Sunday, June 26, 2016

`Creative of Essential Beauty'

Most outdoor advertising remains invisible until something reminds us of its existence. Leopold Bloom sold ad space for a living and took a professional interest in the billboards and signs he passed in Dublin, including a pitch for a Zionist colony. John Dos Passos and Alfred Döblin documented billboards in fiction, as did Walker Evans in photographs (often with ironic intent). Philip Larkin in “Essential Beauty,” a poem he completed on this date, June 26, in 1962, calls billboards “these sharply-pictured groves / Of how life should be.” Anyone who thinks about billboards comments on their dual nature – the physical objects along the highway and the idealized reality they depict. Billboards, Larkin writes, “Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares / They dominate outdoors.” Larkin insisted he was not writing as a social critic, and denied satirical intent. In his notes to the poem in The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett quotes a letter Larkin wrote about “Essential Beauty” to his friend Harry Chambers:

“. . . it is not meant to be a satire on advertisements: to me they appear as something like the platonic forms, infinitely vulgarised, but none the less `essential’ to our view of the world.”

Complaining about billboards and advertising in general is at least as clichéd and tiresome as the images and copy that make up the ads. One of the pleasures of watching old movies is reading the billboards and signs visible during location shooting. The once invisible comes into focus, especially when the movie is lousy. For my newspaper I covered the filming of William Kennedy's Ironweed in Albany, N.Y. One brief scene shot in nearby Cohoes, a former mill town at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, included in the background a billboard for the Marx Brothers’ Room Service, which came out in 1938, the year in which Ironweed is set. The sign was more vibrantly colorful than anything in wintertime Cohoes in 1987. Burnett goes on to quote something Larkin wrote about “Essential Beauty” in 1964, the year the poem appeared in The Whitsun Weddings:

“Most of us would agree that we don’t, nowadays, believe in poetic diction or poetic subject-matter. All the same I think there are certain received opinions still very much operative which the poet flouts at his peril. Take advertisements, for instance -- like most people, I have always lived in towns, and am constantly seeing enormous pictorial billboards. When I was young, I condemned them as ugly and corrupting – that is the `poetic’ attitude. Later I learned to ignore them. Recently I’ve grown quite fond of them: they seem to me beautiful and in an odd way sad, like infinitely debased Platonic essences. Now this is quite the wrong attitude: unfortunately, it was the only one that produced a poem.”

The progression of Larkin’s reactions to outdoor advertising sounds familiar. Youth gets in a lather about the “ugly and corrupting,” and most everything else. Mature adults accept them as part of the landscape. Adults a little more mature – among them, perhaps, a few poets – find something in billboards to admire and enjoy, if only their low-rent surrealism: “High above the gutter / A silver knife sinks into golden butter, / A glass of milk stands in a meadow.” According to Burnett, Larkin neither confirmed nor denied his poem’s title alluded to John Keats’ letter to Benjamin Bailey, written Nov. 22, 1817:

“What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not - for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty.”

1 comment:

Baceseras said...

“A glass of milk stands in a meadow” - could Larkin have seen Fellini’s “Temptation of Doctor Antonio,” in which an enormous billboard goes up in a scruffy Roman grasslot? The billboard ostensibly advertises milk, but the doctor is driven wild by the aggressively teasing sexiness of the model, Anita Ekberg. The short film is one segment of *Boccaccio 70*, which Imdb lists as a 1962 release, although I don’t know if it had reached England by midsummer of that year.