Tag Archives: poetry

506. One of Britain’s Favourite Poems

Listen to readings of “If—” by Rudyard Kipling, a popular poem from England. Includes analysis of the vocabulary and the themes in the poem and also a chance to enjoy the unique voice of Sir Michael Caine – with some funny impressions too. Transcript, vocabulary and videos available.

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Episode Transcript

Introduction

Hello, here’s an episode of the podcast devoted to one of the UK’s favourite poems.

I thought it was about time we looked at some poetry on the podcast. I was wondering which poem I could look at. In the end I’ve chosen one that is popular with lots of people in the UK. Sometimes poetry is a bit complicated and highbrow, but this particular poem is pretty clear and not too challenging or anything, while also touching upon ideas that most people can relate to. So I think it’s probably a good one for us to do.

We’re going to listen to the poem, understand the vocabulary used, and talk about the general meaning of the poem too.

You’ll also be able to listen to the voice of Michael Caine, and hear some Michael Caine impressions too.

The poem in question is called “If -” by Rudyard Kipling. That’s it… “If -“.

It has been voted the UK’s favourite poem in a number of polls done by the BBC. So, let’s listen to this much loved poem being read out by a couple of different people and then analyse the lines for their full meaning and pick up some vocabulary in the process.

“If-” by Rudyard Kipling

“If—” is a poem by British Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling (a nobel laureate is someone who won the nobel prize for their poetry). The poem was written in 1895 and was first published in 1910.

It is written in the form of paternal advice to the poet’s son. You can imagine that the poet is talking to his son about life and teaching him what it means to be a man.

Grammatically, it’s basically one huge ‘if clause’ with each line beginning with the word ‘if’ and then concluding at the end of the poem. It might actually be the world’s longest conditional sentence – “if you do this and this and this, then eventually, this will happen”. Like, “If you do plenty of practice, stay motivated and don’t give up then eventually you’ll be a fluent English speaker.”

As poetry, “If—” is a literary example of the principles of Victorian-era stoicism. This is a set of attutides that became popular in the UK during the Victorian period. By stoicism I mean a kind of attitude and approach to life that involves being tolerant of difficulty, showing a sort of calm self-discipline, having control over your emotions, being patient, accepting difficulty and having a quiet determination to just keep calm and carry on. It could also be described as the principle of “stiff upper lip”, which British people often consider to be a national virtue. If your upper lip is stiff, or firm, I suppose it means that you have your emotions under control.

Often Brits will talk about how they are proud to be tolerant (not just of things like cultural differences, but of difficulty, discomfort and hardship) and I think we quite like the idea that we are in control of our emotions because it shows strength of character. This is what “If–” is about and because of this, the poem remains a cultural touchstone in the UK.

We’re not always self controlled of course. You can’t generalise. There are times when Brits intentionally lose all self-control – like when they get drunk on a Friday night or when they go on holiday to Majorca or something, and get drunk there. Those moments seem to be like time off from being self-controlled. Also, these days, I think British people are more in touch with their emotions than they used to be.

But this poem is all about the side of the British personality that is all about quiet strength, fair play and not losing your head in a crisis.

It is also like a of self-help mantra which inspires people to try and do the right thing and probably gives people some inspiration for living your life correctly and dealing with times of difficulty.

For these reasons it’s often voted one of the UK’s favourite poems.

Listen to Academy Award winning actor Michael Caine reading the poem

Listen to Michael Caine reading the poem. All the sentences start with IF – how do you think the poem will end.

If you’re already familiar with the poem, you can just enjoy the voice one of our favourite actors. Michael Caine

“If—” by Rudyard Kipling

(video below)

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!
Source: A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1943)

The audio comes from a YouTube video uploaded by Peace One Day www.peaceoneday.org/

Peace One Day is a non-profit organisation that was founded in 1999. In 2001 due to their efforts the member states of the United Nations unanimously adopted the first ever annual day of global ceasefire and non-violence on 21 September – Peace Day.

Peace One Day’s objective is to institutionalise Peace Day 21 September, making it a day that is self-sustaining, an annual day of global unity, a day of intercultural cooperation on a scale that humanity has never known.

I guess these ideas are universal and this applies to everyone facing the challenges of life.

Girls – I hope you can relate to this too, even though he says “…and you’ll be a man my son”.

