Shopping and consumerism, the culture of buying things – especially things we don’t strictly ‘need’ – may not be as popular a topic for poets as beautiful landscapes or falling in love, but especially in the last hundred years or so, many poets have explored the attraction of shopping and shops, and the lure of advertising, in modern life.
1. Lola Ridge, ‘Manhattan’.
Veiling the Woolworth, argently
Rising slender and stark
Mellifluous-shrill as a vender’s cry,
And towers squatting graven and cold
On the velvet bales of the dark,
And the Singer’s appraising
Indolent idol’s eye,
And night like a purple cloth unrolled …
Let’s begin this pick of poems about shops with one from an obscure and underrated figure in modernist poetry: the Irish-born American poet Lola Ridge (1873-1941). ‘Manhattan’ is from her 1918 collection The Ghetto and Other Poems, and captures the bewildering excitement of Manhattan’s shops and skyscrapers, with a particular focus on the properties of ‘gold’.
2. Hope Mirrlees, Paris: A Poem.
We have championed this little-known poem – by another underrated female modernist poet – in a previous post, but it earns its place here because of its focus on advertisements, shop signs, and the other trappings of modern city life. Even in its first few lines, this long poem – which prefigures T. S. Eliot’s more famous The Waste Land and was published two years earlier, in 1920 – is drawing attention to the posters on the walls of the Paris Metro, advertising drinking chocolate and shoe polish.
Like Ridge’s poem, Mirrlees’ documents the dizzying sights of the modern metropolis, but uses an even more experimental, Dadaist method to convey the shops and billboards, advertising everything from photo galleries to milk.
3. T. S. Eliot, ‘In the Department Store’.
Eliot, another major modernist figure who described the rise in consumerism in the early twentieth century, chose not to publish this poem, but it was included in the posthumous collection Inventions of the March Hare in 1996.
Describing a lady who works in the porcelain department of a large department store, the poem briefly sketches out an inner life for this ‘businesslike’ woman whose manner and demeanour seem to make her as much like ‘porcelain’ as the objects she sells.
4. Philip Larkin, ‘The Large Cool Store’.
‘The Large Cool Store’, Philip Larkin recalled in his LP recording of The Whitsun Weddings, was called a ‘silly poem about nighties’. Written in June 1961, the poem examines our attitudes to romance and the bedroom, and how we separate this from everything else in our lives.
But Larkin does this through the setting of the cheap clothes shop which sell day-to-day clothes for work and home, but also have a section for nightwear, clothes which we buy and wear in order to escape the drab everyday world we inhabit and enter a world of fantasy and romance.
We have analysed this poem here.
5. Philip Larkin, ‘Essential Beauty’.
This is another Larkin poem to explore the difference between aspiration and reality: it examines the promises that billboard advertisements make to us and how starkly the reality of people’s lives differs from such aspirational messages.
The first of the poem’s two stanzas offers a series of images from contemporary posters advertising a range of products which are offered as the key to attaining the perfect life. The second stanza then contrasts these billboard advertisements with the world – the actual world – these posters hide from our view.
We have analysed this poem here.
6. Eddie Gibbons, ‘The Shopping Forecast’.
As the title of this poem implies, it’s a humorous but also purposeful parody of the late-night shipping forecast on British radio, which details the weather in the various shipping areas around the UK and north-west Europe. But it’s also an attack on consumerist culture, and the way major shops bombard us with ‘offers’, ‘deals’, and ‘sales’ in an effort to make us part with what little money we might have.
7. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘The Woman Who Shopped’.
This poem, from the first female Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom (2009-2019), is also a critique of consumerism: the woman of the poem’s title becomes so addicted to shopping that she effectively becomes a shopper and nothing else. Having gone out to buy an apple, the woman soon finds her shopping compulsion getting out of hand until she’s ordering a sauna and swimming pool to her home. Warning: this poem contains some very explicit language!
8. Daljit Nagra, ‘Singh Song!’
We’ll conclude this pick of the best poems about shopping and consumerism with this, from the wise and witty British Asian poet Daljit Nagra. In this poem, Nagra takes us inside the world of an Indian shopworker in Britain, a man who works in one of his father’s shops. The speaker tells us about his love for his wife, and what his customers say. Nagra uses the authentic dialect of British Indians to convey the way the young man speaks, as British and Indian culture meet.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.