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The Business of Rhyming: Burma-Shave Poetry and Popular Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


This essay uses the example of the long‐lived and popular Burma‐Shave advertising campaign to argue that literary critics should extend their attention to the vast amounts of poetry written for advertising purposes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Burma‐Shave campaign—which featured sequences of rhyming billboards erected along highways in the United States from 1926 to 1963—not only cultivated characteristics of literary and even avantgarde writing but effectively pressured that literariness into serving the commercial marketplace. At the same time, as the campaign's reception history shows, the spirit of linguistic play and innovation at the core of Burma‐Shave's poetry unintentionally distracted consumers' attention away from the commercial message and toward the creative forces of reading and writing poetry. A striking example of popular reading practices at work, this history shows how poetry created even in the most commercial contexts might resist the commodification that many twentieth‐century poets and critics feared. (MC)

Cluster on Textual Materialism
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2010

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