Grecian Urn Blues

The author finds that story poets, especially country songwriters, best Romantic poets any day.

photo montage with cowboy hat, quilled pen, ink jar and grecian urn

Quick quiz: Which of the two verses below interests you the most?

“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?”


“A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.”

If you’re like me, you selected No. 2, which are the opening lines of a story poem titled “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” by British-Canadian poet Robert W. Service, known as “the Bard of the Yukon.”

The first choice are lines from Romantic poet John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” An urn is a term most commonly associated with a vessel for holding the ashes of a loved one. Keats was a British poet whose contemporaries were George Gordon Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. All of them lived in the 1700s and 1800s, a far cry from the world in 2022.

So, if you’re still awake, you may be asking: Exactly what is this all about? Good question. As I’ve grown older, I spend considerable time trying to hit the rewind button that takes me back to my days at Tulane in the 1960s. I do this because I don’t want to forget the memories I still cherish today. I absolutely loved my experience at Tulane, the good and the others.

I was an English major and in a weak moment I registered for a class in Romantic poetry. Why I did that I can’t answer. I probably needed the credits. Maybe I needed a course where I could take a nap. I can’t speak for today’s students who may enjoy a Romantic poetry course but I can honestly say I was genuinely bored. To me the poems were dreary, melancholy and deadly.

I sorta wanted to like poetry so I went to the TU bookstore and bought a paperback entitled Story Poems. And in it I discovered Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and another, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” (Ironic title compared to “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”) Maybe because I read literature more than poetry growing up, but I really enjoyed stories. And that’s what Service wrote: Story poems.

Through the years I grew to love music: rock, pop, oldies, Motown, blues, country, New Orleans sounds. And the lyrics fascinated me. In fact, I think that the songwriters, especially country songwriters, are the last great poets.

George Strait, often referred to as the “King of Country,” wrote, “All my exes live in Texas/And Texas is a place I’d clearly love to be/But all my exes live in Texas/And that’s why I hang my hat in Tennessee.”

One singer with strong ties to New Orleans (since his career began here as a busker in the French Quarter) is Jimmy Buffett. His timeless hit, “Margaritaville,” is one of my all-time favorites. “Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville/Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt/Some people say there’s a woman to blame/But I know it’s my own damn fault.”

And my fault for taking that poetry class.