Monday, July 27, 2009

Top Ten Roadside Rhymes

During its 2,200-mile relocation from Iowa City to Salem, Oregon—a cross- country trip that took us through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington—the Poetry & Popular Culture office was once again struck by how inspirational the open road can be. As "Muse Road" which we had the pleasure of crossing in Connell, Washington, suggests, the American highway constantly gives rise to a poetry unlike any other—and we're not just talking about the phonemically and phonetically inventive moments in the tradition of the "Dew Drop Inn" that has spawned hotel names like the "SleepInn," "Snooze Inn," or even the "C'mon Inn" of Bozeman, Montana (pictured above). Nor are we talking about the entertaining slogan or frightening non-sequitor—like the message "Class A Unstable" we saw handwritten on the side of a rusted dumpster being carted overland by a semi truck with bright "Radioactive" signs affixed to its rear bumper.

No, on this trip West, we were struck by how much of the American roadside rhymes. Even though the great era of Burma-Shave billboard advertising is behind us, the open road and the commercial strip alike still manage to sustain an entire genre of micro-poetic communicative moments displaying a type of genius and banality all its own. Poetry & Popular Culture isn't the first to notice this ingenuity, of course. In Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext, for example, Garrett Stewart notes the linguistic invention at the heart of highway-related business names such as FASTOP and automobile slogans that claim, for instance, to put the "'oomph!' back in the Triumph" sports car. Add to Stewart's examples other beauts such as car air fresheners scented "Vanillaroma," evangelical bumper stickers reading "JESUSAVES," and once-popular products such as Shellubrication, and we are easily reminded that the actual practice of America's highway poets has preceded its analysis by historians and critics by decades.

To shine a light on this art—and on this cast of restless rhymers pitching their wares to drivers speeding by at 65, 75, or 85 miles per hour— Poetry & Popular Culture has compiled a Top 10 list of the best and most interesting poetic moments it observed on its seven-state journey west. Over the next several days, we'll be ranking and posting about the poetry of tractors and testicles, campgrounds and convenience stores. To get things started, though, here are numbers 10-6. Tune in later for the P&PC-certified top five.

10. "Click it or Ticket" (nationwide).

Yes, it's familiar. Yes, it's a rhyme employed in the politics of restriction—both the belt strapping you in and the threat of the ticket forcing you to comply—but you've got to admit that the onomatopoeic double rhyme is superb, especially as the first of that double rhyme is accomplished via two words ("click it") while the second is realized by one word ("ticket"). P&PC is also fond of how the phonemic play (Stewart would call it "transegmental drifting") between "click it" and "or" creates a beast particular to the highway: the Clickitor. Arnold may be the Terminator, but you, dear driver driving safely, are the Clickitor.

9. "Gentle Dental" (Salem, Oregon).

It wasn't all hometown bias that landed this brand number 9 instead of 10. While "Gentle Dental" displays some of the same alveolar consonants as "Click it or Ticket," it also puns on that precise phonetic event (the t-sound), which is often mistakenly called "dental" since the tongue appears to touch the teeth. That meta-linguistic pun salvaged an otherwise weak or predictable rhyme, not to mention the misinformation campaign that any dental work can in fact be considered gentle.

8. Ditch Witch (Nebraska).

Not only a memorable phrase, Ditch Witch is an entire brand of "digging system" products ranging from trenchers and plows to piercing tools and rod pushers. ("It'll suck the whatever right out of the whatever," one slogan claims.) While "Click it or Ticket" offers a warning and "Gentle Dental" a description, "Ditch Witch" gets a bit more sophisticated, as the word "ditch" can be initially heard as an imperative verb or as a modifier for "witch." Moreover, the double signification of "ditch" encourages us to hear the "which" in "witch," making for a sonically rich two syllables that "won't stop working until you do."

7. Tower Power (Wyoming).

This Union Wireless slogan may not have the phonetic ambiguity of a "ditch witch," but its double rhyme and phallic resonance won us over in a close call. Were we to come across "Tower Power" in, say, Rhode Island, it might not even have made this list. But, um, erected as it was in Wyoming—not far from the Grand Tetons—the advertisement seemed to sum up not just the wireless game, but the philosophy of the entire state itself.

6. Kamp Dakota: Camp with Pride Nationwide (Wyoming).

Okay, so "Camp with Pride Nationwide" isn't a particularly awesome bit of poetic innovation unless Kamp Dakota is aligning itself with gay pride and announcing itself as the place to really, well, camp out. But in addition to the ad's delightful, if unintentional, secondary and tertiary meanings, we had to admire (or fear) the mind with enough chutzpah spell the word "camp" two different ways in a single highway announcement. It's almost a self-conscious enough of a move, in fact, to make us believers.

So that's the first five. Tune in tomorrow or the next day for the completion of Poetry & Popular Culture's "Top Ten Roadside Rhymes." And if you have a personal favorite that hasn't made the list? By all means, speed it along.


Jeanne said...

I wonder if PP & PC would consider addressing the 'K' issue that has been troubling me since my recent vacation.Is a K a more poetic letter than 'C' or 'Q'? Does it imply roadside trustworthiness in a way that these other letters fall short? I'm particularly curious about the Kozy Kamping Kabins of South Dakota and other resort destinations, but also the more widely distributed Kwik Marts.
and Kool Spots.
Thank you for your help with this issue.

Jessie Carty said...

i love this post :) rhyme and rhythm are just at the base of our souls, aren't they?