The poet Robert Service, according to my high school English teacher, has always been considered more of a word-rhymer than a literary artist.
“This isn’t really what we would call quality poetry,” my teacher said when I asked her to approve my choice of poem. Our senior year assignment was to memorize and recite a poem to the class. We were instructed to choose something that meant a great deal to us; a poem we would remember years later, in some dismal adult moment requiring strength and hope.
I thought of “The Call of the Wild”. Not Jack London’s masterpiece, but Robert Service’s obscure poem, which, weeks before, I’d found randomly on the internet using StumbleUpon. When I first read it, I wrote down all the words in my notebook; not because I didn’t have a printer, but because I wanted the poem to weave through me, sticking to my hands and my mind, forever imprinted in my own handwriting. At a time when I so desperately wanted to explore distant, wild places, but was stuck in a suburban high school life, “The Call of the Wild” let me dream of an adventurous future in which I was connected to the Earth.
I had to agree, though; some of Service’s poetry was empty-hearted. It relied on rhyming and boring plot-lines, and asked no big questions. “But this one is kind of different,” I told my teacher. She brought the poem close to her nose as she read it. “It’s a lot better than his other ones,” I added as her eyes moved restlessly behind wire-rimmed glasses.
“You’re right,” she said, and so I memorized it.
And, over the years, I remembered it. I mumbled it as I walked across Ponderosa Pine forest, the moon my only guide in near-dawn darkness, the camp’s bathroom distant and painted gray like the trees. On a backpacking trip up the Oregon Dunes I recited the words in my head, over and over, propelling my tired legs across mounds of heat. And when I slept alone in a bark shelter for a backcountry survival course, I let this poem guide me to sleep, and it reminded me why I was there.
Have you gazed on naked grandeur
where there’s nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley
with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence?
Then for God’s sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.
Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,
The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
And learned to know the desert’s little ways?
Have you camped upon the foothills,
have you galloped o’er the ranges,
Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?
Have you chummed up with the mesa?
Do you know its moods and changes?
Then listen to the Wild — it’s calling you.
Have you known the Great White Silence,
not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
(Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies).
Have you broken trail on snowshoes? mushed your huskies up the river,
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?
Have you marked the map’s void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,
Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And though grim as hell the worst is,
can you round it off with curses?
Then hearken to the Wild — it’s wanting you.
Have you suffered, starved and triumphed,
groveled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
“Done things” just for the doing, letting babblers tell the story,
Seeing through the nice veneer the naked soul?
Have you seen God in His splendors,
heard the text that nature renders?
(You’ll never hear it in the family pew).
The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things —
Then listen to the Wild — it’s calling you.
They have cradled you in custom,
they have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you’re a credit to their teaching —
But can’t you hear the Wild? — it’s calling you.
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night-wind,
there’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling. . .let us go.