Sunday, October 4, 2009

A People's Poet

"The lonely sunsets flame and die;
The giant valleys gulp the night;
The monster mountains scrape the sky,
Where eager stars are diamond-bright."

Just a short stanza from "The Land God Forgot" by Robert W. Service, still one of Canada's best known and most quoted poets.

Service was a Brit who came to Canada at age twenty-one looking for adventure. He worked at odd jobs in the West for some time; he found it not as romantic as expected so he returned to his first line of work as a bank clerk. The bank posted him to Whitehorse, Yukon several years after the gold rush where he became enamored of the people and their tales. He took snippets from stories and real experiences, formed them into verse that lent itself to being recited.

It's this love of the people and their lives, the ability to reflect their joys and concerns that made him both famous and rich. His poems put on no airs; they ring true to the folks he is writing about, and those he is writing for. He had no need for obscure or classical references in what he wrote. Like Kipling, his mastery of hearing and speaking the rhythms of language are the foundation of his poetry.

That expressiveness using the rhythms of words and lines, that music that is the heart of recitation is a great part of what keeps his poetry before a continuing audience. To memorize and recite works like "Thee Shooting of Dan McGrew," "The Cremation of Sam McGee," or even "The Bread-Knife Ballad." ("Please, Mother, don't stab Father with the bread-knife. / Remember 'twas a gift when you were wed.")

From pole to pole, anywhere the English language is used, you can find someone reciting Service. This entry comes as the indirect result of a friend of mine giving to me a copy of Service's complete poems that was a gift to his Aunt Mary in 1951.
And you? Pick him up and enjoy. You'll find a way.

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