My favourite Rudyard Kipling Poems

June 24, 2011

When I began this blog I never thought poetry would play such a prominent role in the content.

Despite my occasional dabbling, I am not a poet; I feel ill-equipped to speak with authority on the merits of poets or their work. I have no formal training in the appreciation of English literature. I often have difficulty in conveying why somethings stay with me and others do not. Still, I have done my best to make this blog about things that I find interesting and that I believe will be just as relevant in a year as in the day to day. Poetry –what I perceive as good poetry, anyway– is timeless and speaks to people on an individual level. Today I want to highlight three poems by Rudyard Kipling that make me think long and hard on their subject and the way they were conceived and composed. I can’t say categorically that these are his best poems, as I’m a long way from an exhaustive familiarity with his work, but these three should be a fair sampling of his style.

One note on context: Just as Robert Frost conjured his prose from the perspective of a New England yeoman, Rudyard Kipling wrote during the high-water mark of the British Empire: His worldview held the Anglo-Saxon race to be God’s chosen people, gifted with intellect and industry above other men and so responsible for the well being of the rest of humanity. At the same time, Kipling took a long look at the people the British ruled, and he found much to admire. This is the man who wrote the Jungle Book, Kim, and the Barrack Room Ballads. Kipling had no problem casting the ‘noble native’ in a positive light. With that in mind, let’s get started.

Harp Song of the Dane Women
by Rudyard Kipling

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you—
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables—
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
I wanted to start off with something the reader casually acquainted with Kipling may have missed. I came across this in the frontispiece of The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, and I was deeply impressed. This isn’t a poem of martial pride or great adventure. It’s a lament about the cost of wanderlust; the shared experience of centuries of women forced to share their menfolk with the dangers of storm and sea and sword and spear. How many women watched their brothers and fathers, husbands and sons sail away –gone a-viking– for a season, or for years, or forever? What must they have thought of their loved ones, themselves, and the cruel ocean? I think Kipling’s done a beautiful job of capturing a deep ache in the hearts of women dead long before he was born. Almost all people of English ancestry have  some Danish blood in them from the Viking and Norman invasions, so this is also the story of Kipling’s many-times great-grandmothers. Mine, too, for that matter.

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On Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee

September 6, 2010

I have a lifelong relationship with Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. It was one of my mother’s favourite bedtime stories because it was short. I most often requested a book called The Golden Eagle: It was fascinating, beautifully illustrated, and it took about forty-five minutes to get through. When my mother didn’t want to commit that kind of time to putting my sister and I to bed, though, she could always get me to agree to a reading of this poem.

I remember it was the first time I ever heard of Tennessee, and so my mother would have to explain it was someplace very warm –though not tropical– many hours’ drive to the south of our quiet street in Toronto. Then she would have to explain that the Dawson Trail was on the far side of Canada from where I lay, tucked in under my covers. It was desperately cold there, but more than eighty years ago thousands of people came from all over the world to search for gold.

This poem was my introduction to the idea of cremation. It was my first ghost story. It was the first time I heard of dog sleds, or ships trapped in the ice and abandoned. It might even have been the first story I ever heard where someone died.

I can think of many times this poem and I have crossed paths. When I was in grade five or six they would send me down to the grade one and two classroom to help the younger students with their reading assignments. The Cremation of Sam McGee was in their story books, and I remember reading it many times aloud to them, explaining what was happening along the way, just as my mother had for me. A story is always better with the context, I find.

Years later I remember a woman I was dating spotting a copy of it on my bookshelf and saying she knew the whole thing by heart. I was so pleased with this declaration that I asked her to recite it, and there followed one of the funniest and most awkward conversations I have ever had without being able to laugh aloud:

“There are strange things done… Um… Line?”

“In the midnight sun.”

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who… Uh… Line?”

“Moil.”

“Moil? That can’t be right.”

“It’s like toil.”

“Okay… By the men who moil for gold. The arctic trails have seen strange tales… Shoot… Line?”

This went on for much longer than you would believe possible. She really thought she had it, because she had given a speech about it in school many years before. To be fair, I shouldn’t have put her on the spot like that. She didn’t want to give up, and she didn’t want me to let her off the hook. We never made it as far as Sam McGee’s death, and that’s the last I’ll say about that.

I have recently finished Pierre Berton’s excellent book, Klondike, but I was disappointed that Robert Service was only mentioned twice in passing, and never in the context of his poetry outside of the end notes for the revised edition. There were tantalizing mentions of Lake Lebarge and steamships trapped in the ice, of dog teams and many queer tales that did indeed make my blood run cold, but it turns out Service missed the gold rush itself, so Berton rightfully did not include much about the man or his work in his otherwise exhaustive and thorough record of the last great gold rush.

Anyway, the book set my mind to work once more upon the poem and its setting, so I’ve decided to put it up on the blog, along with a wonderful reading of it by the late but immortal Johnny Cash (although he does use the word toil instead of moil). Enjoy!

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Best of the Web: Rives, the Wordsmith

March 15, 2010

One of the true joys of the internet is when you find something you weren’t looking for, and then pursue it down the rabbit hole of the world wide web until you end up someplace you never thought you’d be. In that moment, new worlds open up to you, and you look around with fresh eyes to enjoy what you’ve found for its own merits, without anyone telling you what to look for. Often it’s a fleeting contact, picked up and discarded in a matter of hours, but sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to strike something rich and deep, so that you can go back and seek it out again and again, and each new discovery adds to your experience and enjoyment. That’s how I feel about the work of John G. Rives.

I first came across him while tooling around TED.com. Rives –it rhymes with ‘weaves’ if anyone is struggling with it– is a professional wordsmith. He can make the contents of the dictionary dance on the head of a pin in a ballet worthy of Baryshnikov. He makes a living as a poet and a public speaker, and I understand he also makes pop-up books for adults. To hear this man speak is to know what the English language is capable of.

Before I heap still further praise upon his head, I’d like you to indulge me for three minutes and watch this YouTube clip from his appearance on Def Poetry Jam. If you fail to be impressed, leave a nasty comment and never deign to visit my blog again.

Pretty amazing stuff, right? I’ve shown this to half a dozen people over the last year or two, and they’ve all been blown away. A good friend of mine who dabbles in hip hop went so far as to deprecate his own work after seeing this, but I told him that’s not fair. Rives is something to aspire to, but you should never try to compare the work of artists. Imagine if Monet gave up his water lilies because he thought they would never compete with Manet’s seascapes?

Rives’ website, http://www.shopliftwindchimes.com, is well worth a look, although it’s not often updated. You can also find Rives all over the web. The TED conference has invited him a couple of times. He’s also toured pretty extensively. The next time he comes through Toronto, you can bet I’ll be in the audience.
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