I was fortunate enough to see retweets of Scott Morgan (@write_hook) floating through my Twitter stream some fine day in the past twelve months as I was wrestling with another bout of writer angst. I was instantly energized to get back in the game.
Scott and I have swapped blogs this week. Scott’s blog – Write Hook: Write for the Jugular – provides great counsel to, from, and for professional writers. That said, I have yet to read a post that would not be of benefit to anyone who seeks to improve their facility with the written word. Check him out.
For All Nine, Scott shares what stirs him about Rudyard Kipling’s If.
If Only ...
When it comes to the written word, there are exactly two pieces of writing that give me the chills. One is The Letter To Mrs. Bixby, written by President Lincoln during the Civil War. The other is Rudyard Kipling's If.
The funny thing is that unlike President Lincoln, Rudyard Kipling never wrote another thing I like. Kipling wrote volumes and volumes of poems and stories and books in addition to If, and not one of them sticks in my head, nor means a thing. To this day, I read If and it moves me to tears.
The truly infuriating thing is that the poem is so good, the only way to describe it with any justice is to use hackneyed twaddle that any frustrated high school sophomore would use to tell a girl that he would die for her. So forgive me if I sound trite. The very totality of this poem makes it impossible to narrow it down to anything as simple is "I loved your opening line."
Perhaps the wisdom of If is a reflection of Kipling's age when he wrote it. Perhaps my growing fondness for it is a reflection of my aging self as well. I'm well past my 20s (and somewhat past my 30s), and as the realities of the world and making my way through it have scrubbed the shine off my dewy youthful optimism, the delicacy with which Kipling explains the price of adulthood is staggering.
The truly sublime thing about this poem is that it is always best in your own voice, in your own head. I've read If a thousand times, but I have never heard it recited particularly well. To me this is the zenith of the written word, the intersection of the universal and the personal. Countless men (more so than women, I have found) internalize this poem and commit all 32 lines to memory. And yet each hears it differently. Experiences it differently. Responds to it differently.
If is magic. In it is the secret of life; the voice of the common man, and the voice of God. It is the universe, in all its aged wisdom and the promise of new life. It is a guide path through the morass; a map that can be referenced any time, from anywhere, that always leads me to safety. And that place of safety is always within myself.
To say that I aspire to write this well is to say that I aspire to breathe and laugh and love. And yet I take comfort from the fact that I never could. I do not compare myself to Rudyard Kipling, as a writer or a sage. And, in truth, I don't really want to write a poem like If.
But what If gives me to aim for is the unreachable ideal. The drive to connect, to resonate. The desire to leave this world with something that says "I was here. And it mattered that I was."
And if I can smile as my hopes for transcendence come to nothing, I will have lived up to the ideal that If lays out. It's a tall order for sure. But would it be worth it if it were any other way?