expressionism in poetry

However crass it may seem to poets and the worthy institutions that support them — perfectly sincere in their principled views, incidentally — poems are only the result of effort applied in certain ways, and no products in our competitive world will sell themselves, and certainly not without conforming to certain practices. Packaging and astute marketing are required, as with anything else: goods, services, reputations and political influence. We shall see matters more plainly if we don't confuse intrinsic merit with marketing needs.

Prevalence of Advertising

Advertising seeks to encourage, persuade, or manipulate an audience. {1} The sums spent are large and enter into every aspect of modern life. Of the $117 billion spent on all US advertising in 2009, the larger industries accounted for: {2}

Automotive industry $3.5 billion
Pharmaceutical companies $2 billion
Fast food restaurants $2 billion
Departmental stores $ 1.6 billion
Wireless telephone services $1.5 billion

Industries would not spend such sums if advertising did not work, and the mechanism was not well understood and closely monitored to get the maximum benefit from each dollar spent.

Advertising is tailored to the market concerned. Dime stores emphasize bargains. Luxury goods hint at status and exclusivity. Non-for-profit hospitals promote their caring skills and professionalism. Universities stress their student facilities and commitment to the highest standards of independent research. And so on. Presentation and business models differ, but all have bills to meet and competition to overcome.

Power of Advertising

Marketing is only loosely linked to product quality. More important is perceived value to the customer. Some examples of effective campaigns:


Glaxo overcame the market dominance of Tagamet, the leading ulcer drug developed by SmithKline Beecham, with their 1981 Zantac drug. Though the FDA rated Zantac as making 'little or no' contribution to existing drug therapies, Glaxo promoted Zantac to the number one pharmaceutical product in the world by:

1. Quickly introducing the drug worldwide.

2. Extensive partnerships with distributors.

3. Articles in medical journals on the negative effects of Tagamet and potential for Zantac.

4. Simplifying the dosage, from 4 to 2 pills a day.

5. Marketing as 'fast, simple and specific' (which doctors interpreted as 'faster, simpler and safe').

6. Pricing Zantac at a slight premium over Tagamet.

SmithKline did not properly defend its product, and Zantac achieved a 42% global market share, with sales amounting to US$1 billion by 1989. {3} The example proved a turning point for Big Pharma, which cut back on research to make higher profits through advertising.


When Intel could no longer call the 386 its own or superior microprocessor, the company set up the 'Intel Inside' marketing campaign with nearly 200 OEM (Other Equipment Manufacturers) partners in 1991. The object was to create from what before had been of interest only to PC manufacturers a brand memorable to Intel's direct customers (dealers) and the end-users (consumers and business purchasers). Such a brand strategy was a fairly new approach, but aimed to make customers confident of their computer's inner workings. Intel had spent $4 billion on marketing its logo by 1997, but results were striking. Intel research indicated that only 24% of European PC buyers were familiar with the 'Intel Inside' logos in 1991, but that figure had grown to nearly 80% by 1992, and to 94% by 1995, a recognition Intel continues to enjoy, helped by social media marketing. {4} Intel licensed the logo to some 1,000 PC makers, and found that some 70% of home PC buyers and 85% of business buyers stated a preference for Intel, saying they would pay a premium for the security and peace of mind offered by the brand. {5} That premium more than repaid the marketing costs.


In the early 2000s, the music industry was facing (and losing) a battle with piracy. Apple's response was firstly, beginning in 2001, to open retail stores across the US to ensure proper marketing of its products. Secondly, in April 2003, Apple launched an Internet-based music selling initiative called iTunes, making deals across the recording industry and preventing piracy with added DRM (digital recording management) software . Thirdly, hard on the heels of iTunes, Apple launched its iPod, which alone could play iTune downloads. Because iPod was an attractive product, and fitted seamlessly with iTunes, the iPod became a smash hit. The revenues of Apple grew from US$ 5.3 billion in 2001 to US$ 13.9 billion in 2005. {4}

Apple slowed the decline in sales in a saturated market by introducing new models as a 'must have' gadget (with new styling, 'touch' operation, Wi-Fi connection and increased memory) {6}, usually at high prices that were slowly scaled back as yet newer models were introduced.

