Banish the Poets: a guest blog piece for the copywriting agency Verbal Identity

Verbal Identity is a brand strategy consultancy specialising in using linguistics and creative writing to give brands a competitive positioning.

Read the article on the Verbal Identity Blog.


In 1957, Frank O’Hara wrote a poem entitled ‘Why I Am Not A Painter’. He uses it to compare two artworks: his poem, ORANGES, and a painting, SARDINES.

The painter (the abstract expressionist Mike Goldberg) starts with a word and ends up with an image. The poet (O’Hara) starts with the idea of a colour and ends up with words.

In both cases, language exhausts itself.

The painter exposes the arbitrariness of written text: the word SARDINES is stripped of any linguistic significance, appearing as a composition of lines on the canvas.

The poet becomes entangled in the endless possibilities for expression: he fills pages, enough for twelve poems, without getting round to mentioning orange. ‘There should be so much more,’ he laments, ‘not of orange, of words.’

O’Hara decides to call his poem ORANGES. Like Mike Goldberg’s sardines, these oranges exist as an empty promise: a plural signifying nothing.

No good poem does what it says on the tin. Then again, no poet truly believes that words are empty of sense. Language is as slippery as a sardine and the world of the poet is incorrigibly plural; they dine out on polysemy, synonymy, antonymy – devices which evoke other words and multiply meaning.

Cognitive scientists at MIT have claimed that linguistic ambiguity is pitched at just the right level to promote understanding. It’s the poet’s job to mess it up.

A more appropriate title for the poem might have been Why I Am Not A Copywriter. It’s easy enough to allow words to accumulate and meaning to multiply. Asserting a brand identity through clear verbal guidelines is something quite different.

Good copy strikes a balance between the language of infinite opportunity, appealing to the heart, and the language of fixed deliverables, appealing to the head. Your brand needs to speak uniquely, not wallow in plurality.

Poets can teach us a lot. Just don’t let them too close to your copy.


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