Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Robert Service

Today In Literature features Robert Service today, the exception to the rule that poets don't make any money. This versifier became a millionaire. He made half a million dollars alone on his poem, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew":

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a rag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.
When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger’s face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

Read more.

Robert Service is the only poet I remember my dad liking, or ever mentioning. He especially liked "The Cremation of Sam McGee":

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 Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Read more.

Many dismiss this stuff as crap but you can gain admiration for the form once you try writing it yourself. Two stories relating to Robert Service's meter:
  • My favorite logger poet, Fred Ross, whose work I've used in my plays, wrote in this genre:

    His hickory shirt was glazed with dirt as he stepped up to the bar
    Give me a shot of rockgut whiskey and the butt of an old cigar
    I'm in from the cold where the vine maples grow and the dogwoods bloom in the spring
    I've been in the woods for thirty years and I haven't accomplished a thing

    Fred, however, got fighting mad if you compared his poems to Robert Service's. "Robert Service never wrote a logging poem in his life!"
  • My play Varmints has a take-off on the form, which ends the play, reading in part:

    MCGUINNESS: And who had survived as well but Hiner, whom I found weeping uncontrollably under a fallen building, babbling no language I could understand. It was all I could do to keep him from running into the desert like a madman. He babbled nonstop right up to the blessed arrival of our rescuers, who looked like white angels as they rode through the charred remains of Canyon City, looking for survivors and finding only two.

    I returned to Chicago and back to work for Pinkerton. Never would I have given thought to the nightmare of the Oregon wilderness again had I not found a piece in the Tribune about Hiner himself, complete with photograph, Hiner who was in London and calling himself Joaquin Miller now, decked out in buckskin like Buffalo Bill and plugging a book of poems called "Oro Oregono." In London they were calling him the Lord Byron of the West. Far across the sea, he'd become an American hero.

    MILLER: "They found his bones in a deep long hole across the desert sand.
    His hand clutched 'round a sterile stone, a pick ax in his hand.
    But here's the telling mark, my friend — though the stench was strong and vile,
    This miner felt no grief or pain — his lips were in a smile!"

    MCGUINNESS: Well, he was famous enough now, I suppose, but the Hiner I remember is still the whimpering fool in the charred remains of Canyon City, and when the U.S. Army finally rose up to chase the Indians and get sweet revenge with massacres of their own, there was no Hiner heeding the call of the bugle, he was safe across the sea in buckskin.

    And as for me, I was safe as well, enjoying a glass of Guinness in Chicago, and being very careful now where I smoked my pipe on a windy afternoon — for there is no temptation more treacherous than the lure of sudden insight, when knowledge comes clear in whole cloth. When such clarity happens, my friend, run from it! Run from knowledge and insight!

    MILLER: "And in the desert sand beside the grave wherein he sprawled,
    In careful printed hand, this very message had been scrawled:
    'Yes, a sinner rotted here, whose greedy smile has vanished,
    Who lusted after Oregon gold!' — that's Oro Oregono in Spanish."

    MCGUINNESS: Run from the truth! — or you may find yourself drawn into a godforsaken Oregon wilderness, where anything at all can happen ...

    (The LIGHTS INTENSIFY, FIERY RED, the RED washing over Miller now as well: DRUMMING RISES, we hear the sounds of plaintive CHANTING AND DRUMMING, the Native American Blues, as both men are washed in RED LIGHT. Hold: and BLACKOUT. The play is over.)

I love the form myself, and I think Robert Service remains the master of the meter he made so popular -- and which made him so rich. High brow and low brow each has its place.


JedediahCaulkins said...

I'm a bit of a Service fan, and often feel a bit sheepish about it. Please tell us more about Fred Ross. I am from a logging town and I like what I've read here, and am off to google him.

Charles Deemer said...

See my new blog entry on Fred Ross.

Homie Bear said...

Plus he's an integral part of the Klondike gold rush legend which is truly one of Canada's (and the States' too) most colorful chapters of history. He had a cabin in Dawson City.