THE POETRY OF PLACE NAMES.

Yesterday wood s lot featured the poetry of Helen Mort, hitherto unknown to me, and I liked it a lot; just from the line “the small, white knuckle of a distant farm” you can tell she’s a real poet. (Great name, too.) The first excerpt was “Hermaness,” the start of her sequence “North of Everywhere“:

Last night, my body was a compass needle
drawing me past every place I’d once called North:
past Sheffield’s border lands, the sleeping giant
of Manchester, grey towns en route to Aberdeen
then silently across the waterway to Lerwick
where my bearings ferried me past Baltasound,
the sloughed down moors, past Norwick bay
where waves worry at rock all day.
By nightfall, I’d approached the edge of Unst,
the land curtseying to meet the sea,
a lighthouse with no keeper but a resting gull,
the tide, dragged from a North
I couldn’t even dream. I stopped
and let my heart go on ahead of me.

And I realized that aside from the fine rhythm of the lines, what especially attracted me was the sequence of names: Sheffield, Manchester, Aberdeen, Lerwick, Baltasound… There’s a basic appeal (at least to me) in the unpredictable and often opaque blocks of letters that interrupt the sequence of ideas and images, naming places I’ve never been and can only dimly imagine; that’s one of the pleasures of the oft-maligned Catalog of Ships in Homer. And it reminded me of a poem I liked enough back four decades ago to copy, all forty-four lines of it, into the commonplace book I kept at the time and have managed to hang on to since; I’ll quote the first stanza of Richard Eberhart’s “Will,” from the Saturday Review of March 28, 1970:

What is will but the advent of the free?
Is the sailor who sails on the sea, whose vessel
Descends from Eagle Light to shoal Duck Harbor on Ile au Haut,
Casting anchor near the weir, and remaining overnight,
Voyaging outward in the morning, out to the open ocean
Turning east to the bull music of Roaring Bull Ledge,
Going thence northeast before a following southwester
To the Light of Swans Island, thence to Frenchboro
And up the chart to Placentia, west across Blue Hill Bay,
Across Jericho, and into Eggemoggin Reach and through it,
Back to mooring near Weir Cove on Cape Rosier,

(It continues “Nearer to reality than a man of land sitting on the shore” and on for another half-dozen lines before the sentence ends; it’s a long-breathed poem.) The magniloquent first line appealed to me (though I couldn’t tell you what it meant, then or now), I immediately liked the internal rhyme free/sea, but what really grabbed me were those wonderful Maine place names—I’ve never forgotten the line “Across Jericho, and into Eggemoggin Reach and through it,” and occasionally mutter it to myself as a kind of incantation.

Comments

  1. I feel the power of such lists of placenames too, but I feel them even more strongly if they are places I know well.

  2. Как странно, как сладко внимать в ваши грезы
    Заветные ваши шептать имена

  3. “Bolton, Barnsley, Nelson, Colne, Burnley, Bradford, Buxton, Crewe, Warrington, Widnes, Wigan, Leeds, Northwich, Nantwich, Knutsford, Hull…”
    (from The JAMs)

  4. Lists of place names (as basic as the index of an atlas) are indeed wonderful things. I’m automatically reminded of this by Matthew Francis:
    http://frombooksofpoems.blogspot.com/2009/02/going-through-villages-by-matthew.html
    And a list I’ll make of my own (because I love Shetland place names) – clockwise around the coast of Mainland from Lerwick:
    Lerwick; Upper Sound; Gulberwick; Brindister; Quarff; Fladdabister; Cunningsburgh; Sandwick; Levenwick; Boddom; Exnaboe; Virkie; Toab; Quendale; Hillwell; Scousburgh; Bigton; Ireland; Maywick; Wester Quarff; Scalloway; White Ness; Heglibister; etc., etc., …

  5. Lerwick; Upper Sound; Gulberwick; Brindister; Quarff; Fladdabister; Cunningsburgh; Sandwick; Levenwick; Boddom; Exnaboe; Virkie; Toab; Quendale; Hillwell; Scousburgh; Bigton; Ireland; Maywick; Wester Quarff; Scalloway; White Ness; Heglibister
    Those are truly wonderful.

  6. Roger Depledge says:

    I can’t help adding Flanders and Swann’s Slow Train.

    Dr Beeching, who shut them all down, once handed me a school prize.

  7. 14th St., 18th St., 23rd St., 28th St., 34th St., Times Square ….

  8. I can’t match those Scottish ones, but here’s a very funny Flanders & Swann song about Gen. de Gaulle. Michael Flanders was married to Claud Cockburn’s daughter Claudia (& thus was the brother-in-law of Alexander & Patrick Cockburn) and their daughter Laura’s loft was in last week’s NY Times.

  9. Lerwick is, by the way, close to the Clickimin broch. A broch is a round, drystone-walled building. They are all over the place in Scotland, and probably pre-Viking. Nobody really knows what they were built for (or even if they all had the same original function). They are beautifully made, I love their hollow walls (you can see them in the pictures).

