Many thanks to Angela Sorby, Associate Professor of English at Marquette University and author of Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917, for alerting "Poetry & Popular Culture" to a recent tidbit at the Onion. In "McCain Blasts Obama As Out Of Touch In Burma-Shave-Style Billboard Campaign," the Onion depicts this year's Republican presidential candidate as being out of touch via an old-style advertising medium: the serial billboard poem made famous by the Burma-Vita Company's "Burma-Shave" campaign which dotted American highways from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Loved by Americans ranging from my mother-in-law to Gertrude Stein (who, in Everybody's Autobiography wrote "I wish I could remember more of them, they were all lively and pleasing.... I wish I could remember them I liked them so much”), the Burma-Shave signs have been called part of "the national vocabulary" and have been installed in the Smithsonian Institution as relics of our 20th Century past. At the height of the Burma-Shave campaign, over 7,000 sets of signs using 600 individual poems were maintained in 44 states and were seen by untold numbers of drivers. It’s possible that through the 1920s, the Depression, World War II, and the 1950s, Burma-Shave’s poems were the most public, widely read verse in America.
What the Onion doesn't suggest—in cartooning McCain as outta date—is how the model Burma-Vita pioneered is, in fact, still used as part of political campaigns today. Drive through central Illinois, and you'll see signs made by locals lambasting gun-control advocates or promoting soy bio-diesel as an alternative fuel. Four years ago, in my own town of Iowa City, several neighbors along Muscatine Avenue pitched in to post poetic signs in their yards supporting the presidential campaign of Howard Dean. Those signs read:
Lost your grin?
Cheer up folks:
The Doctor's In.
Caucus for Howard Dean.
And in 1996—so Bill Vossler reports in his history of the advertising campaign Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times—rhymster Republicans in Washington, D.C., experimented with serial anti-Clinton billboards to pitch that year's ticket:
If you’re tired of a White House
That’s always smokin’ hemp
Vote for our future
This was not the first time that Bob Dole associated himself with Burma-Shave verse. For the 1990 reissue of Frank Rowsome Jr.'s book The Verse By the Side of the Road: The Story of the Burma-Shave Signs and Jingles (first published in 1965), Dole was asked to write a Foreword that concluded with his own original five-line ditty:
It's always safer
Not to make waves
It's not my style
I've had some close shaves
Not the best imitation of Burma-Shave poetry, to be sure. But what's worth noting—and what bodes well (or bards well?) for Barack Obama in 2008—is that, despite the billboard poets having their backs, neither Dean nor the Dole/Kemp ticket were successful in their presidential bids. That's not to say that "Poetry & Popular Culture," uh, bristles at the thought of Obama using poetry in his campaign. Just that he shouldn't at this point get cheeky.