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7 reasons I read Kipling while brushing my teeth

drawing of Rudyard Kipling

I was drawn to the work of Rudyard Kipling after finding a reference to his poem “Tommy” in Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War.

I wasn’t familiar with the poem—which inspired the title of the movie The Thin Red Line—so I searched it out. Now, I’m working my way through Rudyard Kipling Complete Verse (Anchor Books, 1989), one poem per day, while flossing and brushing my teeth.

Much of his work was written in the late 1800s, and is set in—or influenced by—his time in India, which means I don’t understand every line. But I enjoy trying to figure out the gist of each poem.

Once I’ve read it through, I go to The New Readers’ Guide to the works of Rudyard Kipling, hosted by The Kipling Society, to get more info on the context and definitions of foreign, archaic, or slang words that aren’t footnoted in the text.

Understanding what was going on in the author’s world enriches my reading experience.

Here are seven of the reasons I read Kipling–and will eventually read other poets–while thwarting cavities.

1. Reading before bed is relaxing, but not if I get sucked in and stay up all night to finish the book—a common problem because I have no willpower to resist a good story. With poetry, it’s much easier to read one poem and close the book.

2. I hope that reading poetry will introduce me to new themes, as well as influence my more lyrical side.

3. Reading outside my genre, length, and style can only expand my skills as a writer, and the references upon which I can draw.

4. Poetry stretches your brain. Instead of speeding through the prose with a movie running in my head like I do with a novel or memoir, I’m forced to slow down and ponder each word. It’s like savoring a gourmet dessert rather than inhaling a plate of sugar cookies. Both are enjoyable, but in different ways.

5. By exploring the context of each poem, I’m also expanding my knowledge of history and the author’s life. Not all authors’ works are so intensely influenced by their personal experiences, but Kipling seemed to view his life and everything around him as fodder for his art.

6. I’m inspired by the wide variety of themes and moods one author can produce. Kipling wrote satire, humor, lighthearted verse, dark tales, and diatribes.

7. I like knowing things. Period. I want to learn as much as I can about art, history, literature, science…

Probably one of the reasons I’m driven to write is because I love the research. I’m curious at heart. What’s it like to be firefighter, sculptor, pilot, accountant, billionaire’s daughter, or pararescueman? My inquiring mind wants to know.

And I love the connections my brain starts to make when I expand my horizons, just like the connections that brought me to read Kipling while brushing my teeth.

13 Comments

  1. Reply

    Poetry such as Kipling’s brings a new dimension to history. Too many people fall into the ‘nobility’ of serving in war when in reality it’s ugly and dehumanizing. Kipling used his love of and skill with words to bring this home to us.
    “We’re foot slog slog slog slogging over Africa…” And I’m THERE

  2. Reply

    “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” ~ Emily Dickinson

    “On the road to Mandalay,
    Where the flyin’-fishes play,
    An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!” ~ Kipling

    That last line takes the top of my head off.

    Enjoy your Kipling.

    • Reply

      Absolutely, Wanda. Yay for dental hygiene, right? My 18yo came home from the dentist recently and said something like, “Dental hygienists are really underrated. They do most of the work and the dentist gets all the credit.” I agreed, but reminded him that if his teeth weren’t in such good shape, he’d have to spend more time with the dentist. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Reply

    This is a really interesting post because the other day I was thinking about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” which I believe is by Coleridge. I wish I knew how exactly Coleridge did his writing. Where did he write, how many hours a day, what tools did he use; what papers, how were the pens crafted, and so on. Every detail of Coleridge’s and Kipling’s daily work as writers is of interest to me. Another tangent: quotes from Rime and other “classics” (like Kipling’s) seem to show up in novels fairly often. I’m not sure why Clive Cussler quoted from it in two of his novels. Maybe books sell better if they contain such quotes? They heighten the sense of impending conflict in the reader’s mind? I do not know.

  4. Reply

    What specific audience was Kipling writing for? Only those who could afford to pay for his work — the educated elite of his time? Or, since poetry can be sung, did he intend that it be memorized by those who can read, and passed on through singing to those who could not? Did he write his work only in English, or did he pick one of the principal native languages of India such as Telugi and then translate his work to English? I have little knowledge of the great man. I’ve only once quickly read of Kipling’s life and that was a Wikipedia article. I think he had a much-loved son who was in the British Army and was killed in action and this influenced much of the father’s writings. So perhaps his work has dual military and grieving themes.

    • Reply

      Bob: Okay, now I have another poet to check out. 😉 Those kinds of details are fun. I wonder if Kipling has a good biography or autobiography?

      I don’t know specifically why so many authors include quotes, but I’m guessing they help set the theme for the story. Either in the reader’s mind, or the author’s, or both.

      From what I can tell, Kipling was writing for the English-speaking reader in India. The poems I’m working through right now (mostly from [i]Departmental Ditties and Other Verses[/i])were frequently published in the [i]Pioneer[/i] and [i]Pioneer Mail[/i], or the [i]Civil and Military Gazette[/i], all newspapers from the same publisher produced in English in British India (per The Kipling Society).

      He was a journalist in India for the CMG from the age of 16 until 22 or so. (He had been born in India–where his father was stationed–and lived there until age five when he was sent back to England for school.) At 22 he returned to England, and then moved to Vermont to be near his wife’s family.

      I was actually surprised to find that he wasn’t in the military himself. I had assumed that was why he was in India.

      There’s more on him at http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/kip_fra.htm

  5. Reply

    Only just read this Gwen as I took a short break from writing. Interesting stuff. I studied Coleridge at, of all things, Theological College. He’s a fascinating character and his poetry is really good. Try Kubla Khan and The Eiolian Harp for starters.

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