Shopping for poems

By Clare Pollard

Lots of people think that poetry has to be written on ‘poetic’ topics, such as autumn, lambs, roses and snow. However, poetry can be about anything, and young poets should be encouraged to write in their own voice about their own world. This lesson encourages you to find poetry in unlikely places – like the shopping centre.

Preparation

  • The teacher or class will need to bring in a few branded products – try to get a mixture, such as a tube of toothpaste, a can of fizzy pop, a can of beans and a cleaning product.

Stage 1: The Language of Shopping

Shopping has its own, complex language, and manufacturers use lots of poetic techniques to sell things to us. First, the class should do a wordstorm, generating as many brand names as they can. What brands do they like? What brands are they not keen on? What are the shops they visit most? When the board is full, see if the class can name which poetic techniques the brand names use.  

  • Can they spot any alliteration?
    Example: Clinton Cards.
  • Any abbreviations?
    Example: HMV
  • Any internal rhyme?
    Example: Utterly Butterly
  • Any compound words?
    Example: Playstation
  • Any imagery?
    Example: Diesel

What are the effects of these techniques?

Stage 2: Sell, Sell, Sell

Next, talk about slogans. Are there any advertising slogans at the moment they think are memorable? Do they use any poetic techniques to stick in the mind? Examples might be: ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop’ (Pringles) which is a rhyming couplet.

  • As a quick warm-up exercise, divide the class into small groups or pairs and give them each a branded product. Let them imagine they are advertising executives employed to sell this product. They have five minutes to come up with a new advertising slogan that will make us rush out and buy it! 

Stage 3: I bought this, I bought that

Shopping is an unavoidable part of our lives today, and for many people, what they buy is part of their sense of who they are. We are very lucky to be able to live in a time where we have so much choice, but at the same time society’s materialism can put pressures on people, and the constant bombarding with advertising can make us feel insecure, and as though everything is for sale.

The first poet to really write well about the shops was Frank O’Hara, an American poet from the 1950s, who wrote poems that were nicknamed ‘I do this, I do that’ poems. In them, he recounted how he spent his lunch hour – what he ate, what he bought, what shops he went in, what signs he passed. Now there are lots of great poems about buying things – check out one of last year’s Foyles Young Poets of the Year, Callan Davies, with his poem ‘Shopping.’

Students can now write their own poems on this theme.

  • Ask your students to think of a shopping trip they regularly make. Do they go to Sainsburys with their mum? Or hang around the shopping centre with friends? Is there a high street they walk down regularly?
  • Get them to write a poem about one particular trip, telling us what they do. Do they have a 99p burger in Maccy Ds? Stop for a latte? Buy some earrings in Claire’s Accessories? Get out some cash at Natwest? Feed the pigeons? Do they window shop or buy things? How does shopping make them feel?

Tips

  • In a descriptive poem like this, it can be helpful to think of all the senses. What do they see? Hear? Smell? Feel? Taste?
  • There is fertile ground for debate here, and to raise awareness of important issues. Do your students ever think about sweatshops or carbon footprints? Are there things they boycott, like fur or Nestle products? Do girls feel under pressure to be skinny and beautiful like the women in ads? 

Follow ups

  • Read the poems aloud. Do they ‘flow’? Could any changes improve them?
  • For homework, students could be asked to look out for ‘found poems’ – signs or adverts that could stand alone as poetry.

Further Reading

  • Frank O’Hara – The Day Lady Died
  • Callan Davies – Shopping (in Radio Seventeen)
  • Annie Katchinska – Street Sestina (in Radio Seventeen)
  • Clare Pollard – Buying Manhattan
  • John Stammers – I Don’t ‘Go Organic’ Often, But When I do.
  • Daljit Nagra – Singh Song!
  • Philip Larkin – Sunny Prestatyn

Clare Pollard