Another Failed Poet: The Lyrical Whimsy of Jack London

Earle Labor

“I’m a failed poet,” William Faulkner confessed to Jean Stein in 1956, during a conversation subsequently published in the Paris Review. “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry.” Jack London made a similar confession forty-three years before that in his autobiographical novel John Barleycorn: “I had four preferences [when I decided] to embark on my career,” he recalled, “first, music; second, poetry; third, the writing of philosophic, economic, and political essays; and fourth, and last, and least, fiction writing. I resolutely cut out music as impossible [and wrote] humorous verse, verse of all sorts from triolets and sonnets to blank verse tragedy and elephantine epics in Spenserian stanzas. . . . At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear myself away from my passionate outpouring in order to eat.”

Jack London: An American Life
Barnes and Noble

His confession was forgotten or disregarded among members of the academic establishment as well as the general reading public, among whom London was remembered as the author of a couple of popular juvenile stories about dogs in the Northland. Until recently, even most London fans and scholars were mainly familiar with his stories, novels, and political essays. Although I myself had been seriously studying London’s works for nearly a half-century, my own knowledge of his poetical talent was limited to the half-dozen or so verses he’d inserted in his fiction—most of which I regarded as little better than doggerel.

I changed my mind seven years ago when I read The Complete Poetry of Jack London, compiled and edited by Daniel J. Wichlan. I discovered that London was significantly more than a “jingle-man” (as Emerson called Edgar Allan Poe). He was, in fact, a very good poet with a fine ear for lyrics as well as a sharp eye for imagery. He also possessed a close familiarity with the works of the heavyweights: Blake, Browning, Chaucer, Dante, Dryden, Goldsmith, Milton, Poe, Pope, Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson, Wordsworth, and many more. Had he been able to devote his extraordinary creative ability to his preferred field—i.e., if he had possessed the financial means—Jack London might have become a poet of at least minor significance in American literary history.

Unfortunately, his creative genius—like that of his idealized poetical maestro George Sterling—was bound not only by his limited financial resources but also by traditional but outdated linguistic and technical strictures. Consequently, most of his poems are derivative in diction and form, while lacking technical innovation. However, this doesn’t mean that they are also lacking in thematic impact. A poem like “The Way of War,” to cite only one example, is both prophetic and even comparable to Stephen Crane’s celebrated war poetry, as evidenced by the following stanzas:

Future man—ah! who can say?—
May blow to smithereens our earth;
In the course of warrior play
Fling death across the heavens’ girth.

Future man may hurl the stars,
Leash the comets, o’er-ride space,
Sear the universe with scars,
In the fight ’twixt race and race.

In an early letter to his friend Ted Applegarth, London inadvertently revealed a major weakness of his poetry along with a major strength of his fiction: “Poetry in the English language is bound to always be stilted, but the true aim of the artist should be (or the very essence of the art is) to reduce the stilt to a minimum & still musically voice the poetic thought or fancy.” A decade later, Robert Frost would demonstrate that poetry in the English language is hardly bound to always be stilted. Although he failed to do so in his poetry, London would reduce stilt to a minimum and still musically voice thought in his fiction. I could easily rehearse a score of lyrical passages from his stories and novels, but I’ll cite just a couple from The Call of the Wild, which veteran critic Maxwell Geismar classifies as “a beautiful prose poem, or nouvelle, of gold and death on the instinctual level.” I quote the following in my biography:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this complete forgetfulness, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame . . . and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

The following paragraph from the concluding Chapter VII, which London’s daughter Joan considered the most beautiful her father ever wrote, is also one of my favorites:

The months came and went, and back and forth they twisted through the uncharted vastness, where no men were but where men had been if the Lost Cabin were true. They went across divides in summer blizzards, shivered under the midnight sun on naked mountains between the timber line and the eternal snows, dropped into summer valleys amid swarming gnats and flies, and in the shadows of glaciers picked strawberries and flowers as ripe and fair as any the Southland could boast. In the fall of the year they penetrated a weird lake country, sad and silent, where wild fowl had been but where then there was no life nor sign of life—only the blowing of chill winds, the forming of ice in sheltered places, and the melancholy rippling of waves on lonely beaches.

This year Dan Wichlan published a revised edition of The Complete Poetry of Jack London. Among the additions was his recent discovery of a delightful parody of Christopher Marlowe’s famous poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” London’s version—inspired by his beloved intellectual comrade, Anna Strunsky—is titled “A Passionate Author to His Love.” London as poet concludes on this whimsical monetary note:

These tender things we’ll put in print.
Sweetheart there may be millions in’t!
The public simply can’t resist
“Love Letters of a Socialist.”

We’ll turn our passion to account,
And realize a large amount.
If the plan thou dost approve
Come write to me and be my Love.

While neither The Kempton-Wace Letters nor their passion would “realize a large amount,” Jack London’s passion for poetry transmuted into fiction would realize a bonanza.

Earle Labor is the acknowledged major authority on the novelist Jack London and the curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center in Shreveport. He is also Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Centenary College of Louisiana.