Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Problem with Chunky Monkey

When Marjie Lambert penned her article "An American Odyssey", I don't think she was thinking of poetry. Nor was I - the first thing that popped into my head was that this article, subtitled "Rating the best and worst after traveling to all 50 states" was something I should send to my continentally-explorative sister-in-law. (Hi there, Sis!). And while it's generally a pretty good article, it contained a sentence that hit close to home, and made me think about one of the issues facing poetry.

Lambert talks about how the global availability of products and information has cost some of the rustic corners of the country their charm, and uses the following example:

"I didn't see much point in going that far to visit L.L. Bean's flagship store in Freeport, Maine, when I knew it so well from its catalogs, or to eat at the original Ben and Jerry's in Waterbury, Vt., when I'm already way too familiar with their ice cream."

Can't speak for the flannel purveyor, but in not stopping by the factory, Lambert missed out on a lot more than just a cup of Cherry Garcia. She missed the chance to see the ingenious layout of the factory (designed with the tourist in mind!); to see how the family-farm and environmentally-conscious mindset of the company extends not only to the product, but to the pallets, the cleaning solutions, the store itself; to hear how the first argument between the founders was about how thorough the mixing tank should be - with one saying "no spoonful should be devoid of chunks and "one saying it's OK as long as the next one has two." Is this terribly important stuff? I don't know. But it was interesting as hell to me, and it put the founders, the products, and company in a wholly different context than I had from just chowing down on the Chubby Hubby.

I'm getting to the point.

I think one reason poetry has an audience that is mostly poets is that most people have the same attitude about poetry that Ms. Lambert has about her ice cream. It's not an incorrect attitude, it's not even a negative one. It's ignorant, but in the most innocuous sense of the word: If you're not aware of the complexity and the context of something, it's often impossible to appreciate it. In a society where the omnipresence of information about a product leads people to conclude that awareness of a subject is binary - to know any is to know all - it behooves producers to make consumers aware of a little of its history, its making, its heritage.

Does this matter if the ice cream stinks? Not at all. But it can create a deeper appreciation for the ice cream if it is deserved.

Poets? While you should let people come to and sample your product willingly, don't just sit back in your Waterburys, letting people think they understand everything about it. First, make sure you know your product is worth consuming. Second, put it out there to be consumed. Third: Put it in some context; give it some values (artistic or social) and make people want to learn more about it, and therefore to learn more of it. Fourth: Repeat and raise it a level. The Ben and Jerry model actually applies quite directly here.

OK. I'm putting my biodegradable, recycled-parts-and-materials soapbox away now and gettin' me some Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.

A whole bunch of Ben and Jerry's trademarks are used quite liberally above. Please visit for more information on those trademarks, and to become a ChunkSpelunker.

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