Procter & Gamble

Currently investing $400 million in over 20,000 research studies a year, P&G has become a recognized innovator, and over the last 16 years the company succeeded in placing 132 products on the top 25 Pacesetters list - more than their six largest competitors combined. {9-10}


P&G entered the Chinese oral care market with two versions of essentially the same toothpaste. The premium brand, Ku Bai, targeted urban consumers wanting teeth whitening and breath freshening. Marketing was through ads and Crest's Chinese website, which featured Li Yuchan, a popular singer voted 'Super Girl' in an American Idol-type contest in 2007. Ku Bai retails for US 95 cents per 5 ounce tube.

The green brand, Cha Shuang, targets rural customers, and has a tea flavour. It retails for US 88 cents per 5 ounce tube. In brief, P&G leveraged the Crest brand across two market segments by making the distinction clear to customers. {9}


P&G market Clorox, a strong cleaning agent, associated in the popular mind with bleach and industrial chemicals. Research showed that American customers were attracted to more natural products, but did not want those products to be ineffective or only available at separate stores. The company therefore re-introduced the product as part of its Green Works line, emphasizing both its effectiveness and natural affiliations. The Sierra Club endorsed the product, and sales were five time those expected by eleven months into the campaign. {11}

Note the varied strategies of the companies concerned, the research required, the sums involved and sales revenues unconnected to product quality.

Business Models

Companies adopt various business models that describe how their organization captures, creates and delivers value to its customers. Each model (and they're not exclusive) has to be straightforward, complete and relevant, without oversimplifying matters. Most obviously, each also has to be effective, and indeed models survive only to the extent their adoption benefits a company.

One of the better known is that of Osterwalder and Pigneur, {12} which has been tested and applied around the world. It recognizes nine basic elements or building blocks. Many elements are self-evident on reflection, but their identification helps companies concentrate on the areas that best repay their marketing efforts. Only the broad outlines are noted below, but readers will find a fuller treatment on

Customer Segments:

To better serve their customers, companies commonly group them into segments distinguished by common needs, common behaviors, or other attributes. Companies make a conscious decision as to which segments to serve and which segments to ignore, thus allowing them to focus on matters that vitally affect their business. Customers require separate segments if they:

1. Need and justify a distinct offer
2. Are reached through different Distribution Channels
3. Require different types of relationships
4. Have substantially different profitabilities
5. Are willing to pay for different aspects of the offer.

Customer Channels:

The Customer Channels describes how a company communicates with its Customer Segments to deliver a Value Proposition.

Channels have several marketing functions, including:

1. Raising awareness of the company's products and services
2. Helping customers evaluate the company's Value Proposition
3. Allowing customers to purchase specific products and services
4. Delivering a Value Proposition to customers
5. Providing post-purchase customer support

Customer Relationships:

Customer Relationships describe the types of relationships a company establishes with specific Customer Segments. Customer relationships may be driven by one or more of three motivations:

1. Customer acquisition,
2. Customer retention and
3. Increased sales (upselling).

Key Resources:

Key Resources are the most important assets needed to make a business model work. Every business model requires them, and it is only through them that companies generate Value Propositions and Revenues. Resources may be physical, intellectual, human and/financial.

Key Partnerships:

Key Partnerships are the network of suppliers and partners that make the business model work. Companies forge partnerships to optimize their business models, reduce risk, and/or acquire resources. Four types of partnerships are commonly distinguished:

1. Strategic alliances between non-competitors.
2. Competition: strategic partnerships between competitors.
3. Joint ventures to develop new businesses.
4. Buyer-supplier relationships to assure reliable supplies.

