Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Reader's Diary #161- Robert Service: The Best Of (up to "The March of The Dead")


"The Cremation of Sam McGee" is one of two poems I remember loving as a child (the other being Poe's "The Raven"). Admittedly, I probably loved them because of their short story element more than any poetic appreciation.

As I got older and studied poetry in high school and university I often reflected on Sam McGee and questioned its integrity. The poems taught at those levels seemed to be a little more sophisticated, a little more complicated...

I was a snob. And an ignorant one at that. "Sam McGee" has very common rhyme scheme; AABB. It also has a very bouncy rhythm. It's very traditional, and it seems to be the number one choice for those who submit poems to local newspapers. Unfortunately, I let some of those newspaper submissions cloud my judgment. "Sam McGee" was a great poem. I realized this again in recent years when I found a copy with beautiful illustrations by Ted Harrison. Not only was the story as great as I remembered it, but I now also appreciated Service's rich imagery, a more complex rhyme scheme than I had noticed earlier, and even the rhythm. The rhyme scheme as it turns out is not simply AABB, there are internal rhymes as well. Take the opening 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

When I was younger I took notice only of "gold" and "cold", but now I appreciated the skill in adding the internal rhymes (i.e., done-sun and trails-tales). Furthermore, the bouncy rhythm does exactly what it's supposed to when it calls to mind folk poetry- it takes you to a campfire or a warm kitchen with a grandparent and gets you all psyched up for the story that's about to unfold. This tale would not work with any degree of pretentiousness.

But enough about Sam. Another poem I've appreciated was "Unforgotten". Again Service seems to have carefully chose the best rhyme scheme (ABBA). In three stanzas, we get a picture of a woman and the man she loves separated by war and an ocean. He chooses a rhyme scheme that reflects the separation- two A's separated by a gulf of B's. Furthermore, how he has it arranged signifies the idea of love and separation superbly- both characters may be isolated (the woman is the sole character of the first stanza, and the man of the second) but they remain together through "unforgetting" (the third stanza states "he is in the garden by her side/ and she is in the garrett there with him.")

1 comment:

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think Sam McGee and In Flanders Field were the only poems I have ever memorized.