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“On Beauty” by Kenneth Koch

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            Few topics throughout history have been debated as much as what constitutes beauty.  Many have argued beauty is nothing more than personal preference, others claim the existence of universal ideals of beauty, while still others claim beauty is something that is taught and learned as part of the ongoing cycle of social conformity.  In the Kenneth Koch poem, “On Beauty,” the topic is examined and questioned in detail, as the author seeks to define not only how humans decide beauty, but also where the concept comes from.  In Dove’s advertising campaign for real beauty, the company seeks to illustrate that beauty is far more common and conventional than popularly believed, by showing overweight, scantily clad women that are confident about their bodies and themselves.  In both Koch’s poem and Dove’s campaign, beauty is scrutinized and expounded upon, with Koch unsure about a singular definition of beauty and the advertisement quite assured as to its definition; the differences in how beauty is portrayed by each is also evidenced in how the objects themselves are experienced, with the lengthy poem read by choice and the advertisement often witnessed by chance when observing something else; finally, the beauty of the poem and that of the advertisement are far different, as the poem possesses far greater potential to provide pleasure in its beauty while the goal of the advertisement is ultimately to sell a product.

            Koch’s poem and Dove’s campaign for real beauty have similar goals: to make the reader/viewer question the popular conceptions of beauty.  As potential things of beauty themselves, they are very different.  Koch presents a considerably long poem, almost an epic in its scale, in which he continuously questions the beauty of almost everything.  He begins his poem by telling the reader what beauty is: “Beauty is sometimes personified/ As a beautiful woman, and this personification is satisfying/ In that, probably, of all the beautiful things one sees/ A beautiful person is the most inspiring, because, in looking at her,/ One is swept by desires, as the sails are swept in the bay, and when the body/ is excited/ Beauty is more evident, whether one is awake or asleep” (Koch 357).  In simple words, Koch postulates that a beautiful human may be the most beautiful of all things that can be observed, but then goes on to describe the many beautiful things that can be observed in nature, including mountains, trees, architecture, and many other things.

However, he never really settles on a singular, all-encompassing definition of beauty and instead continuously wonders what beauty is and why things are beautiful.  In Dove’s campaign for real beauty, the advertisement has few such doubts about the definition of beauty.  To Dove, beauty lies in confidence and acceptance of oneself, as evidenced by the spokesmodels, who are mostly heavyset, curvaceous women who confidently pose as if they are waifish supermodels.  While this is rare in the media, it is fairly common in the real world for women of all shapes and sizes to feel confident and beautiful.  For this reason, while the advertisement is admirable for encouraging women to accept themselves as beautiful, the sentiment is undermined by the sheer fact that Dove is simply trying to sell women’s beauty products to a wider audience.  This fact is one of the key differences between Koch’s poem and the advertisement.

            Anyone that reads Koch’s poem, save for the students required to read him for class, is reading him for pleasure.  Most people that read poetry do so for pleasure and to appreciate the thoughts and words of talented people that observe the world in unique and beautiful ways.  A person can be reading a book of poetry with “On Beauty” in it while witnessing any number of the scenes depicted in the poem, whether in the Alps, or in the presence of a beautiful woman, or simply at home visiting one’s beloved mother.  The poem offers readers a chance to not only ponder the essence of beauty, but can be done at any time and any locale that one so chooses.  The Dove campaign, however, is quite different and can only be seen by viewers in the context of some other thing, for example during a television show, on a billboard, or in a magazine.  While it also asks those that experience it to ponder the essence of beauty, and portrays women who are confident in their body and mind, thus making them beautiful, it is not a medium that can necessarily be experienced at any time or place.  Advertisements and the time and place they are shown are up to the advertiser, and a viewer can never really know exactly when and where they will show up, though in the case of the Dove campaign, a billboard placed in Times Square caused the most amount of controversy during the whole campaign.

            The pleasures derived from both the poem and the Dove advertising campaign are similar in some regards, but mostly differ.  While they both take on the subject of beauty, while trying to be beautiful themselves, a much more substantial pleasure can be derived from the poem.  The whole point of art is to make those that experience enjoy and appreciate a world that can produce such a thing.  An inspirational poem, which is what “On Beauty” can be to some, has the ability to enlighten those that experience it.  The advertisement, while also being inspirational by attempting to make beauty more democratic, does not share the same nobility of the poem.  The ultimate goal of the Dove campaign is to make money by selling more Dove, and therefore its credibility as an object of beauty is compromised.  While Koch may have written his poem with the idea of making money in mind, the fact that it is really for posterity makes it far more significant than the ad campaign, and far more beautiful.

            Even though “On Beauty” and Dove’s campaign for real beauty make beauty their subject, comparing a poem and an advertisement may only be credible to someone that devalues art and literature, or praises the value of commercial media and its trappings.  A poem will always be more beautiful than a commercial, even a poem such as Koch’s, which at times seems meandering and contradictory.  Though there have been countless many poems written that discuss beauty, some to far greater success and accomplishment than Koch’s, it will always be better in essence than even the most beautiful commercial, for its intentions are far more pure and true.

Works Cited:

Koch, Kenneth. “On Beauty.” Uncontrollable Beauty. Ed. Bill Beckley and David Shapiro. New

York: Allworth Press, 1998.

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