Key Activities

Key Activities are those a company must engage in to make its business model work. Every business model requires Key Activities, and they naturally differ depending on the business model type. They are commonly grouped under production, problem-solving and support.

Value Propositions:

Value Propositions are the products and services that create value for a specific Customer Segment. They do so by solving a customer problem or satisfying a customer need. This building block is an aggregation or bundle of benefits that a company offers customers, commonly some combination of newness, customization, getting a job done, design, price, costs reduction, accessibility and/or convenience.

Cost Structure:

The Cost Structure describes all costs incurred to make a business model work. Businesses may be driven by costs (fixed or variable), values, and/or economies of scope.

Revenue Streams:

Revenue Streams is the building block representing the revenues a company generates from each Customer Segment. Revenues are the lifeblood of a company, and it's usual to distinguish revenues resulting from one-time payments, recurring fees, subscriptions, leasing, licensing, brokerage, advertising and pricing mechanisms.

Application: Modernist Poetry

We'll use the term broadly,in the sense of our Modernist page, and model exclusivity or prestige rather than cash. The nine components are then:

Customer Segments: Prestige of 'serious' poets.

Customer Channels: Literary magazines, Mainstream newspapers, Poetry workshops, Academic books and journals, Publishing houses.

Customer Relationships: Aesthetics or arguments for Modernism, across the spectrum from solid academic studies through school guides to small press pamphleteering.

Key Partnerships: Universities-Cultural institutions-Publishing houses.

Key Resources: Writers — poets, academics, cultural journalists.

Key Activities: Writing Modernist poetry.

Value Propositions: More authentic expression of contemporary world, etc. See the Modernist page.

Cost Structure: Value-driven, with poets being nurtured by publishing houses and university appointments.

Revenue Streams: Recurring intellectual standing.

Modern poetry is marketed as entry into an exclusive club of culturally sophisticated and right-thinking people, as indeed it is. The prestigious golf club does not vet their players' golfing skills beyond a basic competence, but is particular about their socio-economic group, their manners and dress sense. A leading publishing house will want to see a good track record from the poet they promote: an English degree and/or MFA, a teaching role at one of the better universities, poems and articles in the top literary magazines, a book or two of literary criticism if possible. It will not want to see breaches in manners like dissident political views, or lapses in dress code like rhyme or popular sentiments expressed in some open-hearted manner. Modern poetry is a recondite, difficult art, and the supporting body of theory is part of the sales package.

That theory is continually being added to as literary critics carve out their own patch of academic turf, as they must do to survive. Elaborate rules apply. No ad hominem remarks or questioning of the opponent's objectives. Graceful tributes to others' work in the best academic manner. Intricate, heavily qualified sentences, a safe, neutral tone, and the arguments expressed so diffusely that direct rebuttal is practically impossible: our energies are fully employed in untangling and grasping what is possibly being said. Perceptive analysis is not the objective, but only one skill in a serious game that rewards its winners with tenure at an ivy league university.

In all these interrelated activities the trade mark is of first importance. More people, many thousands of times more people, may write and enjoy amateur poetry, but that work supplies a different market, as do P&G's two toothpastes. It would be disastrous to mix the Ku Bai and Cha Shuang brands, in which a great deal of money has been invested to make them supposedly serve different needs.

All this is too obvious to be worth labouring further, but what we gain from marketing analysis is an insight into various conundrums. A few examples:


Why don't we see more honest reviewing? {18} Instead of 'In this collection of thirty-six poems only three seem to me worth sustained attention. . .' we find 'Seamlessly braiding English and Spanish, Corral's poems hurtle across literary and linguistic borders toward a lyricism that slows down experience. He employs a range of forms and phrasing, bringing the vivid particulars of his experiences as a Chicano and gay man to the page.' {13} What does this this tell us of the content and quality of the collection? Very little. It's packaging. Experience has taught the publisher that such minimal information sells the book, just as the sleek white box with description limited to the trademark sells the upmarket cosmetics product. That trademark has been promoted by lavish sponsorship and advertising on TV and in glossy magazines, and the publisher too will have a fine reputation earned by bringing out many worthy titles. Even the poetry collection under consideration should have received its review, which will have been respectful because the reviewer is playing by the rules, and perhaps hoping to aid his own career in the process.

