Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Place Names and Poetry

A nice reflection on place-names, their beauty, and their place in poetry by Robert L. Ramsay, published in 1952:
Is there any beauty, or romance, or stuff for poetry, in our Missouri place names? The author of the first volume of poetry ever published west of the Mississippi River did not think so. Said Angus Umphraville, in a special footnote to his poem "The Queen of the Rivers," published at St. Louis in 1821:
The task of describing the course of the Missouri is rendered peculiarly disagreeable by the mean, low, absurd, inharmonious, and unappropriate names which white traders and discoverers have conferred upon its most romantic beauties... What poet would not be deterred by such barbarous names from celebrating "The Beauty of the Cannonball," or "The Maid of Boone's Lick," or "The Hero of the Conewango?"
Later lovers of poetry modified this harsh judgment far enough to find some romance and beauty in our foreign names, French, Spanish, and especially Indian—such names as Gasconade and Crève Coeur, Molino and Potosi, Onondoga and Niangua; and they began to plead wistfully for more of them to replace the raw, crude, hopelessly American names that prosaic Anglo-Saxon pioneers persisted in scattering over the landscape.

But time takes curious revenges. Nowadays poets have learned to find beauty in unlikely places. Some of the foreign place names so much admired a generation ago are still pleasant enough, but others among them retain only a sort of pinchbeck beauty. As Stephen Vincent Benet has taught us:
Seine and Piave are silver spoons;
But the spoon-bowl metal is thin and worn.
Anybody can find poetry in springtime and sunsets. But it takes a real poet like Robert Frost to find poetry in building a wall, and a real painter like our own Thomas Hart Benton to make pictures out of barbecues and baptizings, Huck Finn and Jesse James, and Frankie and Johnnie. After all, sweat is a far more poetical word than perspiration.

So we may quote a few additional lines from Benet's classic, "American Names," which has so fascinated our Missouri place-name workers that most of them have placed it on the opening pages of their eighteen theses:
I have fallen in love with American names:
The sharp, gaunt names that never get fat;
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims;
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tuscon and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat....

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 shall not reset 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.
Witness also the testimony of Mr. Dennis Murphy, one of the most genuine of recent Missouri poets, in his little volume of 1941 entitled The Doomed Race:
Willow Springs, Lebanon,
Mountain view, Cedar Ridge—
Crooked creek and highway run
Side by side to the bridge.

Asters by an old board walk;
Blacksmith's shop; grocery store
Where men-folks tipple, women talk,
And lazy hounds loll at the door....

Evening Shade, Buffalo,
Rocky Comfort, and Birch Tree—
It matters little where I go;
Ozark towns keep haunting me.
Amother of the younger Missouri poets, Mr. Ralph Alan McCanse, has demonstrated effectively in his two volumes, The Road to Hollister: a Hill-Country Pastoral, of 1931, and his latest volume published only last year, Waters over Linn Creek Town, that many a place name is a compressed poem in itself. His earlier volume captures the spirit of Taney County as carried in its names:
A sabbath air
Through all the hills prevailed. Across the Ridge
Came scarce a breath of wind, that morning hour;
and drowsy peace possessed the countryside...

But in the country stores—at Garber Bald,
Bee Creek, and Flag and Notch the people talked...
of the big new dam
That turned White River into a lengthy lake,
Stretching for miles...
There's Dewey Bald; there's Hollister, and The Hill!

This is the silent epic of the hills:
The ancient Earth conceives; and Time fulfills.
In his Waters Over Linn Creek Town, he has interpreted even more appealingly the "spirit of place" and the very human people of
Camden and Hickory, and then Osage—
Then Morgan—Benton—each of them the stage
Where life ran quietly from day to day...

The ancient sleeping Ozark countryside...
Linn Creek that was Zion; and Sycamore Mill;
All regions under the lake now, passing still...

Rivers and creeks throughout a host of hills
That now a winding man-made lake-bed fills:
The Osage, Turkey, Tebo, 'Tater, Lick
Moccasin, Mossy, Linn, and Forky Stick;
The Indians' cool Ne-Ong-Wah ('Many Springs'?)
The Buffalo, Gravois, Grand Glaize; perished things!

The vision that saw Linn Creek town,
Linn Creek and Wayham and Purvis drown,
And Gladstone drown—those human places
Down in the fatal valley spaces...

And hundreds of hollows and leafy dens,
Honey Run, Crabtree, and Rainwater glens;
the blackberry patches and hazel stock
At Bee Hive, 'Possum, Standing Rock...

Count up to twenty streams, and more.
And the Vision will count you still a score...

Come: keep the low song till the end; take time
To linger in still places...
Apparently a hundred years of history and hard use have added a tang and a flavor to our most commonplace names that would have opened the eyes of old Angus Umphraville. Age enriches old paintings with what painters call patina. Perhaps our Missouri place names are gradually acquiring a sort of patina too.

Mr. W. H. Auden, the distinguished British poet who as recently become an American citizen, has just coined a new word which will be a godsend in this connection. It is "topophile", for a lover of places...

Mr. Auden defines a true topophile as a poet who could write lovely poems about such New York spots as Stouffer's Teashop, Schrafft's Blue Plate Special, the Brighton Beach Line, or the General Theological Seminary. Just why he restricts his topophile to city names I do not quite understand. If so, St. Louis topophiles might pass muster by singing about such fascinating places as the Eads Bridge, the Soldan High School, De Balivière Avenue, Garavelli's Restaurant, and Stix, Baer & Fuller. We are well aware that modern poets like Auden chose words for their denotation rather than for their connotation. They dislike all words with overtones, and prefer the flat music of the tuning fork to the reverberations of the organ. The bees in their poetical hive are always lean and hungry, stripped for action as they issue forth to their daily task, never loaded with spoil and crusted with wax and honey as they stagger home weary at evening, as Milton and the Victorian poets liked them best.

For the "hollow men" of our exhausted age and our jaded city dwellers, they may be right....
Our Storehouse of Missouri Place Names

No comments:

Post a Comment