Read it again and analyse the words

“If—” by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you’re in a stressful situation in which everyone else is losing their heads and saying it’s your fault, but you stay cool and stay in control…

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

Everyone doubts you but you trust yourself, but you still consider their doubts in you – you don’t ignore them

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, (patience is a virtue)
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

other people are lying about you, but you manage to avoid lying

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

others hate you, and you feel pressure to hate them too, but you resist that pressure and don’t give in to hatred, or give way to hatred – don’t let hatred come in – it’s sounding a bit like the Jedi code here

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

stay modest in your appearance, and also don’t talk like you know it all

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

have dreams, ambitions and ideas but keep them in perspective so you’re not just a dreamer but someone who is still practical and pragmatic – a doer not just a dreamer

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

you can be thoughtful, but manage to actually do things rather than just thinking about things all the time

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

don’t let success go to your head, but don’t let failure get you down either – an imposter is something or someone who is not welcome or someone who is pretending to be someone else – e.g. someone who claims to be an experienced pilot and fakes their ID, or someone in a hospital who claims to be a doctor but isn’t

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

if you can stand having your words manipulated by dishonest people – e.g. in the press or in a court of law) (to bear something = to tolerate something) (twisted = changed, distorted, manipulated) (knaves = dishonest and untrustworthy people, it’s an old fashioned word)

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build them up with worn-out tools:

see your life’s work, ruined and then just start again even though the tools you’re using are damaged by lots of use

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

(you take a big pile of all the money you’ve won and risk it all on one go – if you’re willing to take big risks) (a game of pitch-and-toss is an old gambling game in which you ‘pitch’ a coin – throw it – towards a mark on the ground. The one who gets closest to the mark wins the right to ‘toss’ all the coins which have been thrown. To toss means ‘throw’ but specifically to ‘toss a coin’ means to throw it up so it spins and then lands. If you win you can toss all the coins and you can keep all the ones that land with the heads facing up” – so basically, if you can win loads of money and then risk it all on one game…

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

and then lose but just start again from scratch

And never breathe a word about your loss;

and never tell anyone you lost – that would be hard!

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,

even when you’re exhausted you keep going and force your body to keep going, sinew = tendons, ligaments

And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

so, just using your willpower you force your muscles, heart, ligaments to resist and keep going

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

if you can stay honest and moral even when you have the attention of a crowd of people – e.g. you might feel pressure to lie, bend the truth, tell them what they want to hear. Virtue = doing and thinking what is morally right. Adj – virtuous.

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch

if you spend time with rich and powerful people but never lose touch with ordinary life and people

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

Foes = enemies. You’re not affected by criticism or praise.

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you value everyone equally. Everyone counts – everyone is important.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

if you can make the most of every single minute – the unforgiving minute means 60 seconds, no more no less. So, if you have the strength, stamina and determination to do your absolute best in every second of every minute

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Source: A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1943)

Hear Michael Caine’s thoughts on it from the recording

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.

Films can be either successful or failures. You have to be able to deal with both outcomes.

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

When you’re a famous actor the press sometimes takes your words and uses them against you – especially the tabloid press.

He also says that war ruins everything. Also, every single war has been declared by men who are too old to go, and this has made him suspicious.

Impressions of Michael Caine’s Voice

Michael Caine’s voice. It’s quite distinctive. He comes from the East End of London – so it’s a cockney accent, basically – not very strong, but it is there. Also, his voice is unique (just like everyone’s voice is unique) and quite well-known. It’s so well-known that he is one of those actors that lots of people can impersonate, like Sean Connery.

How Michael Caine Speaks

You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off! (The Italian Job)

Batman – The Dark Knight Rises “I won’t bury you”