In short, the candid review is unneeded because the book is not marketed on merit directly to the reading public but through a carefully honed system of customer channels. Unaided judgement is not expected of the book-reading public and, however patronizing that must seem, it is unfortunately a sound policy supported by the lamentable level of discussion in many poetry workshops and the sort of readers' comments that appear after the occasional poetry article in the British mainstream press.

Comparisons don't help sales in prestige products. We'll not see on the cosmetics package 'This product scored better among independent tests than products x, y and z' because such negative advertising damages sales across the market sector: customers begin to think for themselves and that vague, warm feeling that they deserve to pamper themselves will likely evaporate. Literary comparisons are similarly muted, and there are enough factions in the academic and literary worlds already without gratuitously making enemies. As with political parties, where disunity is punished at the ballot box, a common voice is needed to get customers to reach for their credit cards.

Death of New Criticism

What happened the New Criticism that once carried out a detailed audit on poems, explaining what worked and what didn't, and why?

It doesn't pay to do so is perhaps the short answer, though we should first note that the proselytizing movement largely ended in the 1960s and was directed at established poems more than contemporary work. It was never without its critics, who felt it was too narrow and generated cleverness rather than genuine appreciation. Nor did it cope too well with Modernist works than renounced any unity or ready comprehension. Even today, when editorial committee members must argue for inclusion of their favourites in the forthcoming edition of a literary magazine, there will be some to respond, quite reasonably, with something like: 'That may be true, but, say what you like, this poem still seems to me refreshingly different than most we receive. Let's see what our readers think.' There is sense and humility in that last remark. Magazine editors are generally better read than are their subscribers, but their role is more to bring new work to attention than restrict presentation to the safe and narrow.

All the same, returning to the poetry collection as a marketing proposition, it still makes no sense whatever to note the limitations or flaws in the product — unless a better and more expensive product is being offered to the discerning few, an upselling situation which does not apply here. No doubt customers grow more cynical or wary of advertising, as they do of an increasingly stage-managed political scene, or the detergents that each wash whiter than their nearest rivals, but advertising works all the same. We expect it, if only more subtly presented in the 'extended' review, and something not advertised is clearly not worth buying. Psychology trumps common sense.

Doubt that? Look at all those unread poetry collections in the bookshelf purchased on the odd occasions we had some spare change and a desire to pay our social dues. Whatever possessed us, if not some self-righteous feeling of supporting a good cause. A fine publishing house, we tell ourselves. Would that warm rush of feeling have survived if we'd read on the back cover 'not a bad collection, but there are much better . . .'?

Literary Quality

Only a few of the poems submitted to a leading literary magazine are published, and few again of these make enjoyable reading. {16} That the content is commonly so trivial that its truth or otherwise can be of no conceivable concern to anyone is one problem, but a larger one is the verse itself, often worse in its own way than that of despised amateur productions. Indeed the most effective pieces are generally not verse at all, but in the debased coinage of prose. Is this a sort of Gresham's Law where the poor drives out the good?

In some ways. The better coinage — the established classics in their various but always past styles — is hoarded because it serves as a touchstone or standard of excellence. No one is allowed to imitate it because the practice would test the foundations of literary history, where each epoch has its own characteristic mode of expression. The great Islamic and Chinese civilisations saw matters differently, and were continually building on and expanding the past, but ours has little time for tradition. Keep it off-beat, original and self-centred is the law implicit in our demands that verse today should be in a contemporary manner on contemporary themes. Indeed it can rarely be anything significant because the competence no longer exists to give it credence: verse craftsman is not taught or even appreciated in the upper levels of our education systems, though it's preeminently what the great poets needed to express their profounder shades of meaning.

