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Poetry Month: derek beaulieu on Helen Hajnoczky

To mark National Poetry Month, In other Words is being guest-edited by rob mclennan. Throughout April, rob will present the work of dozens of poets he thinks deserve readers' attention, as seen through the eyes of their fellow poets.

Today: derek beaulieu on Helen Hajnoczky

derek beaulieu: In her first book of poetry, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, Helen Hajnoczky reports a single man's life from delivery to death.

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Living a modest 60 years, this anonymous figure's biography is formed entirely by the advertising slogans of the products he purchased in the years they were bought. Thus the childhood of Hajnoczky's everyman figure is elucidated entirely with slogans and ad campaigns from the 1940s without any editorial intervention. This lack of an editorial hand is what makes Hajnoczky's work so uncanny. Every phrase, every sentence, of Poets and Killers was lifted directly from print advertising: Hajnoczky has not written a word, nor has she had need.

Helen Hajnoczky's restrained, tightly-focused poems explore the modern milieu where individuality is defined by consumerism. From cradle to grave our individual narratives are written not by our actions but by our purchases. Our identities are tied to the products we purchase, the labels we wear and the information we filter.

"From our conception to our burial, from pre-natal vitamins to coffins, we are consumers. Advertising saturates our world, coating everything from magazines to bus stops, staircases to cereal boxes, all in an effort to preserve and augment our consumer culture."

Poets and Killers playfully investigates what it means to be "an individual in a world where we are all sold the same individuality" and the possibilities for a "non-utilitarian humanity," which potentially exists "between the lines of advertising copy." As the character's life unfolds, we must decide whether he falls within the realm of "poet," "killer," or a member of the category just as laden with poetic possibility: "an average person."

The chronology of Poets and Killers follows both the protagonist's aging and the intricacies of the modern day-to-day, but also how our relationship with advertising has grown.

Advertising has, according to Hajnoczky, become increasingly insidious, moving from overt to subtle interplays within our formulations of self-definition, self-awareness and self-debasement. "Advertising copy no longer directly asserts that not using its product will result in a catastrophic tragedy, but carefully manipulates the reader into thinking they desire the product advertised." In Poets and Killers: A life in Advertising, readers follow the protagonist's growth simultaneously with the growth of advertising.

Helen Hajnoczky, throughout her burgeoning career, interrogates how language shapes existence. Previous to Poets and Killers, her visual poetry - poetry that uses the forms of letters over their meaning - was recently featured in Matrix's special issue on "The New Feminisms" (online here)

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Hajnoczky's first book of poetry, Poets and Killers: A life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Montreal's Snare Books this fall. Excerpts appear below.

On Advertising:

What's Wrong with Advertising?

Few of us admen lie awake nights feeling guilty about the way we earn our living. We don't feel "subversive" when we write advertisements for toothpaste. If we do it well, children may not have to go to the dentist so often. I did not feel evil when I wrote advertisements for Puerto Rico. I do not think that I am trivializing when I write advertisements for the World Wildlife Fund. Nobody suggests the printing press is evil because it is used to print pornography. It is also used to print the Bible. Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things. Left-wing economists, ever eager to snatch the scourge from the hand of God, hold that advertising tempts people to squander money on things they don't need. Who are these élitists to decide what you need? Do you need a dishwasher? Do you need a deodorant? Do you need a trip to Rome? I feel no qualms of conscience about persuading you that you do. What the Calvinistic dons don't seem to know is that buying things can be one of life's more innocent pleasures, whether you need them or not. Remember the euphoria when you bought your first car?

advertising is your guide

What is advertising? Advertising, quite simply, is news.

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When that news is about products you're interested in, it's usually good news, too.

It gives you an opportunity to learn more about the product. It is, indeed, a very convenient guide.

To be sure, the purpose of advertising is to interest you in goods and services.

To sell them to you if possible.

But the ultimate decision to buy is yours to make.

And you make it, as a rule, not after reading one ad, but after reading a number of ads run by different shops.

That's one of the virtues of our competitive economy. Lots of ads.

Providing you with a lot of information to help you make the best possible decision.

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