Exposing Yourself to Narrative Poetry: Canadian Gothic-Style

by Angela Yeh
published in Reading

Narrative poetry will always have a special place in my heart — it’s like two of my favorite things mushed together. Stories nourish our emotional lives, often mirroring our struggles and offering a safe place to feel sad or scared or, as in the poem I’ve picked, horrified. You’re welcome. 

The Narrative Poem

The poem below is a narrative poem, and as you can guess from the name, it is poetry that tells a story. These types of poems don’t need to rhyme, although they’re punchier when they do. Greek poet Homer’s epic poems The Odyssey and The Iliad are narrative. But I’m not talking about ancient Greek poems; this one I will share is more… Canadian Gothic. (Trademark pending.) 

The Cremation poem is a grisly, Gothic story of two friends mushing their way along the Dawson Trail, looking for gold. Spoiler alert: one of them dies.

The Moment

I’m sitting in a small Canadian classroom at the end of January 1992. The top songs on the radio are “Jump” by Kris Kross, “Tears In Heaven” by Eric Clapton, and “Song Instead of a Kiss” by Alannah Myles.

My English teacher is reading The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service. It was just after recess, and our hair was still sweaty from our wool hats, our cheeks stinging and red from the below-freezing temperatures of a typical East Coast Canadian winter. Technically speaking, we weren’t allowed to have snowball fights at school (the ghost of a boy who lost an eye floats to my memory), but we knew where the blind spots were.

The Cremation of Sam McGee was set during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s, so we were whirling back through time as she spoke. Snowballs were reversing themselves, urban sprawl rewinding backward until all were forest, glen, and frozen ponds, and we stood, breathless, terrified at the wildness around us. 

The Storm

Our teacher tapped into something in our collective psyche that day — as another snowstorm darkened our classroom windows and tossed small white flurries of snow that would add up fast. The blizzard that started that day closed schools for five days, dumped over five feet of snow, and caused 19 deaths, four directly related to the storm.

I hope reading this won’t trigger another epic storm, but if it does, I warned you. There’s magic in The Cremation of Sam McGee, and you can read it here

If reading this poem triggers another massive storm, don’t blame me. Blame that whiny Sam McGee. Do you have a similar “first” experience with a poem that made you rethink how you felt about poetry? What type was it? Which one? Tell us all about it!

Angela Yeh is an East Coast Canadian native who grew up a stone’s throw from Stephen King’s Maine. She now lives in Texas and sees Chuck Norris on the always. Angela is a short tall-story-teller who loves to garden, write about magic, and eat cake. If you’d like to check out her first published novel, A Phoenix Rises, she will send you cookies. She lives with her husband, two human children, and three fur babies. You can follow her antics on Twitter and Instagram or on her website.

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