  10. Trond Engen says:

    I think lists of names strike a chord because they remind me of those lists that are stuck in my memory from childhood, from when I first organized the geography around me.
    The stops on my first trains to Oslo:
    Ås, Ski, Langhus, Oppegård, Myrvoll, Kolbotn, Hauketo, Ljan, Nordstrand, Oslo
    The farms along the shore of my childhood summers in Northern Norway:
    Handå, Herset, Huske, Remmå, Oldersletten, Skog, Remmen, Engen, Langset.
    (No, Engen is coincidental.)
    The long chain of ferries on the coastal route back south:
    Nesna-Låvong, Leinesodden-Sandnessjøen, Tjøtta-Forvik, Andalsvågen-Horn, Vennesund-Holm, Møllebogen-Årsandøy.
    The new T-bane line from my grandmother’s apartment in the new eastern suburbs of mid-1970′s Oslo:
    Furuset, Lindeberg, Trosterud, Tveita, Hellerud, Brynseng, Helsfyr, Ensjø, Tøyen, Carl Berner, Grønland, Jernbanetorget, Sentrum.

  11. It’s hard to beat the Scottish islands when it comes to placenames; but I think England can hold her own. A list I once made:
    Lostwithiel, Emneth, Tolpuddle, Puddletown, Piddletrenthide, Much Wenlock, Wigston Magna, Appledore, Giggleswick, Wigglesworth, Dunkery Beacon, Over Wallop, Brown Willy, The Long Mynd, Yes Tor, South Zeal, Painscastle, Gwash, Scrooby

  12. Wetwang, Tom, don’t overlook Wetwang.

  13. See also: “Toller Fratrum and Toller Porcorum, Chilfrome and Cattistock, Wynford Eagle and Maiden Newton and Compton Valence, Up Sydling and Sydling St Nicholas, Cerne Abbas and Nether Cerne, Minterne Magna and Alton Pancras, Plush and Duntish and Mappowder, Piddletrenthide and Piddlehinton, Puddletown and Tolpuddle and Afpuddle and Briantspuddle…”

  14. Oh, nice. Don’t know how I missed that thread.

  15. I recall the pleasure of reading the several pages long list of names in Victor Hugo’s 93 where the marquis gives detailed instructions to sailor Halmo on where to go in the Vendée to stir up the flame of counter-revolution. A pure poetry of names as well as an extremely detailed mental topography of a tiny area one can go round in a few days.

  16. Kansas City, Kansas City, North Kansas City, Kansas City North…
    Mission Hills, Mission Woods, Fairway, Roeland Park, Mission, Merriam, Shawnee, Overland Park, Prairie Village, Leawood, Lenexa, Shawnee Mission, Olathe…
    Liberty, Independence, Grandview, Peculiar, Pleasant Valley, Sugar Creek, Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit, Raytown, Raymore, Gladstone, Riverside

  17. Wonderful thread. Like chanting incantations. Thanks!

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    It seems there are two subgenres here. First, the one where one is proceeding in some sort of logical geographical order and the names (at least some of them) are not particular obscure or strangely euphonious, e.g. “Well goes from St. Louie down to Missouri / Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty / You’ll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico / Flagstaff, Arizona don’t forget Winona /
    Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino.” Second, the one where the locations seem primarily chosen for obscurity/euphony and don’t fall in anything approximating a straight line when you map them out, e.g. “And I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonapah.” Both can be wonderful, but I wonder if they have different aesthetic effects/functions.

  19. Robin Blaser took this to its logical conclusion in “The Mystic East,” using a historical atlas as found poetry.

  20. And then there’s “Entering Marion” (first verse, second, third), where the names make neither geographical sense nor are particularly poetic. Go figure.

  21. John Emerson says:

    Hank Snow:
    Been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota,
    Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota,
    Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma,
    Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma,
    Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo,
    Tocopilla, Barranquilla, and Padilla, I’m a killer.
    Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana,
    Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana,
    Monterey, Ferriday, Santa Fe, Tallapoosa
    Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa,
    Tennessee, Hennessey, Chicopee, Spirit Lake,
    Grand Lake, Devil’s Lake, Crater Lake, for Pete’s sake;
    Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Ombabika,
    Shefferville, Jacksonville, Waterville, Costa Rica,
    Pittsfield, Springfield, Bakersfield, Shreveport,
    Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond Du Lac, Davenport,
    Idaho, Jellicoe, Argentina, Diam*ntina,
    Pasadena, Catalina, see what I mean, sir;

  22. Going north on I 25 / NM 285 from Albuquerque, NM.
    Bernalillo, Algodones, Budaghers, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, La Bajada Hill, Santa Fe, Santa Fe Opera, Tesuque, Camel Rock, Pojoaque, Espanola.

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