Better Living Through Chemistry

A friend recently forwarded me a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s “If…”, one of the most popular poems ever written. This poem brought back memories for me. It was the very first poem I ever remember being compelled — as a lesson in school — to memorize. But, interestingly enough, it wasn’t an English teacher who first forced me to memorize a poem, but — wait for it — a chemistry teacher.

In addition to drilling us on atomic weights and balancing equations and computing molality, my chemistry teacher was also rather big on “life lessons.” Among the things I had to do to pass his class was tie a tie, fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket (this was Indiana, remember) and recite “If…” by Rudyard Kipling.

Of course, most of us groaned and whined under the pressure of memorizing poetry — what was the point? — and put if off until the last minute. I was no different, and barely remember my stammering rendition of it when it came my turn to recite it.

But, along with my own secret (at the time) discovery of T.S. Eliot, forcibly exposing me to the highly cadenced rhythms of Kipling’s verse at least provided me a damned fine model of what poetry is supposed to look and sound like. Not that I’m against “free verse” (as if so called vers libre is ever actually “free” of rhythm or meter), but borrowing the neatly arranged words and hearing those rhymes brought a visceral pleasure. Why does Shakespeare survive? Because as any classically trained actor can tell you, it’s fun to recite his stuff. It’s why they seem so affected when they say it — they *are* affected, literally entranced by his language and, more importantly, by the sensual pleasure of saying his words. This pleasure is analagous to the sensual pleasure that accompanies singing along to a popular song or chanting the lyrics to a rap song; why people don’t get that is beyond me. It should come as no surprise to anyone that poets were at one time treated the way rock stars are treated today — and that poets obliged by acting like rock stars: drinking and fucking with abandon.

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