Monday, July 6, 2015

Monday's Poetry: "American Names"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

Stephen Vincent Benet published this ode to unique American place names in 1927.  In it he honors those odd, little, out-of-the-way places whose names add character and distinction the landscape of our great nation.  World War I had ended less than a decade before Benet penned this poem, and he seems to have been showing some concern for the boys who never came home but instead were put to rest in little European towns whose names were so unfamiliar.  In his last stanza the poet said that regardless of where his body parts were interred, there would only be one resting place for his heart, someplace uniquely and distinctly American.   Wounded Knee served as Stephen Vincent Benet's example.

The final line of the poem, "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee," of course was later lifted from the poem to serve as the title of a book, movie, and song that chronicled military barbarism toward the Native American peoples.

There is also a line in this poem where Benet uses some racist vernacular of the times, much as Twain did in many of his works.  Though the line represents an unfortunate choice of words on the part of the poet, it is presented in this space as written and unedited for historical accuracy.

American Names
by Stephen Vincent Benet

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 Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee. 

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