We are currently in West Chester, Pennsylvania, but we have been travelling over the last week through Kentucky and Indiana, enjoying the exotic particulars of place names. We keep driving past signs here pointing us to a town called "King of Prussia". Our favorite may have been in Indiana, Gnaw Bone, Indiana, where we saw a camper/rv park called "The Last Resort." What a great address--"The Last Resort, Gnaw Bone, Indiana."


Poets have of course long known the incantatory property of place names. There is the charming poem Adlestrop by Edward Thomas, Stephen Vincent Benet's oft-quoted "American Names" ("Bury my heart at Wounded Knee"), the end of Carol Ann Duffy's "Prayer":
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
It's an effect at least as old as Homer, which we recall when we think of the famous catalogue of ships in Iliad 2. A favorite poem that takes the smallest of crumbs from Homer's table in this passage is Seferis' "King of Asini"--which takes a textually dubious mention "and Asini", and tries to imagine the king of this settlement, which receives a single and textually dubious mention in Homer. (There is a version here, scroll down, perhaps taken from the Keeley translation.) The image of the bat as the shade of the king also derives from Homer, from the simile of the souls of the suitors in the Odyssey.
There are remains of a Mycenean fortress at Asini--huge Cyclopean walls and stones--which is in a stunningly beautiful spot in the Argolid overlooking the Aegean. Because it doesn't factor in Homer, though, there are almost no visitors to it. (You'd think the Seferis poem might change that.) When we last visited, there were not even any guards there, and you could just clambor about among the stones and wildflowers, with the slain-peacock-breasted sea dazzling in the background. We picnicked there once, and were surprised by the happy barks and chirps of a family of foxes playing nearby.

Originally Published: October 21st, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. October 21, 2007
     Don Share

    My own favorite is Hart Crane', especially when the hobo says, "There's no place like Booneville though, Buddy..." Maybe you passed through there yourself...

  2. October 21, 2007
     Steve

    As you may be aware, there's also a Hell, Michigan, with a substantial retail and tourism economy based on its name. There's also a memorable recent line or cluster of Michigan-is-Hell poetry, by Lawrence Joseph, Laura Kasischke, Ander Monson, & others, though I don't know if any of them have really been to Hell and back.
    There's also a town in Pennsylvania which usually disappoints first-time visitors, though I hear it can be a lot of fun after a while.
    And more seriously, there are traditions in both the Irish and the English languages of poems on the (supposed) origins of place names. In English, see Wordsworth's "Poems on the Naming of Places"; in Irish, the tradition is called dinnseanchas, used by Heaney and others in modern English-language poems.
    Anyone know a good poem about how an American place got its name?

  3. October 21, 2007
     Shail D. Patel

    I think Milton was the poet of ours most susceptible to this enchantment. Long passages in Paradise Lost luxuriate in litanies of place names. Keats, who grew up wanting to be Milton, from Milton learned their usefulness; and that is why that peak Cortez is silent on locates specifically in Darien (Romantic poetry is a landscape of misty mountain peaks that do not tower as impressively–all for want of a place name). I confess a preference for place names that begin with I. The eye expects, after a capital I, some commonplace self-absorbed verb, I saw, I am, I feel, I want, or else something political and Latinate, International, Institute, the expansion of an acronym some Washington thinktank founder felt very pleased with himself coining. Instead of the subjective or the self-important, with I place names the mind is surprised with a sudden rush of travel–to Ipswitch, or to Innsbruck; Innisfree, where Yeats is host, having arisen and gone there, or Inverness; Istanbul; Ile-de-France; India, Indiana, or their phonetic cousin, the even-more-gorgeous Indonesia (placenames that end in –esia I am especially enamored of: even so unpoetic a creature as Cecil Rhodes has contributed to the beauty of our language with Rhodesia). I savor this sensation while I still have it; in my ear that phonetic isle has already been invaded by Iraq, Iran, Israel, and the hard-consonant current-events their invocation introduces. But we still have, for now: Iberia, Isandhlwana, Isfahan….

  4. October 22, 2007
     Ange

    The place-name as poetic incantation: I can't think of anyone who does this more than Paul Muldoon with his Irish exoticism. And I'm a sucker for it, to my chagrin.
    It's pure mystification! For instance, good old "King of Prussia" is where I was fired from my job at a bookstore for "having a problem with authority." I was a teenager.
    The lit journal in West Chester was one of my first publications -- maybe my first perfect-bound pub. I won their poetry contest for high school students.
    If you saw any signs for Valley Forge, or took the R5 from Paoli to Philly with its string of English country town names -- Berwyn, Wayne, Devon -- it would give you quite a different sense of magic than it does me.
    I guess all this is just to point out, again, the shocking divide between experience and imagination.

  5. October 23, 2007
     Emily

    If RIchard Hugo didn't write a poem about how Humptulips, Washington--a rain-soaked logging town near where Kurt Cobain was raised--got its name, he's doing so now in the peaks of Darien.

  6. October 24, 2007
     Don Share

    Emily, I almost weep with gratitude whenever Richard Hugo is mentioned! If only he were around to turn up at panels with Hass and Kinnell...
    You're surely right to point him out - he's one of the best American place-name poets there ever was.
    Who wouldn't be compelled to learn more about "The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir"?
    "Not my hands but green across you now..."
    His poems appeared in Poetry over a span of twenty years, between 1959 and 1979.