The one truly American form of poetry is the bumper sticker, the equivalent of the haiku of the Japanese or the classical epigram. Click on the image to enlarge it, or click here for a PDF version.
Dear Dr. Boli: Why is it that establishments where cheerful and polite customer service is normally a point of pride will nevertheless post a vulgar notice on the front door that says “NO SHIRT, NO SHOES, NO SERVICE”? It is not that I object to the dress code—I myself seldom go shopping in less than full morning dress. But I do not like to be spoken to in that tone of voice. —Sincerely, Albert van Vaughan Andover-Ewart, Schenley Heights.
Dear Sir: People will forget themselves and their breeding if they feel they have come up with a very clever put-down. Even the well-intentioned and well-bred find the vulgar cleverness of the slogan “NO SHIRT, NO SHOES, NO SERVICE” irresistible. The only way it could be rendered more clever is by adding rhyme, which would make it positively mesmerizing to the middlebrow mind:
IF YOU DON’T WEAR A SHIRT
YOU’RE GONNA GET HURT
WHAT, NO SHOES, SIR?
YOU’RE A LOSER!
In fact, even as Dr. Boli makes these facetious suggestions, he suspects that someone somewhere will find them, fall under their thrall, and post them in a store window. The only way to break the upward spiral of vulgarity is for county health codes, in addition to specifying the minimum clothing required in commercial establishments, to specify the wording of the posted notice as well, which should be something like this:
SHIRT AND SHOES REQUIRED
BY ORDER OF DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
Once that is accomplished, we can work on the question of whether anything else should be required, or whether we shall continue to raise no objection to sans-culottes shopping in our stores.
The Japanese language has the haiku to express small but profound observations and delicate shades of feeling. The English-speaking world, or perhaps one should say the American-speaking world, has the bumper sticker. Click on the image to download a PDF file.
The poor sap sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
With the sketchiest knowledge of Gray’s Botanee,
Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by him, and said, “’Tis a plane,”
Sing willow, willow, willow,
“Platanus in Latin”—but spoke all in vain;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Sing all those dang trees look like willows to me.
Strange beastie, you!
Rides inside you.
Here’s something new—
One roo from two;
Two roos make you.
How very few
The creatures who
Can say that’s true!
What can I do
But say to you,
“How do you do?
How do you do?”
Mr. Alexander M. Plumwax, the noted folk-song collector, first discovered this song at a roadside souvenir stand just outside Luray, Virginia, where it was sung by a one-armed banjo player who said that he had learned it at the gas station down the street. Further research has revealed that the song is widespread throughout the Appalachian region in many slightly different versions. For example, Mr. Plumwax discovered that, in Bristol (Virginia or Tennessee, it hardly matters which), the song is known as “In Albion Wood Chimes Ring So Long,” and the usual accompaniment is a Galax-style dulcimer; outside Asheville, North Carolina, the song is called “The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” and is usually banged out on trash-can lids; and near Clarksburg, West Virginia, the song is known as “Someone to Watch Over Me” and is sung to a tune by George Gershwin.
All the good times have gone bad.
All the sweet times have turned sour.
All the happy times are sad,
To the last depressing hour.
All the gold times have turned blue.
All the right times have gone wrong.
So there’s nothing left to do
But sing this whiny little song.
1. ’Cause fair was fair a century since,
And people weren’t so jaded.
If Serbians shot an Austrian prince,
Then Belgium got invaded.
2. They sure did have it good back then.
Their lives were so much merrier
When every swamp and marsh and fen
Was teeming with malarier.
3. And days in spring had bluer skies,
And summer was more summery.
If anyone says otherwise,
He’s full of idle flummery.
Upon this grand apocalyptic day,
We’ve only six more little lines to spend
Together: then the poet’s had his say;
Our calendar at last comes to an end.
How thrilling that the lack of one more rhyme
Can somehow bring about the end of time!
We set aside one day for being grateful,
Which leaves 364 or 5
For being spiteful, selfish, mean, and hateful,
And letting all our baser instincts thrive.
So, if you hate Thanksgiving, have no fear:
Be thankful that it’s only once a year.
October brings a cheery glimpse of hell,
Each vacant storefront filling up with ghouls
With zombie, ghost, and pirate masks to sell
To clever children and to grown-up fools:
For we’ve decided the deterioration
Of Western culture’s cause for celebration.