Vocabulary Review

  • keep your head (stay calm, stay in control!)
  • Don’t lose your head (don’t lose self control)
  • (Don’t) Blame it on someone (it was his fault, he did it!)
  • To have doubts (silent letter)
  • Make allowance for something / take something into account (include something in your decision making process – e.g. when I plan lessons I have to make allowances for the fact that students come from different countries and cultural backgrounds)
  • Don’t give way to hatred/anger/frustration = yield, give in (Star Wars)
    (Star Wars: don’t give in to hatred)
  • To be wise / to have wisdom (e.g. Yoda, Gandalf, Dumbledore, ObiWan Kenobi – most old dudes with grey hair and beards)
  • Keep something in perspective (think about things in a reasonable way – e.g. Let’s get things in perspective / let’s keep things in perspective. Sure, we’re locked up in a Turkish jail, but at least we have each other! It’s not that bad! OK bad example. The doctor says I have a 1 in 200 chance of survival!!! Oh shit!!! Wait, let’s keep things in perspective. 1 in 200 is really quite good, and you’re quite young and in good shape. Don’t panic.)
  • Treat someone/something like something (Don’t treat me like an idiot Tony!)
  • Impostors = people who fake their identity in order to get in somewhere. “I felt like an imposter” (common usage) I think it’s quite common for us to feel like an imposter if we feel we don’t deserve the success we’ve had, or when we are in a situation that we don’t deserve to be in, because we feel inferior. Have you ever felt like that? You’re in a situation, you look around and everyone seems so impressive. They’re all so clever and have achieved so much and you feel like you’re not as good as them, and you’re not worthy to be there. You feel like an imposter. It’s a common feeling. I think this might be the situation in which the word “imposter” is most commonly used today, other than when someone has intentionally sneaked into a place by lying.
    If you have ever felt like that, here’s a nice little anecdote from Neil Gaiman – a great author of short fiction novels, comic books and graphic novels.
  • This is from an article I found on Quartz.com and it quotes Neil Gaiman from his Tumblr page. qz.com/984070/neil-gaiman-has-the-perfect-anecdote-for-anyone-with-impostors-syndrome/
    Neil was asked if he had any advice for people experiencing imposter syndrome – that feeling of being an imposter.
    Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
    On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while some musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
    And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
    And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.
    So, there you go – even Neil Armstrong feels like an imposter, and so does Neil Gaiman and many other people who’ve done good things.
    How about you? Do you ever feel like an imposter?
  • Bear to do something / bear to hear your words twisted (I just can’t bear to see him like this)
  • To stoop (bend down)
  • To build something up (create something from the bottom up)
  • A heap of something (a pile)
  • Winnings (all the stuff you won)
  • Don’t breathe a word (don’t reveal a secret)
  • Virtue / virtuous (opposites = dishonor, evil, immorality)
  • The common touch (the ability to appeal to ordinary people)
  • Friend / Foe
  • Count (v) (all opinions count, every second counts) = to have merit, importance, value, etc.; deserve consideration

Finally, listen to Dave Bassett doing it in a scouse accent

I did an episode a while ago called “The Chaos of English Pronunciation” which included a couple of poems which are full of notoriously difficult words to pronounce in English. You can find that episode in the archive. It’s number 144

144. The Chaos of English Pronunciation

Thanks for listening!

258. Award Win / Thank you! / Poem

This is a very short podcast episode because I don’t have much time, but I just wanted to say a very sincere THANK YOU to everyone who voted for me in the 2014 Macmillan Love English Awards. I’m proud to say that I won my category: Best Blog 2014 for the 4th year in a row! I am absolutely delighted, and as a way of expressing my delight I’ve decided to write a poem (extremely quickly – it’s no masterpiece!) I hope you enjoy it, and thank you again! [Download]

Small Donate ButtonPlease write your own poems in the comments section. Just have fun and try to make the words rhyme. You can write a poem about anything, and it can be as short or as long as you like. Thank you! (If you can’t think of a topic – try writing something about LEP or learning English).

My Epic Masterpiece of a Poem – POEM OF THANKS!
I won the award
It’s thanks to y’all
I hope you’re not bored
by me talking about the award
All in all
It’s great to have you on board
You’re all from abroad
And you felt inclined
To take the time
To go online
And vote in kind
for the podcast that’s mine
It makes me feel fine
Like the sun that shines
Thank you to you
For doing what you did
And I hope you consid(er)
You’re the real winner
Because by voting for me you bring more attention to the site, raising the profile of the podcast, broadening the audience, and ultimately helping me to keep doing this with confidence, which then feeds into the way in which I record episodes, and encourages me to continue doing this project which I started 5 and a half years ago and which continues to amaze me in terms of how popular it is, how useful it is to many listeners, and how I could possibly turn this whole venture into a career.

The rhyming broke down, but I did say that I hadn’t prepared it, right?
It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just for fun.

Here’s the rejected part of my poem
And voting for who
You felt was more true
“I listen to you
when sitting on the loo”
Is a sentence that you
might use to describe
a side of your life
that involves listening to me
while you do a pee
because, you see
your time is quality
I mean you can see
That you have to multi task

Here’s the video of Eminem talking about rhyming

Why don’t you try to write a poem in the comments section?
You could try to continue my one (can you think of something that rhymes with ‘multi task’?) or you could create your own poem.
Remember: Just try to have fun and make the words rhyme. No pressure to be the next Eminem!

222. Luke’s Late Night Podcast

Take a musical trip through Luke’s hard-drive, in the middle of the night. Right-click here to download this episode.

