited among the literati. Advertisers not only quoted literary poetry in their puffs, but they imitated it, parodied it, and wrote all sorts of verses of their own as well. In turn, literary writers not only parodied advertising poetry to critique the excesses of commercial culture, but they found in such puffery what Strachan calls a set of "formal models for satire aimed elsewhere." That is, they borrowed the familiar, catchy, poetic discourse of advertising—and the figure of the shameless ad man—to critique a wide range of targets. Take, for example, Thomas Moore's 1826 squib lampooning two Tory figures (Poet Laureate Robert Southey and the editor of The New Times) by comparing them to snake oil salesman Dr. Eady (who hawked a surefire cure for syphilis):

Though many great Doctors there be,
There are three that all Doctors o'ertop,
Doctor Eady, that famous M.D.,
Doctor S-th-y, and dear Doctor Slop.
The purger—the proser—the bard—
All quacks in a different style;
Doctor S-th-y writes books by the yard,
Doctor Eady writes puffs by the mile!
Doctor Slop, in no merit outdone
By his scribbling or physicking brother,
Can dose us with stuff like the one,
Ay, and doze us with stuff like the other.

If Chapters 1 & 2 paint a picture of literary England in which advertising drove the writing of literature and literature drove the writing of poetic ads, then the remaining chapters in Strachan's book focus on advertising campaigns for individual products—shoe blacking, the national lottery, hair oils, and tonsorial services—and the responses those campaigns elicited. These are totally fun, sometimes hilarious chapters about the minutia of Romantic-Era life, but they also open a number of windows onto the politics (and poetics) of everyday life inherent in the most unassuming of consumer goods. Who would've thought, for example, that the period's great crinicultural debate—whether to use vegetable-fat hair oil or bear-fat hair oil—came about because of an emergency wartime tax on hair powder levied by William Pitt the Younger? To protest the tax, Pitt's political opponents began wearing their hair unpowdered, which understandably necessitated a need for some sort of gel, cream, spray, or mousse to help manage out-of-control locks. Hence the emergence of the hair-oil industry (and the eventual dissolution of the hair powder business) accompanied by an entire sub-genre of related verse. Consider Thomas Spence's "An Address to Mr. Pitt Accompanied by a Crop of Human Hair" which, Strachan explains, "defiantly declares that he is proud to wear his hair unpowdered, that he will be no 'guinea pig' (as those who paid the guinea tax were dismissively labeled) and that he hopes Pitt will slit his throat while shaving":

O Heaven-born minister of state,
This tail from off my swinish pate,
Most humbly I present it;
For since no powder may we wear,
Determin'd I've cut off my hair,
And to your honour sent it.

Know then vile Tory, I'm a Whig,
And will not be a Guinea pig,
To satisfy your craving;
Oh! that your razor would but slip
Three inches underneath your lip,
When you yourself are shaving.

A deadly gash I hope 'twould be,
To end your damn'd hypocrisy,
And rid us of a P-t.
A speedy peace I now pray for,
To finish this unlucky war,
Thus endeth my dull wit.

There's more where those stanzas come from, dear reader, so get your copy of Advertising and Satirical Culture today. Nine out of ten enthusiasts of poetry and popular culture recommend it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice Post,

I really wasn't aware of these real heroes. Thanks for the information