Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Winter Reading: Best Tales of the Yukon

Little touches like the image prior to each poem make this a
very handsome publication from Running Press.
It has been remarkably warm of late, which translates into outdoor activity in the form of yard work and de-Christmas-ing the house. All this weekend does not however mean that I haven't been doing my best to continue with my Winter Reading. Reading suggestions often come from the most unusual places. Take for instance, my formal introduction to Robert W. Service.

A few years ago, while writing practice Regents exams with some colleagues in my school district (we were researching paired prose and poetry selections) one suggested a poem by Service. As this particular colleague was something of a self-ascribed "intellectual," I wanted to immediately dismiss the suggestion (and the poet). The connection proved too strong, however, and I found myself purchasing a collection of his works shortly thereafter.

Best Tales of the Yukon, published in 2003, is a collection of the writings bank teller Robert W. Service crafted following his transfer, in 1904, by the Canadian Bank of Commerce to the Yukon Territory. Prior to my introduction to his work, I must confess that I was really missing something by not having previously been introduced to the colorful characters and rugged, back country experiences Service shared in his writing.

For example, take this first stanza from "The Men that Don't Fit":
There's a race of men that don't fit in,
  A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
  And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
  And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
  And they don't know how to rest.
Restless, hungry, agitated. Good writing, and great poetry, is timeless and the unapologetic wanderlust Service speaks of in that poem, among others, speaks to that longing for adventure that lies within all of us. Unlike the poet, though, some of us have yet to have had fate (or career) take us to that locale of high adventure... or have Service's gift for making whatever place we are at a setting for the lively interaction that satiates one's "itchy feet."

Service's poetry strikes me as being particularly "masculine" in its diction and tone. Whether factually based or not, I envision the neat, professional gentleman writer, among the rugged Arctic he-men, writing about the adventures and situations he experiences in his imagination when surrounded by the mountains.

Here's another tiny sample from "The Lone Trail":
The trails of the world be countless, and most of the trails be tried;
You tread on the heels of the many, till you come where the ways divide;
And one lies safe in the sunlight, and the other is dreary and wan,
Yet you look aslant at the lone Trail, and the Lone Trail lures you on.
Few of Service's poems are what the casual reader would consider "brief," and most are full of descriptive language with a fairly narrative sensibility to them. Though well known for character driven poems such as "The Shooting of Dan McGee," I found myself rereading more of his, I guess I would deem them, "adventure poems": those which describe (and romanticise) the rough an tumble life of the rip-roaring Klondike.

If stories (in poetic form) of Northern adventure are your cup of tea, than this collection (though there are others collections which may be easier to find) will be worth searching out. There are also a number of poems available for reading and sharing online, too. Given the very pleasant surprise Service was for me, even if you, like I, have had no previous interest in his poetry, you could much worse than give Robert W. Service a try on a cold winter's day.

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