Small Donate ButtonLate one night recently, I decided to record a podcast while randomly picking some pieces of music from my hard-drive and talking to you at the same time. This is the result.

There’s no language agenda in this episode in particular. It’s just me talking to you about various things while interspersing the episode with some music and other bits and pieces from my hard-drive.

Any music or other content in this episode is presented for educational purposes as part of my effort to aid people in their learning of English and culture.

Below you can read lyrics of some songs from this episode if you’d like to read to check your listening comprehension or pick up vocabulary.

Thanks for listening.

p.s. Competition Update: Voting closes this evening, and then I will count votes and eventually publish an episode with the names of the winner(s). Thanks for voting!

Song Lyrics

Arctic Monkeys – “Mardy Bum”
Buy “Mardy Bum” on iTunes here.
Well, now then Mardy Bum
I’ve seen your frown
And it’s like looking down the barrel of a gun
And it goes off
And out come all these words
Oh there’s a very pleasant side to you
A side I much prefer

It’s one that laughs and jokes around
Remember cuddles in the kitchen
Yeah, to get things off the ground
And it was up, up and away
Oh, but it’s right hard to remember
That on a day like today when you’re all argumentative
And you’ve got that face on

Well, now then Mardy Bum
Oh I’m in trouble again, aren’t I?
I thought as much
‘Cause you turned over there
Pulling that silent disappointment face
The one that I can’t bear

Well, can’t we just laugh and joke around
Remember cuddles in the kitchen
Yeah, to get things off the ground
And it was up, up and away
Oh, but it’s right hard to remember
That on a day like today when you’re all argumentative
And you’ve got that face on

Yeah I’m sorry I was late
But I missed the train
And then the traffic was a state
And I can’t be arsed to carry on in this debate
That reoccurs, oh when you say I don’t care
But of course I do, yeah I clearly do!

So laugh and joke around
Remember cuddles in the kitchen
Yeah, to get things off the ground
And it was up, up and away
Oh, but it’s right hard to remember
That on a day like today when you’re all argumentative
And you’ve got that face on

Black Sabbath – “The Wizard”
Buy “The Wizard on iTunes here.
Misty morning, clouds in the sky
Without warning, the wizard walks by
Casting his shadow, weaving his spell
Funny clothes, tinkling bell

Never talking
Just keeps walking
spreading his magic

Evil power disappears
Demons worry when the wizard is near
He turns tears into joy
Everyone’s happy when the wizard walks by

Never talking
Just keeps walking
spreading his magic

Sun is shining, clouds have gone by
All the people give a happy sigh
He has passed by, giving his sign
Left all the people feeling so fine

Never talking
Just keeps walking
spreading his magic

Charles Bukowski – “The Life of the King”
Unfortunately I can’t find the lyrics to this, but here is a video featuring Bukowski reading his poem “The Life of the King”, if you’d like to listen to it again.

Curtis Mayfield – “Pusherman”
Buy “Pusherman” in iTunes here.
I’m your mama, I’m your daddy,
I’m that nigga in the alley.
I’m your doctor when in need.
Want some coke? Have some weed.
You know me, I’m your friend,
Your main boy, thick and thin.
I’m your pusherman.

Ain’t I clean, bad machine
Super cool, super mean
Dealin’ good, for The Man.
Superfly, here I stand.
Secret stash, heavy bread,
Baddest bitches in the bed,
I’m your pusherman

Silent life of crime
A man of odd circumstance,
A victim of ghetto demands.
Feed me money for style
And I’ll let you trip for a while.
Insecure from the past,
How long can a good thing last?
No, no, no

Got to be mellow, y’all
Got to get mellow, now
Pusherman gettin’ mellow, y’all

Heavy mind, every sign
Makin’ money all the time
My LD and just me
For all junkies to see
Ghetto Prince is my thing
Makin’ love’s how I swing
I’m your pusherman

Two bags, please
For a generous fee
Make your world what you want it to be
Got a woman I love desperately
Wanna give her somethin’ better than me
Been told I can’t be nuthin’ else
Just a hustler in spite of myself
I know I can break it
This life just don’t make it
Lord, Lord, yeah

Got to get mellow, now
Gotta be mellow, y’all
Got to get mellow, now

I’m your mama, I’m your daddy,
I’m that nigga in the alley.
I’m your doctor when in need.
Want some coke? Have some weed.
You know me, I’m your friend,
Your main boy, thick and thin.
I’m your pusherman.
I’m your pusherman.
I’m your pusherman.
I’m your pusherman.
Lord, Lord

Victor Wooten – “Music as a Language” Click here for a version with subtitles.