Saturday, August 1, 2009

Top 10 Roadside Rhymes: Number 4

4. Frankie Doodle's Restaurant (Spokane, Washington)

So, in the world of roadside rhyming, it's no surprise to find rhyming phrases such as "Shield your Field," "Gentle Dental," "Ditch Witch," "Camp with Pride Nationwide," or "Click It or Ticket"—all of which caught Poetry & Popular Culture's attention and which comprise the first part of this Top 10 list. The poetics of the American pavement is most often realized in phrases like these that one might say rhyme internally with themselves—signs that offer, within the text presented, all the necessary words for catchy end rhymes and even front rhymes (such as "Best Western").

Less common, however, is the phrase or sign that has an exterior rhyme—a slogan that rhymes with language outside of its immediately posted context. Take, for example, the slogan of Oregon's sexy Naked Winery & Orgasmic Wine Company (pictured above), which is "We aim to Tease." Here, in order to work, Naked Winery embarks on, um, some risky textual behavior because it relies on the consumer to supply the missing rhyme. If that consumer doesn't recognize that "We aim to Tease" is a rhyming pun on the reg'lar commercial promise "We aim to Please," then the ad is a bust and no one goes home happy. Before you underestimate the sophistication of the language work required to make "We aim to Tease" function completely, consider for a moment, dear driver, how easily or not easily a non-native English speaker would complete the chain of associations leading to this rhyme in the second or two available while cruising on by at 75 mph.

Other companies put their rhyming fates in the hands— ears, rather—of the consumer. Such is the case (to a somewhat lesser extent than the Naked Winery, we think) with the Java Jive-Thru Espresso of Salem, Oregon, which relies on the commuting, caffeine-deprived customer to supply the phrase "Drive-Thru" in order to complete the rhyme. In compiling this Top 10 list, Poetry & Popular Culture could have gone with "We Aim to Tease" or "Java Jive-Thru," but we've opted for the Spokane, Washington, restaurant "Frankie Doodle's" instead (see picture in previous paragraph). Not only does Frankie Doodle's make a rare if not stunning double (some might say quadruple) external rhyme with "Yankee Doodle," but in punning on a well-known song tune and character type, it evokes a fairly specific soundtrack and generic national image only to immediately contradict that image and tune by raising a set of unexpected questions about "Yankee's" improbable and unimagined backstory. Could there have actually been a Doodle family? Could Yankee have had a brother—and why haven't we heard of him until now? What was the fairy-tale relationship between Yankee, the national East-Coast figure, and Frankie, the uncelebrated restauranter who struck out West? It's the untold Doodle history that this Spokane restaurant conjurs up—in a name that asks us more generally to re-examine the potentially untold histories behind national characters—in combination with the double external rhyme that lands "Frankie Doodle's" at the number 4 spot on our list.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Top 10 Roadside Rhymes: Number 5

5. "Shield Your Field" (Iowa).

Just an hour or two outside of Iowa City on I-80, Poetry & Popular Culture came across a billboard for Rain and Hail, providers of agricultural insurance, that simply read, "Shield Your Field." Odds are, the slogan isn't an official one—it's not displayed with any prominence on the company's web page, at least—but was, well, homegrown by a local agent with the highway driver in mind and using the lexicon of automobility itself as fertilizer. Cribbing "shield" from "windshield" and "field" from "field of vision," the slogan pairs the perils of driving—somewhere, images of windows busted from collisions with deer hover in the background here—with the perils of driving rain and hail. As drivers stay in their parallel lanes cruising past equally parallel rows of corn and soybeans, the two apparently unrelated but dangerous activities converge, protected against an uncertain and unpredictable future by the insurance policies they have in common.

As with Roadside Rhyme Number 6 (see Monday's posting), "Shield Your Field" has some uninten- tionally thought-provoking connotations. We here at Poetry & Popular Culture can't help but think, for example, of that famous line from Act II Scene 2 of Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra when Agrippa describes Caesar's relationship to Cleopatra by exclaiming, "Royal wench! / She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; / he plowed her, and she cropped." Given the prophylactic nature of Rain and Hail's slogan (one that recalls advice given to young men who are told—in rhyme—"if you really love her, wear a cover"), it's not difficult to imagine "Shield Your Field" being pulled into the discursive orbit of safe sex. This curious convergence can give rise to a number of interesting questions. Is the farmer (normally the one plowing and inseminating) being cast into the defensive role of the female field? Does this encourage sympathies with the land itself, or does it reinforce a culture of protective chauvinism that—even as it pours pesticides and fertilizers into the earth—imagines the outsider as violent and damaging? And what exactly is the relationship between the farmer seeking (or being asked) to "take precautions" and the insurance company offering those protections?

However one goes about answering these and other questions, it's clear that Rain and Hail's slogan is more complicated than it initially seems. In orchestrating a complex network of associations via three words posted on an Iowa billboard, the insurance company also finds itself a respectable ranking on P&PC's "Top 10 Roadside Rhymes."

Stay tuned for Top Roadside Rhyme Number 4, coming soon.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Poetry & Politics: Two Transliterations for Tuesday, July 28

Poetry & Popular Culture typically doesn't fill its, uh, pages with links directing you to other sites, but two messages in today's mailbox proved too rich to keep to ourselves. For your reading and viewing pleasure:

Via Lauren Berlant at the University of Chicago, we've discovered William Shatner's hilarious beatnik poem send-up of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's farewell speech—complete with moody attire, bongo drums and stand-up bass accompaniment on The Tonight Show.

And via Jeff Charis-Carlson at the Iowa City Press-Citizen, we've come upon Dahlia Lithwick's "306 Syllables on Sotomayor" which renders the Senate Judiciary Committee's hot air as haiku.


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.