Rudyard Kipling doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a poet. It is my observation that if people refer to any of Kipling’s poetry, If and Gunga Din usually get mentioned. But what about Danny Dever, The Betrothed or The Ballad of East and West? Perhaps Kipling’s poetic ability is overshadowed by his books and short stories. Perhaps the “too cool to rhyme lines” crowd could assert that rhyming and regular rhythm make his poems too simple, but I understand them.
In his poetry, Kipling weaves stories with rhyme, meter and the use of dialect that are as complete as any prose. From the beginning, through the middle and all the way to the end of his poems, the reader takes a journey and reaches a final destination. Whether a first person account (Mandalay) or a third person narrative (The Female of the Species), Kipling’s poems leave the reader knowing exactly what he has read.
I have similar feelings about Robert Service. Asking some to name a Service poem beyond The Shooting of Dan McGrew is akin to asking a country music fan to come up with the title of Ernie Ashworth’s other hit (although he did have many besides “Talk Back, Trembling Lips,” a song that addressed body parts as emotional, thinking entities decades before “Achy Breaky Heart.” But that’s another issue altogether).
Service is famous for his story-poems about The Yukon but he was a well-travelled wordsmith whose subject matter stretched way beyond adventures of gold-crazed hooligans, saloons and mysterious women out to separate prospectors from their precious dust. One of my favorites is The Absinthe Drinkers, inspired by Service’s service in World War I in France. The story is as captivating and action-packed as the Yukon pieces and has a slam-bang surprise ending.
Someone whose work should also be considered pure poetry is songwriter Tom T. Hall. Although not officially a poet, Hall’s words stand alone as stories and just plain good observations quite capably without music. In The Homecoming, listeners may identify, as I do, with the musician on the road too long and far away to get back home. The first person account reveals that he couldn’t even get home to attend his own mother’s funeral. Or they may relate to the character’s father, who never sees his son. Those two characters could be found in any situation regardless of the wayward son’s occupation.
Like Kipling and Service, Hall uses humor to make some serious points. In Harper Valley PTA, his clever lines reveal hypocrisy. The little girl’s mama socked it to accusers who, themselves, had more to hide than Mrs. Johnson’s short dresses revealed.
The stories that Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service and Tom T. Hall have written and sung with rhyme and rhythm motivate me to develop my own way to communicate in the one-to-one style I admire in their work. The challenge of writers and performers who revere those with such distinctive styles is to emulate but not imitate. However, if a little flavor of these fine writers seeped into one of my musical recipes, I would consider it a welcome ingredient.
As I read Kipling and Service and Hall
I can’t help but be most inspired by them all – Les Kerr