August 16, 2009Op-Ed ContributorPoetry in MotionBy DANNY HEITMANBaton Rouge, La.IT seems that we’ve done just about everything to get the American auto industry out of the doldrums. We’ve forced bankruptcies. We’ve exchanged cash for clunkers. But have we tried poetry?The question is brought to mind by the story of Marianne Moore, the famous American writer, who served for a brief season as the Ford Motor Company’s unofficial poet laureate.Moore, who died in 1972, was at the height of her literary powers in the autumn of 1955, when a letter arrived in her Brooklyn mailbox.A Ford executive wrote that the company was launching “a rather important new series of cars,” but his team was stumped to think of a name for the latest product line. Could Moore, an icon of American letters, help them out?Moore embraced the assignment with relish, not surprising for a poet who enjoyed — and whose writing was frequently inspired by — popular culture, whether it be baseball, boxing or bric-a-brac. The correspondence became a cultural fixture of its own after it was published in The New Yorker two years later.Throughout the fall and winter of 1955, Moore’s steady stream of suggestions arrived at Ford: “the Ford Silver Sword,” “Intelligent Bullet,” “the Ford Fabergé,” “Mongoose Civique,” “Anticipator,” “Pastelogram,” “Astranaut” and, the highest flight of fancy, “Utopian Turtletop.”Moore apparently had no qualms about enlisting her muse in the service of the automotive industry. She was also willing to embrace the risks of the marketplace, agreeing to be paid only if she came up with a winning name. As Moore’s biographer Charles Molesworth points out, she “had always enjoyed the language of advertisement, delighting in its inventiveness and ebullience, and even relating it to the poetics of praise.”These days, poetry and commerce are rarely on such good speaking terms. Poetry doesn’t sell well, and poets almost never attain the celebrity that touched Moore, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg half a century ago. If some Detroit executive got the bright idea to consult a poet for marketing advice today, one rather doubts he’d know whom to call.It’s nice to think that the two groups — poets and carmakers — might find new relevance through collaboration, but history is not encouraging.After much thought, Ford Motors politely rejected all of Moore’s lyrical suggestions for its new car line. Instead, the company’s executives opted for a choice generated internally: the Edsel.Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”
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