The Poetry of Place

welcome-to-arkansasMost of us understandably regard maps as practical objects, and we usually consult them either to locate a place or to determine the surest and shortest way to reach it. However, a map can be interpreted not only as a guide but also as a text. Recently, I “read” an Arkansas map as one might study a sonnet or a story in order to divine its meanings. I immediately discovered a wealth of place names that are eloquent with historical resonance and poetic implication.

To better explain my meaning, I ask readers to conduct the following exercise. Recollect any interesting landscape that you have visited, and allow your inner eye to roam imaginatively over its topography, assuming for the sake of this task that you are the first person to visit this location. What name would you give to this place and why? That is, what on your imaginative horizon inspired you sufficiently to confer the place with its name? A meandering river? A verdant mountain? The play of sunshine and cloud wrack dancing in shadow-shifting patterns on a field of clover? Did something in the scene have affinities with another place – actual, mythic, or literary – that evoked a powerful and sympathetic reminiscence?

We take this process for granted, of course, but perhaps we shouldn’t. For instance, most Arkansans have heard of Springdale, but how many of us have pondered the inherent beauty of a dale in which it is always spring that might also be a grotto graced by gently flowing waters? It matters not a whit whether this city, or any city, does or does not currently bring to mind the image suggested by its original name; the important fact is that for some individual or group it once did. Seen with what might be regarded as the original eye of faith, we are free to express our wonder: “Springdale – what a lovely name!”

In this posting, I am going to make a brief literary excursion to some Arkansas locations blessed with notably graceful and lyrical names. On this journey, I will neither be confined by the boundaries of time and space nor restricted by the lines of latitude and longitude so dear to cartographers. Instead, I will invite readers to travel with me in and through the imagination to destinations eloquent with the poetry of place.

The names of many Arkansas towns pay homage to the history and mythology of Greece and Rome. We have an Alexander, which by definition must be a great town, and a Carthage, but happily no Rome, and we are thus spared having a state representative from the Roman district ending each of his official speeches with, “Carthage must be destroyed!” Perhaps we can boast no Athens, but we do have a Parthenon, and while we have a Hector, we lack an Achilles; nor do we have a Troy, before whose wind-swept walls the citizens of Hector and Achilles would presumably have been compelled to fight. Unlike Homer’s imprudent characters, Arkansans were shrewd enough to keep Paris and Helena far apart.

It must be a joy to live in Aurora, for its sounds like a town ever-graced with a freshening breeze that makes every moment seem filled with the possibility of doing or creating something new and wonderful, just as life in Amity would be peaceful and friendly.

Our state contains numerous cities that bear the names of natural objects, especially flowers. For example, I suggest that the best Mountain View would be from Cherry Valley, since the latter is suggestive of delicate, pink-tinted blossoms. For similar reasons, the most desirable Valley View might be the one from Violet Hill, a place carpeted with the shyest of flowers.

Arkansas has a Tulip and, appropriately, a Holland, though the citizens of these places
probably don’t live in windmills or wear wooden shoes. Our state also has a Daisy, doubtless a town filled with unpretentious charm, as well as the lyrical Woodberry and Mayflower and the various Walnut towns – Ridge, Hill, Springs, and Corner. Who would not want to visit delectable Wild Cherry, luscious Strawberry, or sweet Appleton? And how could any sensitive person decline a visit to Rosebud, from which he could depart laden with fragrant petals? Outside Roseland, he could stand by Back Gate and watch the fireflies gather in Evening Shade as Mist rises in the glades of Green Forest.

Wine lovers have much to savor in Arkansas place names. They could start in Vinery Grove, proceed to Grapevine, and conclude their tour in Possum Grape. Bottled in Beverage Town, the rare vintage that would result from this imaginative trip would truly be, in the poet’s words, “a beaker full of the warm South.”

In addition to those on our state flag, several stars appear among Arkansas place names, including Bright Star. Happily for our state, we have both a Morning Star and an Evening Star, names which describe the same celestial body, the planet Venus. The Chinese consider Venus to be a symbol of perfection, since it is present at both dawn and sunset, and this fact bodes well for Arkansans.

What a delight it would be to live in Birdsong, a town in which citizens would begin each day by awakening from dreamful slumber to the melodious caroling of larks, wrens, and mockingbirds.

Naturally, Arkansas has towns that bear names found elsewhere, including Denver, Dallas, London, England, and Jersey, the last place perhaps named after the isle off the British coast, itself named in honor of mightly Caesar. Of course, Jersey might also be named after the breed of cow, especially since Arkansas also boasts a Guernsey. Does Hollywood, Arkansas hold an annual film festival? Surprisingly, there is a Greenwich Village in Arkansas, and I wonder if the place is filled with the same sorts of disreputable coffehouses in which I dallied away so much of my callow youth.

Perhaps there is no sure means by which to determine just how far it is from rags to riches in America, but in Arkansas, Ragtown is just thirty-two miles from Rich.

Pause for a moment to contemplate the enormous prudence and good will that were almost certainly involved in naming Middlebrook. I certainly admire the spirit of compromise that informed the decision.

Jasper might be a modest town, but its name conceals an unexpected depth of historical resonance. After all, jasper is a form of chalcedony, a stone named in honor of the town now called Kadikoy, located on the Bosporus. Thus, a town in quiet Newton County is an indirect tribute to one of the major cultural and commercial gateways linking Europe and Asia.

Some of the most beautiful place names in Arkansas are derived from Scripture, and their presence is a testimony to the hopes of countless spiritual pioneers who were determined to transform a rude wilderness into a semblance of the Holy Land. Perhaps I will never visit the Near East, but I can travel Arkansas byways and arrive in Palestine, Zion, Bethel, Damascus, Jericho, and Jerusalem. The Christian pilgrims who named these places clearly possessed a belief in the power of the word to transform the land, as well as human hearts.

Our journey over, we touch down, as an aircraft might, but we do more than simply land. From time to time, we should all literally reach down and touch the one and only place that we call home. Someone long ago decided on its name, and we continue to share and affirm the dream behind it every time we speak aloud the name of our town, city, county, or state. In fact, our imaginative journey should prompt us to recollect that America is a collective dream that is always in progress, revising its hopes and meanings as it unfolds. Place names provide a record of our evolving self-understandings, and they can be read, therefore, as forms of casual but nonetheless meaningful narrative, akin to the richly allusive brevity of haiku.

I think that this textual dimension of maps is well worth considering, since it reminds us of who we are and where we have been, and we thus discover that beneath its pragmatic surface, a map is actually disguised biography. Letting our finger wander along the Arkansas map a final time, we pause on the place that whispers “home,” and in doing so perhaps we can recapture some faint sense of what first compelled one of our ancestors to choose a name, root it in the soil of a place, and thus invest with meaning and poetry the landscape, himself, and his heirs.

sweet-homeThis posting first appeared as an editorial in the  Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

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