Tuesday poem: American names

I do know it isn’t Tuesday yet. It isn’t Tuesday anywhere in the world at this precise moment, and in London, where I am at present, it’s only late on Sunday afternoon. But I’m off to America tomorrow, and – as the celebrated Captain Oates said in far less happy circumstances – I may be some time. (New Zealanders, especially any of my generation who remember the School Readers and in particular the story about Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition, will instantly recognise that reference.)

Anyway. I’m not stumbling out into the snow like poor Oates, in fact I’m flying away from the threats of further cold and icy weather here in London, and straight into the sunshine of Key West. (Right at the bottom of the chain of islands known as the Florida Keys. Closer to Cuba than to Miami. A small island that somewhat resembles the funky best of the developing world, except that the supermarkets are air-conditioned, the phones always work, and wifi comes as standard.)

So I’ve been thinking about the USA this past week, and somehow or other I got on to thinking about the glorious variety of American place names. (This is not very surprising. I am often spellbound by the resonance and cadence of names; I even have a glass panel in my bathroom with Maori place names sand-blasted on it.)

And those thoughts, in turn, reminded me of this lovely poem. You might think you haven’t heard of the author before, but chances are very good that you know at least a little of his work. The novelist and poet Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) wrote “John Brown’s Body” which of course you almost certainly do know, if only to hum along to the refrain in the song version. The last line of this poem – the one I’m posting – will also be very familiar, and if you now want to stop reading me blethering on and skip to the poem’s last line, who could blame you.

Benét has even featured on a postage stamp in recent years – I’ve added a photo of it below. He’s very famous indeed, and deservedly so. I think the poem’s wonderful, and I hope you do too.

[I hope the poet can be forgiven for the shock of the 'n' word in the 4th verse. Look at his dates. It's an historical horror but I'm not about to censor him. I don't want Mark Twain's Huck Finn censored; I don't want to pretend words like that weren't ever used. I  couldn't handle the idea of cutting out that verse from the post. I don't know what you all think...]

American Names by Stephen Vincent Benét

I have fallen in love with American names,

The sharp names that never get fat,

The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,

The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,

Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Seine and Piave are silver spoons,

But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,

There are English counties like hunting-tunes

Played on the keys of a postboy’s horn,

But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,

Little French Lick and Lundy’s Lane,

The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates

And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.

I will remember Skunktown Plain.

I will fall in love with a Salem tree

And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,

I will get me a bottle of Boston sea

And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.

I am tired of loving a foreign muse.

Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,

Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman’s Oast,

It is a magic ghost you guard

But I am sick for a newer ghost,

Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.

Henry and John were never so

And Henry and John were always right?

Granted, but when it was time to go

And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,

Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.

I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.

You may bury my body in Sussex grass,

You may bury my tongue at Champmédy.

I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.

Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

And when it really is Tuesday somewhere in world you might like to go to the Tuesday Poem website and read some more.

7 Responses to “Tuesday poem: American names”

  1. Jennifer Compton Says:

    lovely stuff – great – didn’t know this one – so thanks

    i am cool with the n word in context – can’t air brush stuff out – or at least i think you shouldn’t -

  2. mary mccallum Says:

    Great poem. American names grabbed me too when I was there recently – oh the joys of Poughkeepsie and Schenectady! Have a great holiday Belinda…

  3. mary mccallum Says:

    … and still thinking about what I think about ‘blue-gum nigger’ … I hear that word alot in the awful rap my son listens to sometimes but I guess it’s a self-claimed word there not one applied by a non-black. Could the phrase be put into speech marks perhaps? Separates it out as a sign of the times…

  4. T. Clear Says:

    Wow — I really enjoyed this! Thanks for posting it. Too bad he didn’t include any Pacific Northwest place names: Humptulips, Puyallup, Walla Walla, etc.

    There’s a big hoo-ha going on right now here about a plan by New South Books to publish an edited edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn where the n-word has been purged from its pages. Scary revisionist move on their part, I believe. And novelist Lorrie Moore suggests we avoid that controversy in middle and high-school classrooms by not teaching Huck Finn until college. What a pity, what a loss that would be! Here’s the link:

  5. Elizabeth Welsh Says:

    Ah, what a rollicking read! It made me smile, Belinda. Love the American names. Have a fabulous holiday!!

  6. Helen Lowe Says:

    Belinda, a great poem and just toward the end I “saw” that last line coming! (Woot!)

    Regarding “blue-gum nigger”, I believe one should always reproduce the poem ‘as it was writ’: My view is that excision in retrospect is as dangerous as any contemporary censorship, perhaps even more so, since it obscures both the historical truth and thus denies historical context. To misquote another historical text: “let the record stand, though the heavens fall.”

  7. Belinda Says:

    Sorry it’s taken me a few days to catch up with you all – I’m so delighted to have your comments, suggestions and support.To work backwards in response: Helen: I agree completely that excision is as dangerous as censorship; Elizabeth, thank you!; T Clear – maybe he didn’t know the northwest? And thanks so much for the heads-up about Huck Finn, scary and sad indeed; Mary, I thought about your suggestion on the plane, but don’t you think that maybe putting the word in quotes takes it out of its original context and so doesn’t help?; and Jennifer, thanks for the airbrushing image. So glad you al like the poem.

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