Poetry, mite

I see in the news today that Manchester University (UK) students have painted over a mural featuring a poem by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), replacing it with one by Maya Angelou (1928-2014). The Kipling poem, not named in the linked BBC article, but evident from the accompanying photograph, is his famous “If” — a hymn to Victorian stoicism. The Angelou, obvs, is her equally famous “Still I Rise,” a defiant statement of black empowerment. The students’ argument for replacing the former with the latter is that Kipling was racist, Angelou wasn’t.

They have a point. Angelou, born into the America of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” expressed the hopes and dreams of the Civil Rights movement. Kipling, a child of the British Empire at its height, was a reactionary imperialist, even by contemporary standards. He certainly made some statements, notably in his notorious poem “The White Man’s Burden,” that we today would consider racist.

But not in “If.” Actually, this is a poem that could well have brought comfort to Angelou, or Steve Biko, or Martin Luther King, or Nina Simone, or Mohandas Gandhi, or any of the innumerable fighters on behalf of black and brown people in the century following Kipling. It’s a bit like “Invictus,” by Kipling’s friend William Ernest Henley, which Nelson Mandela took as his mantra (which is why it provided the title for the Morgan Freeman biopic). Both are buck-up, be-strong, mind-over-matter poems, in a Stoic tradition that reaches back to Roman times and beyond. But “Invictus” is a bit simplistic: “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” “If,” much more interestingly, is a painful look at how complex, how twisted, how unfair it can be to try to improve a society that actively resists the treatment:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The poem could almost be called, hat-tip Angelou, “Still You’ll Rise.” So I think the Manchester students acted a bit hastily.

Here’s another poem by Kipling, one that has always fascinated me. This one isn’t racist either, but it is certainly Orientalist — that is, participating in a white Western exoticization of the non-white East and South. All those places, from Guyana to Delhi to Timbuktu, that Englishmen (with Ladies in tow) were sent out to conquer, administer, and exploit. Places that filled the resulting imaginations of globalized Anglo-Indians — people like Kipling himself, like Malcolm Lowry, even like Joe Strummer. The poem is called “Jobson’s Amen.”

“BLESSED be the English and all their ways and works.
Cursèd be the Infidels, Hereticks, and Turks!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, ” but where I used to lie
Was neither Candle, Bell nor Book to curse my brethren by.

“But a palm-tree in full bearing, bowing down, bowing down,To a surf that drove unsparing at the brown, walled town
Conches in a temple, oil-lamps in a dome
And a low moon out of Africa said: ‘This way home!’

“Blessèd be the English and all that they profess.
Cursèd be the Savages that prance in nakedness!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, “but where I used to lie
Was neither shirt nor pantaloons to catch my brethren by:

“But a well-wheel slowly creaking, going round, going round,
By a water-channel leaking over drowned, warm ground –
Parrots very busy in the trellised pepper-vine –
And a high sun over Asia shouting: ‘Rise and shine !'”

“Blessèd be the English and everything they own.
Cursèd be the Infidels that bow to wood and stone!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, “but where I used to lie
Was neither pew nor Gospelleer to save my brethren by:

“But a desert stretched and stricken, left and right, left and right,
Where the piled mirages thicken under white-hot light —
A skull beneath a sand-hill and a viper coiled inside –
And a red wind out of Libya roaring: ‘Run and hide!'”

“Blessèd be the English and all they make or do.
Cursèd be the Hereticks who doubt that this is true!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, “but where I mean to die
Is neither rule nor calliper to judge the matter by:

But Himalaya heavenward-heading, sheer and vast, sheer and vast,
In a million summits bedding on the last world’s past –
A certain sacred mountain where the scented cedars climb,
And – the feet of my Beloved hurrying back through Time!”

Kipling is mocking the racism of his laced-up contemporaries, expressed in the blessings and curses that punctuate the verse. His Jobson, an old soldier or colonial administrator perhaps, settled back in a damp English village after a career in the Empire, dutifully responds “Amen.” But then he slips, eagerly and repeatedly, into daydreams about what that career was like — its colours, its sounds, its synaesthetic richness. Orientalist! Yes. But just hear these lines: “… A palm-tree in full bearing, bowing down, bowing down, / To a surf that drove unsparing at the brown, walled town … / … a well-wheel slowly creaking, going round, going round, / By a water-channel leaking over drowned, warm ground … / … a desert stretched and stricken, left and right, left and right, / Where the piled mirages thicken under white-hot light … .”

They are astonishingly beautiful. Even metrically — that is, in terms of how Kipling deploys and manipulates the rhythms of his words. He starts with busy, angry, unlovely lines, of six or seven beats each with a caesura (a little break or hop in the middle, which you’ll hear if you read the lines aloud): “BLESSED be the English and all their ways and works. / Cursèd be the Infidels, Hereticks, and Turks!” Among other interesting things, this is an exceedingly English metre: it echoes the kind of poetry, mostly rather ugly, that was written in English before Shakespeare and co. went in for all that iambic pentametre stuff that you may have been forced to learn about in high school. But then, as Jobson slips into his dream, Kipling’s hopping and fussy metre gets intensely, mind-blowingly mellow: “bowing down, bowing down … drowned, warm ground … white-hot light.” Pass that spliff over here.

To be sure, Kipling’s Jobson objectifies and exoticizes his remembered corner of the Global South.

But he sure loves it.

QED

We’re all aware of the current hysteria around “AI” (which resolutely continues to fail to exist), robotics, etc. Along those lines, I’ve just been reading a serious discussion about how to make education “robot-proof.” It involves an interlocking set of supposedly “new” skills, having to do with peer interaction, data-analysis, etc., all adding up to something called “humanics” (yes, really)–which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much ideally designed to be mastered by robots.

The thing is: We already know what kind of learning is robot-proof. It is, as Gadamer would say, seeing what is questionable–or perhaps, in a more literal translation of fragwürdig, question-worthy, worthy of becoming an occasion for posing a question. Broaden this hermeneutic insight just slightly, and you get the utterly ordinary and yet totally profound challenge of (a) noticing what’s interesting and (b) trying to say why it’s interesting.

This is what I do, in the literary classroom, all the way down to the first-year level. In fact, especially there. I give my 200 or so 18-yr-olds, their heads buzzing with Civ 6 and XBox N, their mouths full of clichés about machine learning and Big Dayda, a poem. And I tell them to tell me something interesting about it.

THEY HATE THIS. But they kind of like it too. And for good reason, on both scores.

On the territory of their own hermeneutic consciousness, there neither are, have been, nor ever will be, any robots.