Marketing and English
One area where your degree can be applied is advertising (and associated areas such as sales, political campaigning and speechwriting, publicity, public relations, and so forth). Some time ago, PBS ran a show called "The Persuaders" (watch it here). It described the work of hundreds of thousands of people who work to persuade you to buy their products. From establishing quasi-religious cults associated with brands, to recasting political language to attract your vote--the art of persuasion depends upon the kind of knowledge an English degree can offer.
This approach to persuasion is not argumentative. It does not follow from carefully made premises, through carefully wrought arguments, and to a rational conclusion. Instead, it feeds off sentiment and association. Emotion is and has always been the most powerful form of persuasion. Logos (logic) and ethos (ethics) are also persuasive, of course. But people are more often persuaded by emotion. This was one of the contributions of the Freud family to the American marketplace, especially Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, the "father of public relations." An interesting history of the role of psychoanalysis in advertising and politics is the BBC's The Century of the Self (available in pieces on YouTube, its paranoid left-wing bias is mediated by its otherwise sane observations.)
One recognizes two distinct areas of concern here. First, we have semantic fields. These are clusters of associated words and phrases. The associations derive primarily from common usage not from personal experience. For example, the word "blue" is commonly associated with the blues, blue movies, the blue sea, blue language, feeling blue, and so forth. These are all phrases in common use, and any competent speaker of the language will know them. Semantic fields are also enriched by literature—not writing, but literature (that is, those poems, plays, and prose works that have significantly influenced the language and culture). Second, we have personal associations. These are your own feelings about images, words, and phrases. For example, you may have accidentally drunk blue Windex as a child and forever associate blue with nausea. Or you saw your uncle wearing a blue hat and feel the closeness of family whenever you see blue. These are associations hard-wired uniquely into your own brain. They are usually not shared by others. Unlike these personal associations, semantic fields are shared by others and generate their own associations, which you may come to believe are personal. Almost everyone associates the word "mother" with positive feelings. It's not just you! Almost everyone associates the word "ice" with feelings of cold. You learn to dissect semantic fields in English classes; to understand personal associations, you don't need to go to school. Semantic fields give rise to emotional associations.
So, what kind of language appeals to particular psychodemographic categories? This question leads us to literary analysis. The same content can be expressed in many different ways--the means of expression is called style. And it is more often style than substance that appeals. Take the following example: "Jim likes ice cream. He likes vanilla. He eats it a lot." Sounds childish, no? Simple-minded? Now, let's add some rhetorical tropes, tropes that don't change the content of a phrase, but that makes it seem intelligent. That requires us to interrupt the normal pattern (Subject-Verb-Object) of an English sentence.
Now, we add appositive phrases in subordinate positions, find some synonyms, and recast the sentences:
Compare that to our original set of sentences. Any difference in content? Not really. Both sets of sentences make the same three points. But the style is different. The longer version seems more intelligent, more perceptive, more informative. In fact, it isn't. But it seems that way. Our original, simple style is called the Attic style, and the longer, more complex style is called Ciceronian style.
What happens when something is "out of code"? In other words, how do we react to people, poems, objects, or ideas that fit into one psychodemographic (or lifestyle) category, but stick out in particular aspects?
One example is a banker who wears a pin-striped suit and tennis shoes. That combination invites us to imagine him as slightly radical (since tennis shoes evoke casual and pin-striped suits are not). But what of his opposite: a radical who insists on wearing a tie? Or a hippie who drives a clean, dark-blue, late-model Buick LeSabre? Why wouldn't we also consider them radical?
Americans share a familiarity with these codes, and our likely reactions to codebreakers are as illogical and emotional as they are deep-seated.
Literary analysis works in similar ways. Levels of discourse have their own codes, as well. Formal discourse requires Latinate vocabulary, complex sentences, and rhetorical flourishes. You know that instinctively, not consciously, as a speaker of English. When E. E. Cummings (he really did capitalize his name) writes, "Ponder, darling, these busted statues," he breaks code by introducing a word ("busted") that doesn't fit the formal discourse introduced by both the syntactic and lexical sophistication of "Ponder, darling...." He breaks code.
