Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Robert Service

Given the unseasonably cold weather we've had for the past week, I turn to Robert Hass and his December 7, 1997 commentary on Wallace Steven's 'The Snowman"--the first item in Now and Then, the great collection of poetry columns Hass wrote for The Washington Post 1997-98. Hass begins this column with an unlikely source: Joni Mitchell's "River" from her album, Blue. Hass contrasts Mitchell's impulse to skate away on a river (thereby escaping the Christmas blues) with Steven's perpetual call for immersion in the immediacy of the moment, bleak though it may be.

My favorite poet of snow and cold is Robert Service, whose poems my dad enjoyed and read while in the Navy in 1945, the year of my birth. I discovered Service's The Spell of the Yukon on Dad's bookshelf--the only volume of poetry to be found there other than A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad. I knew even then that Service was not a great poet, but I couldn't get enough of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" or "The Cremation of Sam McGee," which begins with these haunting lines:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Legarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

I loved the word "moil," which sounded so much more desperate than "toil"--and the word "marge" as a kind of combination between "margin" and "verge." Mostly, I just liked the grimness of story set against the rollicking rhythm and pitch-perfect rhyme. Doggerel, perhaps, but not bad. When I took a poetry course with James Dickey, I was pleased when he mentioned Service as one of his favorite "bad poets."

My first wife once gave me a first edition of The Spell of the Yukon (1907), which I still cherish. I see online that booksellers are getting upwards of $150 for those now. When my sister-in-law writes from Fairbanks that the temperature is 30 below, I'm glad I'm not there. I'll take my sub-zero weather in the form of Robert Service's verse.

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