Where was I? It was a barbecue. In Brooklyn. We were on a roof where you could see a lot of the city. We could also see that we couldn’t see a lot more of the city. Bigger buildings occupied significant swatches of the panorama. If you got up on the structure housing the spiral staircase down into the apartment you could see the Statue of Liberty. Otherwise, you couldn’t.
Someone said, “That new Filet-O-Fish ad?”
Someone Else said, “I know, right?
Someone Else’s Girlfriend said, “When that comes on? I have to stop everything.”
At first I thought this conversation was headed toward hating the ad. I would not be surprised to learn that some people find it annoying. In the ad, bearded white guys, (maybe hipsters, maybe regular guys, probably some frustrating new hybrid), hang out in a garage while a Big Mouth Billy Bass look-alike sings/raps/laments that one of the beardos is eating McDonald’s only sandwich invented to combat declining Friday sales during Lent (see History here) while he, the bootleg Billy, isn’t eating one, said incantation accompanied by what I believe is the tune/beat that the old Casio SK-1 used to play when you pressed the “samba” button. At once, you are awash in uber-hip trends you didn’t even know existed and nostalgia you didn’t think it was possible to feel.
It’s a pretty obnoxious piece of video.
But it’s also got a lot to love in it, that love being of the “I can’t believe all of this stuff I know about is happening at once” variety. This is like a strange dream that takes place in my parents’ old house except it’s not because there’s a pool in the basement and for some reason all of my coworkers are sorting the recycling to pay for my walkathon, you might think, while watching it. Except you can’t think that, because the ad is so absorbing that you cannot think anything, cannot do anything except be enveloped in the insane collage of half-remembered tropes that really only point back to themselves. That kind of love.
My barbecuing someones, two out of three of them beardos themselves, of course, loved it.
“That is my favorite thing to watch in the world,” said SEG.
“She punched me in the neck to make me stop talking when it came on last week,” said SE.
“Yeah, I get really happy whenever it comes on too,” said S.
They weren’t, I note now, speaking of poetry. And maybe they couldn’t have been. But I think ads—and I’m talking about good ads, ads that verge on being works of philosophically important works of art—take up a lot of the space in our minds that poetry could these days. Part of the issue here is the “coming on” that ads do. (I’m resisting an unfortunate extension of the unintended sexual metaphor embedded there. Please award me two points for restraint.) The opposite of verse, advertising seeks us out. They come to us (knowledge that makes searching for ads on YouTube an uncomfortable business, by the way). But more problematically, good ads prey on our love for unexpected allusion, dream-like images, and just-out-of-reach ideas. They satisfy our craving – promising even greater satisfaction down the line, granted – for momentary sublimity, or, to be less grandiose, novelty.
As I’ve said before, using pixels far below these words on this very page, I’m not the first person to point this out. In fact the Germans are already up to something. And as much as I think the Late Capitalist ship is going down, I am a pretty big fan of consumerism. In fact, my little brother and I once bonded importantly over the short-lived Messin’ With Sasquatch Ads, a moment that entailed a nearly identical conversation to the one I recount above. It was he who, at the age of 13, posited: “ads are better than TV now.” He meant that they are funnier. And that they have better learned the lessons of juxtaposition and gesturing toward what is hilariously not on the screen we can see in the early seasons of The Simpsons and the late ones of Seinfeld (when they mostly abandoned the studio audience and thus the pace-murdering laugh track). In fact, the ads probably taught those lessons first, and they stepped up their game when real storytellers appropriated the techniques. The gist of all this is that those “groundbreaking” Dove ads are crowding Sonnet 41 out of our minds. Not because, as the standard logic goes, ads are so mindless that they stupefy (I think this is an acceptable usage) us through mere exposure, but because they are such sensational delicacies.
I filled up on tastily carcinogenic flame-broiled sausages and left the rooftop barbecue early to come home and grade papers. These days I find this task more difficult than I used to do, I think because my episodic TV drama addiction has gotten way out of hand. And true to form, after two disappointing essays in a row, I sat down in front of Hulu to catch up on the few remaining episodes of Rescue Me I haven’t seen. Dennis Leary’s fireman character, regular viewers know, just keeps encountering self-creating problems and I was eager to see which ones he would face in the episode entitled “Pussified.” Ahem.
The episode kept being interrupted by the same spot, an Ad Council PSA warning teenage drivers to pay attention while they drive. In the ad, Fred Willard, in top form, plays a poor imitation of typical teen. I know the thing by heart. When I say that I believe Fred Willard’s deadpan is a true invention of beauty, my tongue is well away from my cheek. Murder probably is not on the long list of acts I would commit to be able to deliver words the way he does, but it’s close. Watching the PSA, I recited Mr. Willard’s lines along with him, just as I sometimes used to do with my recording of Dylan Thomas reading Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, practicing the cadence that wrings the perfection from words and images we’ve heard and seen before.
Where was I? I was here in my chair where I type these words now. And I was, ludicrously or not, out there somewhere in the landscape of possibility we see, patchily, when we encounter and reencounter real poetry.