Thursday, 7 October 2010

Gunga Din - an appreciation on National Poetry Day

Today being National Poetry Day has prompted me to look back across the years and conclude that Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din moves me more than any verse I have ever read.
I posted here on May 4th that John Keats' Ode to Autumn is my favourite poem and that remains the case. But ever since my first acquaintance with Gunga Din in my early twenties, I’ve never been able to read it all the way through without welling up.
My delayed introduction to Kipling was due to my dismissal of the man as a standard bearer for the British Empire. He was, but in my ignorant opinion I thought he was little else.
Later I was to discover his chilling condemnation of the First World War in which he lost his beloved son. In his poem My Boy Jack he wrote, “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
Growing up, poetry in my family meant William Wordsworth’s Daffodils. I was fortunate to go to a grammar school where a host of golden poets awaited. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, and Robert Browning were studied in detail. A schoolboy ordeal at the time left me with an abiding love of poetry albeit one of a patchy nature.
In my twenties I read widely. Allen Ginsberg and his Beat Generation pals were favourites and those of The Mersey Sound. A bit of RS Thomas. I dipped into translations of Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme.
But no Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin. Perhaps I was too busy writing my own confessional poems of unrequited love and lust.
These days I like the passion of young performance poets – and some rap artists too. But in the quiet moments of the night I turn to a novel – or more frequently the television programme guide – and hardly ever poetry.
My active enthusiasm for modern poetry remains marooned somewhere in The Waste Land.
Nothing tugs your heart-strings like Kipling – which is why If is likely to remain the nation’s favourite poem for all time. This alone will remind the world there was more to the author of Jungle Book even if the popularity of the rest of his fiction begins to fade.
All of which brings me back to Gunga Din. The poem’s voice is of an uncouth, racist private in the Queen's ranks but the message is one of grudging admiration for the brave, conscientious much put upon water carrier who tendered British troops under fire in India.
By the livin' Gawd that made you, You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

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