Only a saddle for my bed,

Heaven as my lodge,
since i lost everything
on the streets of Dodge
– Johnny Horton, “Streets of Dodge”

I lied when I wrote that I grew up to understand that poetry was a luxury. I grew up with a father who loved poetry. Maybe you had the same father. Or your friend had this father. He loved Elvis, Irish folk music and “The Battle of New Orleans.” And he read Robert Service. And he memorized poems like “The Cremation of Sam MaGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” And you grew up listening to the poems so often that you memorized them, too. And even now, when you are 40 and you’ve just arrived home on a Saturday night after a Joan Retallak reading and two glasses of wine with a smarty-pants friend, even now you can recite effortlessly and gloriously

There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun
by the men who moil for gold.
The arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
The northern lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the marge of Lake LeBarge
When I cremated Sam McGee.

And you could keep going about Tennessee where the cotton blooms and blows, but you don’t. Instead you wonder how on earth that poem has stuck in your head when you’ve never read it, when you haven’t heard it out loud in over 25 years, when in your early teens you did your best to eradicate all the embarrassing elements of your parents, especially ad hoc recitations of cowboy poetry.

And you realize that the poem has stuck in your head because of its sonic power, its steadfast rhythm, and its bordering-on-absurdist dedication to true rhyme. And you remember that when you were a child you were captivated by the images and the ideas of the midnight sun and the northern lights. And you wondered what a marge was but you never asked. And when you were older you assumed that you had misheard “barge.” And when you are 40 you are shocked to learn that it was always “marge” and you still don’t know what it is.

And then you realize that your blue-collar, Marlboro-smoking, scrambled-eggs-eating, John-Fogerty-listening (“put me in coach, I’m ready to play, today”) father had instilled in you, at an early age, a love for the music and rhythm and magic of language. With cowboy poetry. So don’t you go putting on airs, now. You don’t want anyone saying you’ve grown too big for your britches.

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