Reasoning with rhyme

Poetry isn’t just confined to the classroom; it’s all around you. You’ve just not realised yet.

Whose baby? Why were its shoes never worn? What happened? How? What now? Try as we might, we will never know the answers to these questions. We are left in the dark with nothing but our imagination and our emotions — and six, small words.

Yet that’s precisely the point. When Ernest Hemingway wrote Baby Shoes, thought to be the shortest novel ever published, his sole purpose was to rouse imagination and emotion by hinting at the mere tip of a potentially monumental iceberg that we have to realise for ourselves. And it worked. It still works. For just as a picture can speak a thousand words, so too can a mere handful of words paint a myriad of pictures – provided they’re the right ones.

Baby Shoes isn’t a poem, but it could easily be. It could also be a genuine (and very successful) private advert. The poet’s primary purpose is, by and large, to incite imagination and emotion. But isn’t that the very same as the marketer’s? No doubt. To both, writing is about so much more than just conveying a point: it is about making an audience actively do something, whether that’s laugh, cry, remember or buy.

The ability to do this successfully is largely a matter of style. Stripped of its style, Baby Shoes might as well stand as a longer advert with a description of the shoes in question, a price and contact details of the seller, its overall mystery and cadence lost entirely. Stripped of its style, Nike’s world-famous message of empowerment “Just do it” might read, “By wearing or using Nike products you’ll go on to do great things”, devoid of all persuasive power and inspiring cadence.

Audiences don’t need—don’t want, even—to be spoon-fed. Let them have words that provoke, images that inspire, and content that challenges. If illustrations used to accompany marketing copy are allowed to demand interpretation through their abstractness, then why not the words too?

There’s more than one way to understand the world and everything in it. Far more wide-ranging is poetry’s remit today than to describe daffodils. Shaving foam, flat-pack furniture, Cheddar cheese, breakfast cereals, cars and holiday destinations – even the Large Hadron Collider has been the subject of poetry, courtesy of a CERN engineer who considered verse the best medium of conveying the mysteries of this scientific marvel.

Words may be the only tool on which poets can rely in their art, but that’s by no means a limitation. Chosen carefully and deployed with an appreciation of style, they become parts within an altogether bigger whole, to the point that they might be forgotten individually but not the feelings they collectively inspire – and as marketers we’d do well to remember the fact.

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