In short, the comparison would be unflattering to the contemporary poetry industry that places conception above execution, and traditional techniques are astutely avoided by appeal to contemporary theory. In marketing terms, serious and amateur poetry are different value propositions, and so promoted through different channels.

Reader-Orientated Poetry

Many poets become writers in residence at colleges and universities, or take public appointments. Why does the quality of their own poetry so often fall off year by year as they devote time to teaching, encouraging and promoting students' work?

First is the pressure on their time. Anyone conscientiously teaching, reading students' work, running workshops, visiting schools, appearing on radio or TV, and generally doing their honest best to fulfill the terms of their contract will find scant time for their own work. As with many academics, creative work has to be left to the vacations, and even then there are courses to plan and faculty meetings to attend. Stalwart souls once put their own work first regardless, but this is scarcely possible now with falling enrollments and the squeeze on tenure.

But the matter can also be seen as that basic distinction in selling: 'inside out' versus 'outside in'? 'How do we persuade our customers that they need our product?' versus 'What do our customers really need that we can devise and sell to them?' The second has much the better track record, {3} and is the foundation of modern teaching approaches. It's sensible, responsible, and readily secures approval, but poets who stop listening to the promptings of their inner nature will eventually be made irrelevant, becoming only entertainers and spokesmen for the obvious. No one can afford to stay an island, of course, but the best judges of poems are generally their authors if they can develop the distance, skills and honesty to properly analyze their productions.

Academic studies

Why do academic studies focus on trends, influences and social issues rather than the quality of the work as poetry? As noted of a typical work: 'There is little or no evaluation of the poetry as poetry: the authors are more concerned with social and political backgrounds, the prevailing aesthetics, and the manifestos of the poets themselves. The quotations are short, designed to illustrate the larger picture, and are commonly not very good poems: the book will make few converts from the newcomer to these styles.' {14}

Academics are firstly more comfortable dealing with the sorts of trends, influences and intellectual issues that can be cross-referenced to more challenging matters and so generate the debate by which the subject lives. It's what academics are trained to do, rather than develop the aesthetic sensibilities that can tell the good from the fashionable. Of course there exist excellent poets and prose writers among academics, but not many, or not consistently so. Secondly, as we've noted under Death of New Criticism, their appraisal is likely to be somewhat qualified or negative, which which would pose the question why they should study contemporary poetry in the first place. Thirdly, it would limit the field. Ever since radical theory decided that works of art were simply texts, to be studied like any other form of writing for their suppressed content, anything can call itself contemporary poetry and become a legitimate field of academic enquiry. Growth never stops. No sooner are contributions to the new book collated, proofed, published and reviewed, than some new school of poetry has emerged, requiring a complete rethink of previous attitudes. Literary criticism was what poets traditionally turned to writing when the springs of inspiration ran dry, and that negative association is even more with us when careers depend on the volume of published work regardless of quality, often in areas where relatively few have the competence or wish to speak plainly on the matter.

Self Publishing

Self publishing, the resort of many poets whose work is not academically fashionable, has a poor image in the trade. Critics of the publish-on-demand companies point out that only the smallest percentage of such productions achieve respectable sales — which all goes to show, they assert, that the traditional model is best. The publishing houses know their business and do indeed sort out the wheat from the chaff.

But perhaps with some help. Any half-decent book today is the product of a large editorial team, in which the content is not only shaped but to some extent rewritten and crafted by specialists. Film star autobiographies are commonly written by ghost writers, and the MS submitted by celebrity academics, it is rumoured, can be little more than notes. Again, no one objects: it's the ideas that count, not their polished expression and copious, carefully checked references.

Success may simply overlook the selling process, therefore: the publisher's experience and contacts, the reps that tirelessly visit booksellers, the academic fraternity that places colleagues' works on their student reading lists, and the interrelated selling channels we have noted above. And then there is self-marketing: all authors need to promote their work through interviews and readings, but it is the prestigious publishers that open doors.

