Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Poetry & Popular Culture Hits PMLA

If you've got a little time on your hands and are looking for a bit of extra reading about this blog's favorite subject matter, check out "The Business of Rhyming: Burma-Shave Poetry and Popular Culture" which is in the brand new issue of PMLA (not the issue pictured to the left). The Poetry & Popular Culture office has written about Burma-Shave before, but this new essay contains almost—almost—as much as we have to say on the matter. The fact that we get to say it in PMLA—that bastion of academic criticism—makes it all the more sweet.

So, as a teaser, here's the first paragraph, which follows a quotation from Gertrude Stein's Everybody's Autobiography.

[A]nd it was there I first saw the shaving advertisements that delighted me one little piece on one board and then further on two more words and then further on two more words a whole lively poem. 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.

—Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography

The theme of the New York Times Crossword on Wednesday, 30 April 2003, begins with the clue for 17 across: "Start of a roadside verse." That clue and four others—23, 38, 47, and 58 across—link to produce a rhyming answer that staggers through the crossword's grid not unlike the way the Burma-Shave billboards being quoted from were staggered in sets of six along highways in the United States for nearly forty years in the mid-twentieth century, before regulations limiting "visual pollution" helped bring the shaving oeuvre to an end: "THIRTY DAYS / HATH SEPTEMBER / APRIL JUNE AND THE / SPEED OFFENDER / BURMA SHAVE." While the crossword is not exactly what William Zinsser had in mind in 1964 when he claimed that the poems in the then recently discontinued advertising campaign had become part of "the national vocabulary," it is nonetheless a compelling piece of evidence on his behalf. "No sign on the driver's horizon gave more pleasure of anticipation," Zinsser eulogized in the Saturday Evening Post. "Roads are no longer for browsing."

Happy reading.

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