Friday, May 2, 2014

The Complete Poetry of Jack London

Don’t give up your day job
Jack London
Jack London is famous for his short stories and novels, but he also enthusiastically studied poetry and even made an attempt to establish a reputation for himself as a poet. Despite publishing about a dozen and a half poems, however, he never successfully achieved this goal. Nevertheless, the craft of poetry certainly informed his prose. One can find in his works passages that have a definite poetic quality—the depictions of nature in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, for example, or the opening scene of his short story “All Gold Canyon” come to mind. On the contrary, however, when London injects passages of poetry into his fiction, it’s often the most annoying part of the book, like the irritating “Abalone Song” that keeps showing up in The Valley of the Moon, or the snippets of tiresome verse with which the married couple in The Little Lady of the Big House serenade each other. London even wrote an entire play in verse—The Acorn Planter—which is one of the most mind-numbing works he ever produced. 

Where can one find London’s poetry? It is included in a few of the ebook collections of his complete works, such as the Delphi Classics edition. Much of it is available online at the World of Jack London web site. Daniel J. Wichlan edited a volume of The Complete Poetry of Jack London that was published in 2007, which not only collects all the poems but also provides publication information for each. It also contains a lot of bibliographic material that I haven’t read, so I can’t review that book as a whole, but Wichlan is usually a thorough and conscientious editor. The book’s introduction, however, tries to make the case that London was “a poet first” and a reluctant writer of fiction. That’s pushing things a little too far. A movie actor might want to be a rock star, but putting out an album doesn’t make him Bob Dylan. London himself stated that he “dabbled a little in poetry.” His entire surviving poetic output, published and unpublished, only takes up about 75 pages and will occupy a little over an hour of your time. 

There was a time when a writer wasn’t considered a true man of letters unless he wrote poetry. By the time London achieved his literary fame, that era was coming to a close and novels had gained acceptance as the dominant literary medium. Nevertheless, London and other writers of his day looked back on the glory days of literature with fondness and tried to emulate their poetic forefathers. The result is that London often seems more interested in working within the meter and rhyme scheme of established poetic forms than he is in what he’s actually trying to say. At times even the subject matter is nostalgic and antiquated. “The Sea Sprite and the Shooting Star” is about a love affair between the two title “characters”. That stuff may have been cute back in the eighteenth century, but it don’t fly in the twentieth. “The Way of War” is a more modern piece that’s sufficiently clever to amuse. At least half of London’s poems were written with humorous intent or aim for cleverness with a cute twist of an ending. Rarely does he try to express anything truly profound. When he does, the results aren’t bad. The best poem he wrote was “Lover’s Liturgy,” which exhorts us to enjoy the life we live rather than deprive ourselves of pleasure in hopes of some eternal reward. Some other better efforts in a more serious vein are “A Heart,” “George Sterling,” and “When All the World Shouted My Name.”

Though I may not be particularly qualified to critique poetry, I am a knowledgeable (albeit non-academic) fan of Jack London’s work, and can speak to members of that audience about whether these are worth reading. The short answer is that these poems are only valuable to the most intensive of London scholars. To the avid reader, not particularly interested in poetry, who’s just looking to finish London’s complete works, you can in all good conscience skip his poems. 

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