For World Poetry Day - one poem everyone should read

When I was in primary school, about 9 years old, my teacher showed my class a poem. I didn't get it. Two years ago on World Poetry Day, it popped into my head and I suddenly understood it.

Written by Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, If was written in 1895 and published in 1910.

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!

It didn't make any sense to me, at all. I could run for sixty seconds - just - so I thought the world was mine. As I didn't understand it, I assumed I never would, that it was too complicated.

I also thought it was a bit sexist and that, being a girl, I'd never be able to achieve what is made out to be the ultimate goal.

There are still lines I don't understand at all. How can you force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone?

There are lines I understand but I don't know how anyone could complete. How can you not be hurt by something a foe or a friend might say or do?

There are lines I hope to one day be able to achieve. If everything I put my life towards fell apart right now, I don't know how I'd be able to rebuild it regardless of how tired I am, but I hope when the time comes I'll be able to.

At first I took If very literally, I couldn't see beyond the surface meaning of every line, and I thought I never would. It felt like a poem that could only be aimed at boys - after all, it says what it takes to become a "man" - and I disregarded it as not being aimed at me, that I was too weak or feminine to do everything listed.

For me, this poem is a moral checklist of what it takes to become a "good" person, how to manage and balance dichotomies so that we become an all round person, the best we can be.

Yes, I do still think the poem is sexist to some extent, it may just be a turn of phrase but the fact that "Man" and "son" are used still makes it feel like a man can do what a woman can't - then again, if I'd not read this when I was younger and been able to see this from a more objective angle, I probably wouldn't hold this opinion and would just see it for its literary worth.

I hope that one day, long in the future, I can read If and feel satisfied I did my best to master every aspect of the poem.


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