Often, breaking code is considered artistic, and bad artists are those who do little more than merely break code. The easiest way to break code is to offend people, usually regular, hard-working, faithful, family-oriented people. Rip up a picture of the Pope, or sing a sexually explicit song. In poetry, it means graphic langage or topics, anti-establishment screeds, and so forth. Easy code-breaking is Instant Radical--or radical chic, as Tom Woolf called it.
But more fundamentally, poetry works by employing our emotional associations to words and images, rather than acting on a chain of reasoning. (There are a few obvious exceptions, but they don't invalidate the point.) The better the poet, the more subtle and complex and consistent is the manipulation of feeling and thought. Here is Seamus Heaney:
How can love be like a scoop? That claim is completely illogical, a categorical error: love is an emotion, or a state of mind, or something far more abstract than a scoop, however far it may be sunk into a bin of meal.
If we consider the semantic fields that surround Heaney's terms and images, we can begin to constuct a chain of emotional associations which suggest a series of rational claims. A scoop is a modest, but necessary tool in a modest home (like a red wheelbarrow, filled with rain water). "Gleam" implies a polished shine, and can be used abstractly to refer to an accomplishment or bright point in someone's life--a shining moment. This scoop is "past its gleam," which suggests someone or something past its prime. The verb "sunk" is both transitive and intransitive, implying both an incautious hand plunging the scoop into the meal, and a scoop that has been unceremoniously so plunged! But the modesty of tin, and thus of a tin scoop, keeps the image from stumbling into an embarassing, mawkish austerity. And the modesty also combines consistently with associations gleaned from other words and images to imply a claim that while love is sometimes modest, quiet, and underappreciated, it is as necessary as food. The sack of meal further suggests settings such as kitchen, which has its own associations, or barn, with similar homely associations (you wouldn't find a sack of meal in a conservatory, for example). Heaney also evokes modest and homely associations with his syntax and meter. In the end, we put this poem together by coordinating its associations, and contemplating the implications of its images. Heaney has scored the poem: we are the ones who give it sound.
Part of the intellectual toolkit of an English major is explaining rationally, clearly, and logically people's typical emotional reactions to words and images.
As a commodity, poetry participates in the psychodemographic categories of the Western marketplace. People are often surprised to hear that Wallace Stevens, one of the great American poets, worked as an executive in an insurance company in Hartford, CT. Poets aren't supposed to do those sorts of things. Writers are supposed to be like Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys: dishevelled, drunk, angst-ridden, living in a modest and messy home, dressing like a line worker in a Detroit factory. If they dress well, they are considered eccentric (like Tom Woolf, for example), or they are making a statement about their art. (See poetry movements and poets at poetry.org.) This marriage of poetry and lifestyle is arguably a result of Romanticism, which proposed that poets are somehow capable of seeing or knowing or sensing more than ordinary mortals. During the Romantic ersa, poets began to consider themselves outsiders, observers, disconnected. And their manners and morals were shaped to buttress that view. It wasn't always so. In Shakespeare's day, one common idea was that a poet could be made through proper study, practice, and training. Poetry was a craft. The idea survives in Acmeism, a chiefly Russian literary movement. With the influence of Romanticism, prospective poets thought they had to get drunk to write like Dylan Thomas or Brendan Behan, or to take drugs to write like Coleridge or William S Burroughs. It is often as much about the lifestlye as it is about the words.
Studying the relation of codes to poetry allows us to gauge the limits of codes, to see beyond them to what is permanent in life. Surface is not depth. But only by taking a long view, and seeing the contours of artifice, can we ground ourselves in what is beyond style, beyond fashion, and beyond the trivial manipulations of emotion to what is fundamental, rational, essential, and permanent. That is the challenge of literature, and its most compelling potential.