Thursday, October 8, 2009

Top 10 Roadside Rhymes: Number 1

The Poetry & Popular Culture office has received queries, suggestions, threats, and expressions of both wonderment and dismay about how long it's taken us to reveal what is, in our humble estimation, the Number One Roadside Rhyme in America. Over the past few weeks, as we've constructed our list of the Top Ten Roadside Rhymes, we've parsed the poetry of John Deere and explored the implied rhyming of Frankie Doodle's restaurant. We've debated the ecological implications of what it means to "Shield Your Field." Some of us have scanned, some of us have eaten a little crow, and others have stalked out of the office peeved to no end that billboard rhymes like Chase's new retail campaign

Brand Spanking
New Banking

were not even included in the Top Ten while lewd expressions of popular sentiment like Rock Creek, Montana's, "Testicle Festival" managed to make it all the way to Number 2. We've been contacted by everyday folks and even (true fact) by an editor at a commercial press interested in discovering new ways of talking about the poetry of American life.

All of this interest—all of the furor, anticipation, and controversy—is a sign that folks are paying attention to the very literary ways that presumably debased commercial signage is and has been making itself seen and heard, not to mention how characteristics of literary writing are being used to serve the commercial marketplace. Who can deny the appealingly complex pun of "brand spanking" in Chase's four-word poem? The symmetry of its construction? The ways you can read the poem across, down, and diagonally and have it make sense in each direction, as the intersection of four words trope the intersection of two roads but without all the red lights and green arrows? Who knows if the marketing genius behind "Brand Spanking / New Banking" would trace that slogan's impulse back to a passage from Spring and All by highway poet William Carlos Williams. There—putting more space between the capitalized words and the lower-case ones than the current blog interface will allow us to do—Williams wrote:


Now, however, we have reached the end of the Top Ten road, as it were, and we're happy to announce that the Number One Roadside Rhyme in America ...

... is not a rhyme.

You read it correctly. The most literarily dense sign in the U.S. landscape doesn't rhyme at all. It's a complex piece of wordplay, double meaning, and intertextuality. It's more than two words long but not quite three. It's a convenience store division of the Kroger Company that's open 24 hours a day in eight states to best meet your needs. The Number One Roadside Rhyme in America is

Loaf 'n Jug

We here at the Poetry & Popular Culture office have never even been in a Loaf 'n Jug, but consider, to begin with, what the company does with two and one-third words. At first reading, one reads the sign as an announcement—listing two iconographic products of the American convenience store and the bare necessities of bodily nourishment: bread and milk. The sheer fact that the sign communicates "milk" despite the fact that few people buy milk by the "jug" any more suggests how deeply it's tapping into the social fabric of American English.

But Loaf 'n Jug doesn't just pair two nouns together the way a less accom- plished brand name like Kum & Go links two verbs. That's because the word "Loaf" in Loaf 'n Jug can be read as both noun and verb—a measure of bread and a style of relaxation. This is in fact the double appeal and double promise of this highway-based convenience store: it provides food and a break from the weariness of the road. Here, you can buy a loaf, and you can loaf around.

But that double appeal and the double signification of "loaf" as it functions simultaneously as noun and imperative verb causes linguistic trouble for the rest of the sign, for once we read "loaf" as a verb, we're encouraged to read "jug" as a verb as well—only to realize that we can't in fact "jug." That is, the sensical, parallel linking of two nouns ("loaf" and "jug") implicitly promises that we can similarly link the verb "loaf" with the verb "jug," only to then break that promise by the almost avant-garde non-sense of "jug." Attempting to make sense of what "jug" means as a verb (is it past tense of "do a jig"? the past tense of some imaginary verb "jag"?) proves increasingly frustrating, which may in fact be part of the point. The store, which aims to keep us (and our wallets) inside as long as possible, initiates that process of entrapment by getting us tangled up in the hermeneutics of its sign before we even hit the parking lot. If you doubt the viability of this reading, go check out your Oxford English Dictionary, which informs us that in the latter half of the 1800s "jug" was, in fact, used as a verb. What did it mean? It was slang for "To shut up in jail; to imprison." Fishermen know the term jig in this sense as well, as it's a method of catching fish.

But that's not all. What landed the non-rhyming "Loaf 'n Jug" at the position of Number One Roadside Rhyme is not just the poetics of linguistic entrapment by highway "convenience" stores, but the literary history it also pulls into its orbit, beginning with that most American of loafers, Walt Whitman, who very nearly begins "Song of Myself" with the lines

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

We here at Poetry & Popular Culture are particular fans of those lines, and so, admittedly, we are predisposed to see them in more places than many other readers are. What cemented our belief that this sign is in conversation with the history of American poetry, however, is that second word "jug," for like "loaf," "jug" has particularly strong literary associations. After its dominant meaning as a measure of milk (or whiskey), "jug" may be most familiarly understood as the sound a nightingale makes—a sound we know most from T.S. Eliot's modernist epic The Waste Land. Consider lines 100-104, for example:

... yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
'Jug Jug' to dirty ears.

And just about one hundred lines later (203-206) we come across:

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc'd.

Some words appear in poems and go on to have happy social lives almost completely separate from those poems, but the words "loaf" and "jug" are not two of them. Like "urn," "brigade," "metro," or "deferred," we can't use "loaf" and "jug"—especially in conjunction with each other and in such a way that calls attention to how densely they signify—without that literary history being present as well. Using that history, Loaf 'n Jug creates a universe for itself and beckons us to enter, promising milk and bread for the body, relaxation for the mind, and poetry for the soul. Once we're inside, the restrooms are dirty, the light is artificial, the bread is stale, and the milk is overpriced. If that's not a modernist epic—even if it's only two and one-third words long—then we don't know what is.

Postscript — Added October 13, 2009

Poetry & Popular Culture is back to report that the nets of intertextuality cast by Loaf 'n Jug spread much further than we first thought! Over the past week, we've been contacted by two separate people on two separate occasions—Rachel Blau DuPlessis over at Temple, and Gail Eifrig, this writer's favorite English teacher from undergraduate school—both of whom have tracked "Loaf 'n Jug" beyond the modernist pale of T.S. Eliot and into the popular consciousness via Edward Fitzgerald's English translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. In Section 11 of Fitzgerald's first edition, we read:

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Fitzgerald tinkered with the stanza, however, and by the fifth edition, it read (as Section 12):

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Thanks, Rachel and Gail, for taking P&PC further into this Wilderness. If only Loaf 'n Jug were Paradise enow!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Man Wanted for Using Counterfeit Bills at State Fair

—appeared in the Statesman-Journal October 1, 2009

Why is it whenever I go to the fair
with a twenty-dollar bill
and lose it all at the softball toss,
it's called a "game of skill"?

Why when I pay a buck or two
to see The Human Snake
and it's just two bodies sewn together
is it called a "genuine fake"?

And why when I buy a bunch of knives
that cut a can to size
but never get them to work at home
is it called "free enterprise"?

But when I print a dollar or two
to have some fun at the fair?
I'm arrested and called a danger to others
and am taken away from there.