My grandfather, the one who had the sweepstakes luck in the coal mine, and who commandeered me as his piano-chording sidekick when he played the fiddle, lived alone for many years after being divorced twice and having all the kids grow up and leave home. While he enjoyed a good debate on politics or religion with anyone who happened to show up at his door, he was happy to be alone most of the time. He pursued many solitary pastimes, among them the already mentioned fiddle-playing, board games like checkers and Scrabble (playing against himself, and always simultaneously winning and losing), and reading. The reading sometimes led to memorizing, either a favourite line in a book, or, more often, a piece of poetry that interested him.
He especially liked Robert Service's poems, and of those, he had a particular fondness for The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. If you're ever run into these poems you will probably recall that they are long and wordy and darn good stories with excellent rhyming. Grampy liked to break into a verse or two whenever the conversation flagged, and it was definitely easy for us, his audience -- all we had to do was listen, try not to choke on the blue haze that filled his little home from his constant cigarette smoking, and smile when he finished.
At the time we didn't see it that way at all. Grampy was not an adult who understood kids very well. Instead of trying to understand what was going on in our minds and lives, he tried to involve us in his interests, by offering to play checkers with us (he did not believe in letting anyone win, no matter what their age), or by talking of his days in the coal mine, especially the part where he was the local head of the union, or by reciting poetry. I understand why ... now. And I understand that I gained a lot of interesting memories by not being the coddled centre of attention. And I never doubted that he loved us. He was just a different kind of grandfather from the ones in the books I read.
Looking back, that's just fine with me.
On to the two poems I mentioned above (in bold type). Because they are SO LONG, I'm going to reproduce only the first verse of each -- those are the verses I remember best anyway, and they're the ones that bring Grampy into clear focus. I remember him reciting them in his quiet, clear voice, and I picture him, warm brown eyes and slightly inclined head, cigarette dangling from one hand with an inch of ash trembling on the end, trying to establish contact with his fidgeting grandchildren with only the use of his voice and his amazing memory.
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 jag-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.
(The rest is HERE if you're interested -- you may notice that at this link, in the title, Dan McGrew's name is mis-spelled. I looked for another source but couldn't find one in the time allotted to write this post!)
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.
(The rest is HERE if you're interested -- and if you have time to read just one of these two poems, I'd recommend this one. First, it's shorter; second, it's funnier; third, it's got a surprise ending. Case closed!)
Note: If you'd like to read more about Robert Service, go here for the long version or here for the short version.
Don't forget to visit Diane at On the Alberta/Montana Border (who had the idea for Poetry Monday in the first place) and Delores at Mumblings (who knew a good thing when she saw it and joined in).
I also want to mention that neither Diane nor Delores are anywhere near as long-winded as I am, so there's that.
You can join in too -- read a poem, write a poem, copy/paste a poem, talk about something completely different that comes to mind -- it's all good! If you write a poem on your blog, leave us a link so we can find you. Or you can put it in the comments at Diane's, Delores', or right here.
Thanks for reading!
Grampy's cigarette smoke? Sam McGee's cremation smoke? Who knows?
Love both poems. They reminded me of one my father memorized and brought out at intervals
Abdul Abulbul Amir by William Percy French.
Another long one, so I will follow your example and give the first verse
'The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.'
You can find the rest here.
Ah yes, I'm seeing the similarities!
I'm beginning to think it would be good for my brain to try and memorize something catchy like these poems. Just to see if I could. It might not end well, though ...
I don't know much Robert Service, though I remember reading him in school. The beginning of Dan McGrew reminds me of "Copacabana" -- bar, mobster, girlfriend, all no doubt leading to trouble!
What lovely memories you have of your grandfather. He sounds like a no-nonsense man with the sensitive heart of a poet.
My mom also knew and loved to recite poetry. When my siblings and I get together, someone will bring up one that she loved and we will, even after all these years, be able to remember and say it with the same inflections as she did. I must say, my brother does it best.
We learned both thos poems in school....and I loved them.
Oh, I love both of these poems! Grew up on Sam McGee. Didn't hear Dan McGrew till I was...ahem...older.
I SO love the rhythm and/or rhyme of poetry! It's order in an inordered world.
I always did a small unit in my middle school language arts program. I also found an old film to show the kids. Part of the film was an interview of service by Pierre Berton and part was biographical.
Service was a wonderful poet though he disdained the word. He felt he was no poet, just a maker of rhymes. He wrote hundreds of poems but the first two he wrote, the ones you quoted above, were and are his most famous.
Haha! Yes! It's kind of like a formulaic movie!
What a wonderful memory of your mother! It's heartwarming that her favourite poems are still so etched on your minds.
They are rollicking poems, not quite the sonnet type, eh?!
I like that - order in an inordered world ... so true! And you are certainly doing your part in writing new poems full of both rhythm and rhyme!
His story is interesting, isn't it? I bet the kids found that a fun unit to do.
There is such a broad range of writing styles, it's a shame that the word "poet" is often limited to just certain kinds. I think he had a great sense of humour and it shows up in his writing.
The Sam McGee poem reminded me a little of the stories of Jack London, who remains somewhat of a big deal around these parts...
-Doug in Oakland
We used to read Robert Service's work when winter camping in a yurt. Great stuff for reading by the fire on a cold, wintry night.
I don't know either one! What the heck did I do in school? :)
Yes, those Yukon stories all have a lot of common elements, not surprisingly! I didn't realize until your comment (and a Google search) that there was a connection between Oakland and London.
That would definitely be a great setting for reading them out loud!
Jack London Square is down by the waterfront:
-Doug in Oakland
HAHAHA!! We didn't do them in school, either - don't feel bad :)
Wow - "somewhat of a big deal" indeed! You couldn't miss that :)
Your grandad sounds like a great guy...you have lovely memories. I'm familiar with both poets though it has been an age since I've read either of them.
Meant poems not poets. Oops!
I don't know anything about poetry, it's never really been something I got into at school, but I enjoyed your post! Love the smoke photo.
These were both quite popular poems in the years right after they were published, I think. Maybe less so these days!
Enjoying the post is what I hope for!
I like the look of smoke but not so much the breathing of it :)
Thanks for a blast from the past! I had memorized The Cremation of Sam McGee once upon a time, but the only lines I remembered were "...then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so" and "...since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm." That line often occurs to me when I'm on out on the prairies in winter. ;-)
I am so impressed that you memorized that!
Sizzle is a great word in that poem, isn't it? And it's so neat when a fragment of a poem or quote -- or a song -- is consistently triggered by certain circumstances. I've had the same thing happen. A line will pop into my head and just keep repeating.
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