Saturday, May 2, 2009

Bury my heart at Wounded Knee

This funny-looking, odd little man was proof of the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” long before anyone had heard of Susan Boyle.

This funny-looking, odd little man was an American author, poet, short story writer, and novelist who was born in 1898 and died in 1943. His name is Stephen Vincent Benét.

He won two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 1929 for John Brown’s Body, his book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War, and the other, posthumously, in 1944 for Western Star, an unfinished poem on the settling of America. Two of his short stories are also very well known, The Devil and Daniel Webster, which won an O. Henry Award, and By the Waters of Babylon.

My favorite composition of his, however, is the poem “American Names”.

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

I want to thank my English blogger friend, Yorkshire Pudding, another funny-looking, odd little man whose actual name I still do not know, for having inspired this post.


  1. what i like best of the poem is my downfall also....what i like best is that he spelled everything correctly, and that made the words sing and rise...i think miss spelling takes a thought downward, maybe putzy is really putzy....and wounded knee, once again life is so precious and america really spanked those indians good, huh?????

  2. Wonderful info and poem. I had no idea that's where "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee" came from.

    Iowa has a town named "What Cheer". Also, the Iowa towns of Fertile and Manly are a few miles apart....reportedly Manly men have married Fertile women, and who knows....maybe Manly women have married Fertile men.

  3. I cannot imagine how I have not come across this poem in all my (lengthy) years of reading. Thank you. It is lovely.

    Place-names are intriguing. Arkansas has some funny ones: Possum Trot, Fifty-Six, Timbo, Oil Trough, Possum Grape, and many others.

    Dee Brown's book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is one that I could not finish reading. I came within about 10-15 pages of the final words, and could not go on. It's just as well; I was crying so hard I couldn't see clearly, and I already knew the ending.

  4. I had not encountered this poem before either.

    Have you ever read his story "By the Rivers of Babylon"? It is eerily prescient of the effects of atomic war (considering he died two years before the first bomb was dropped).

  5. My favourite bit was the comparison with YP. Chortles exiting left.

  6. Allons the road before me!

    Thanks RWP....see you soon...figuratively.

  7. Putz - Maybe Evelyn Wood has a speed-spelling tucked away somewhere that you could enroll in.

    Jeannelle and Pat - Georgia has Ball Ground and Social Circle and Climax and Talking Rock.

    Ruth - At the end of this online copy of Benet's By the Waters of Babylon is a statement that he first published it in 1937, before WWII had even begun. Eerie, indeed.

    Katherine - Glad to be of service!

    Reamus - Michael, don't forget to row your boat ashore every once in a while.

  8. P.S. to Putz, I meant a speed-spelling course, of course.