The poor sales typical of self publishing, especially of authors who sell directly from their websites, may not reflect quality, therefore, but simply the absence of the usual customer channels, that well-meaning collusion that makes the synergy work: poets, critics, journalists, teaching courses, workshops, text book publishers and the mainstream media.

Short-lived Movements

Poetry movements come and go with bewildering rapidity, often before they've put down roots and produced anything substantive. Why the stress on novelty?

Because poetry is increasingly run as a business, led by publishers who consult their sales figures. Consider the opportunity matrix below, which shows the Return on Capital (ROC) versus the relative market share (RMS). Three quarters of businesses tend to fall in the normal zone because RMS does generally correlate with profitability (here return on capital). Those above and to the right of this 'banana' zone are termed vulnerable because experience has shown that such segments with high returns on capital but small market share are not sustainable in the long term: market share must increase or profits fall. Product F represents an opportunity if the associated competencies can be improved.

So the new movement appears as F, though probably having a smaller Relative Market Share. It makes commercial sense to promote it — i.e. regardless of quality, which is not an issue if some basic competence can be assumed — because a greater return on capital (ROC) should be achievable for modest outlay.

Poets may not grasp these matters, but publishers most certainly do.


Advice to the Young Poet

Painters who make their name are commonly said to belong to one of two groups. The first market themselves aggressively, jumping on each new bandwagon as it comes along and astutely finding another as interest wanes. The second plough a lonely furrow, and receive recognition (if they ever do) when nearing the end of their careers. A similar tendency can be found in poets, and each has its dangers. Poets like Lowell are great innovators, but may leave a record of promise more than achievement. Poets like Wilbur, on the other hand, who develop a distinctive style and stick to it, may simply run out of things to say. A wider reading of others' work usually helps the first, and a more challenging existence the second type of poet.

The sane course is to understand the poetry world, its blandishments and commercial requirements, and devise a strategy that accepts and exploits what cannot be changed. Some concessions will have to be made, but not those that damage what makes the poet worth reading. Put another way, the poetry world sets the rules, which the poet must play by, but the poet's goal should be something else.

Or perhaps it should. If we agree with T.S. Eliot's remark that poetry is 'simply a superior form of entertainment' then prestige is what we aim for, though it's now a very competitive market with an horrendous amount of time and effort being spent to win a small measure of readership and esteem. If we see poetry as something more — perhaps close to Burckhardt's view of Islamic art as wisdom wedded to craftsmanship {15} — then marketing regardless of quality is the last thing wanted. Poets who really respect their art might be advised to earn their living well away from the conformist literary world, if only they can find an appreciative audience — which is clearly difficult if the world corresponds to the model below. {17}


1. Advertising. Wikipedia.

2. What Industry Spends the Most on Advertising? by Leigh Richards, Demand Media. July 2014. NNA

3. Strategy from the Outside In by George S. Day and Christine Moorman. McGraw Hill. 2010. 183-4.

4. Ingredient branding case study by Stuart Whitwell. Intangible Business. November 2005.

5. The Inside Scoop on How Intel Manages Its Facebook Page by Michael Stelzner. Social Media Examiner. August 2010.
6. The Transformation of Apple's Business Model. ICMRIndia. 2006.

7. Analyzing Apple's iPod Business by Turley Muller. Seeking Alpha. November 2008.

8. iPod. Wikinvest. Detailed entry with photos of its models and good references.

9. Proctor & Gamble. Wikipedia. Detailed account of P&G's successes.

10. Proctor & Gamble. P&G. Company website with promotional information.

11. Day and Morman, 2010. 192-3.

12. Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. Wiley 2010.

13. Blog post.

14. Art of Islam: Language and Meaning by Titus Burckhardt (World of Islam Festival Publishing, 1976). Introduction.

15. TextEtc.Com blog.

16. My model but based on an extensive literature. See, for example: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. April, 2014.

17. Reviewed: The Undiscovered Country.



C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2014.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.