Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

American Names, Stephen Vincent Benet

February 12th, 2010 by G.

A poem I love. The N word is unfortunate, though. Any suggestions for a good replacement? “Singer” is a little too structured (chiastic, in fact) for the rest of the poem.

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.

Comments (22)
Filed under: Deseret Review | Tags: ,
February 12th, 2010 10:33:11
22 comments

Alpha Echo
February 12, 2010

crooner?


Kaimi
February 12, 2010

There are other two-syllable words, like minstrel or picker, which are serviceable if unremarkable.

I think you may have to replace all four syllables. Blue-gum just doesn’t work well with obvious substitute words. A new adjective may be needed, something like perhaps “and a crossroads Homer” (invoking both the old blues imagery of the crossroads and the common blues theme of the blind bard – though it invokes a foreign name, so maybe not) or “a Memphis picker” (linking to a place, as in much of the rest of the poem).


Adam G.
February 12, 2010

‘Memphis picker’ could work.


Man SL
February 12, 2010

Its like Johnny Cash singing I’ve Been Everywhere.


Ali
February 17, 2011

I think it’s best to just change it to ‘negro’ and bear it. Benet did not use the term in a derogatory manner, merely an informal one, so substituting a less offensive version of the term stays true to the original without alienating modern audiences.


Adam G.
February 17, 2011

Sound suggestion.


Zen
February 18, 2011

My suggestion is, and I doubt anyone will love it, is simply to stop making such a big deal out of it. By obsessing over correct terminology, we give the word renewed vigor and counter-intuitively, make racism worse.

My family had a horse some years ago, and previous to our owning her, she had been beaten around the head and panicked if anyone did anything around her head. For a while we were quite sensitive to her phobias but they did not get better. Finally, we just stopped worrying about it, and then, and only then, did she stop worrying about it too.

I am not sure if this would translate exactly to this context, but there comes a point where too much concern makes the problem worse and not better.

Just my two cents.


Graham
March 7, 2011

I learned the poem by heart over 50 years ago, at a time when little old ladies would commonly call their dogs ‘N—–’ if they were black or dark brown – and little old ladies don’t call their dogs by names they consider offensive. I think Ali and Zen both make sound points, but good manners require that we should not cause unnecessary hurt or offence. If I wanted to quote this verse in public I would say ‘and a real blues-singer to sing me blues’.


Shadd
April 5, 2011

My band has set this to music and we play it as a song…I use “blue-gum minstrel to sing me the blues.”

Just sayin…


Lee
May 22, 2011

What does he mean by “Henry and John were never so/and Henry and John were always right?” ??

I love the poem, and most of the above suggestions re that troublesome word; altho, to change a man’s poem . . . well, I don’t know. They changed the word “darkies” in “My Old Kentucky Home” to “people,” which, I understand on one level, but is it fair to pretend that certain realities didn’t exist for some people? I don’t know the answer.


Adam G.
May 23, 2011

Lee,

I don’t know and haven’t been able to find out. I speculate that maybe it has something to do with the Adamses and their anglophilia.

Incidentally, while looking for an answer, I’ve discovered that in most places where the poem is anthologized, they leave out the penultimate three stanzas. Nicely sidestepping the N* problem and the Henry and John problem both.

P.S. That this post is the old post that keeps getting commented on, why, it practically restores my faith in the internet.


Lee
May 23, 2011

Thanks for trying. If I ever find out about Henry and John, I’ll let you know. Maybe I’ll contact my high school teachers as they seemed to know all about such things. Assuming they’re still living, that is.


ben
July 24, 2011

Was looking for that song guy sings all my my. Counties great song but only comes on outlaw hour here,then I forget to listen who sang it..


ben smith
July 24, 2011

Ky.counties,like Johnny cash…i been every where man


Grim
October 5, 2011

I presume “Henry and John” are indicated that way as they are very common English names.

I, also, like the suggestion of using “Negro” in the modern context. The other N word is too charged with other meaning, I think it distorts the poem. While as a term “Negro” has fallen out of favor, it still doesn’t carry quite the negative feeling.


Carole
September 8, 2013

Scripture scholar here, reviewing some military massacres, to write a poem for some brave heart refugees in Iraq who were just slaughtered in droves, as the UN and USA who have signed treaties to protect them just stand around…

Hence, finding my way to Wounded Knee…

And your discussion on blue-gummed X singing the blues..

Are the gums blue with the blues, or is this anatomical feature of African Americans generally? (Must I ask my black friends to show me thie mouths…)

Reminded here by what Benet wrote and ya’ll muse about, that words and names carry such power because they both reflect realities and shape them…

What to do then, honor the poet or honor the wound ?

Let “scripture interpret scripture’, as the Father’s taught: Benet is ‘sick for a younger ghost’…he would surely understand if we choose a related term for our ‘Now’…he authored John Browns Body, after all.

So I say, “a blue-gummed slave’s son”….

Good, and sincere discussion…thanks! My students should do so well…!


Ann Edwards
October 19, 2013

Although I feel faint at heart about changing the words of any man’s poem, I like ‘Memphis picker’ very much as a substitute phrase.

If I though that Benet was using “blue-gummed nigger” as a way to comment on racism as a negative thing I would want to simply avoid the highly offensive word and substitute the word ‘negro’. However, I believe that Benet was just using a phrase that would have been heard as unoffensive to whites of the day.

I don’t like calling anyone “blue-gummed”, or “nigger”. I feel that if the original phrase was not being used to highlight and comment on bigotry, but was just an unremarkable phrase to people of the time, then the best substitute is another non-offensive phrase.

I think “Memphis picker” adds another good name (ancient city of Memphis as well as Memphis, TN) and ‘picker’ has the hard sound like the word “nigger.” The alternate words add add something interesting and sound good. I think it’s a winner.

If I were to teach this poem in class I would offer the substitute, then tell about the original and have the class discuss if they think the substitution is preferable and why or why not.


Bruce Charlton
October 20, 2013

All this agonizing is evidence of a special kind of corruption of modernity – it would have been both laughable and sickening to the *real* reformers of *real* abuses in the past. It is, in fact, impossible not to offend in a world where so many people have their identity focused-on taking certain types of offense; and where mainstream politics is about the construction and exploitation of certain types of offense; and where offense is a moving target…


Peter Lake
November 3, 2013

Instead of “blue gum nigger” you’ll find that “blue-gum black man” scans just as well.


Peter Lake
November 3, 2013

As for Henry and John, I am quite sure that the Henry refers to Henry James, who adored Europe and John probably to John Dos Passos, who also had an early infatuation with Europe and the USSR.


Adam G.
November 4, 2013

Thank you, Mr. Lake. That’s the first even plausible suggestion I’ve seen.


Adam
January 23, 2014

The name “United States of America” is a confession that the US is only a portion of something much larger. It is “of America”, not one and the same with it. This poem is a happy reminder of that. With references to Medicine Hat, Alberta, and Lundy’s Lane, Ontario, it invokes the accurate geographic reference that America includes Canada, not to mention many other countries. This invocation of a continental–indeed intercontinental–term resurrects a historical usage. From the 1600s to the 1800s, “America” was commonly used to describe places as diverse as Quebec and Argentina. Somewhere along the line, and possibly because the words “United States” do not lend themselves to a comfortable demonym, the US began employing a hemispheric descriptor. In doing so, it suggested, and today suggests, exclusive use. But the United States does not hold the patent on “America”, and this poem offers a refreshing correction.

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