The first poem that I knew intimately was “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” The poem was written by Robert Service, a banker who moved to the Yukon Territory in the early 1900’s, around the time of the gold rush in Canada and Alaska. Everyone in my first grade class memorized the opening of the pages-long poem, which reads,
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 poems of Service, who has been called “The Bard of the Yukon,” detail the charm of the harsh Northern wilderness and the bravery of the rugged men who sought riches and adventure there. Service is rarely celebrated for of exemplifying literary originality or even authenticity. He has been criticized for misrepresenting himself, a banker and a townsperson, as a participant in the gold rush, thus romanticizing a life of hardship that he knew little about. His work has been critiqued as prioritizing appeal to a broad audience over literary integrity. From a literary criticism point of view “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is not great poetry, but it is powerful in that it defines a collective history.
In interior Alaska, where I lived, everyone knows the poem. My Great Uncle Laval whose parents moved to Alaska from the west coast soon after Service wrote the poem recites the whole poem, children like me learn it in school, and books of Service’s poems sit on the shelves of nearly every household that I enter. Why is poetry, and bad, common poetry at that, the medium that carries this memory? Of course there are songs, stories, and visual art from the era that Service writes about, but it is his poems that are at the forefront of the common memory of the gold rush pioneers who many Alaskans identify as part of their heritage.
It appears to me that despite critical scorn for Service’s poetry, his poems fill a need for common representation. The form of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” features easy rhythm and rhyme, which lends the poem to retelling. The relatable language, simple emotion, and sweeping romanticism give voice to a specific, isolated experience. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” conjures sensations that are specifically important to those who live in Alaska. The poem builds a clear picture, weakly constructed as it may be, of the hardy, daring history that Alaskans want to believe themselves a part of. We can critique Service’s style, or accuse him of selling out to the masses, but it is important to avoid equating popularity with weakness. In this case, the power in Service’s poetry is rooted in its easy accessibility, the closeness that many feel with the heart of it.