by Rudyard Kipling
photographs by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Atheneum/Simon and Schuster 2007
If you can keep your head when all about youIt's hard to read these opening lines of the familiar Kipling poem without hearing the voice of a manic Dennis Hopper as a wigged out photographer in the movie Apocalypse Now.
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...
Moving beyond that what struck me is just how accessible the original poem is in terms of laying down an almost Buddhist philosophy about how one should move through the world with humility, grace and compassion while still remaining strong.
To that end I find what photographer Smith sets out to do admirable but I find the final result a letdown.
Every passage in the book is illustrated with a saturated boiled-grain photograph of boys at play in various sports. The overall effect, as suggested in the tacked-on subtitle (to underscore Kiplin's intent, for those who cannot be bothered to read to the end of the poem), is to offer a strong, guiding father's advice to a son in relation to his becoming a better athlete, as opposed to being a better person. That's my take-away.
And that's where I take issue. It may be that we could use more poetry-spouting fathers on the sidelines giving their sons a larger picture of the world vis-a-vis lessons they can learn through sports, but why do we need to perpetrate the issue of the father-son bond as being sports related?
Page after page, sport after sport, the images connect only in the mind of the individual because the text doesn't support the concepts presented specifically as sports-based. The weakest example may be of a shot taken from behind (we do not see the faces of the boys at sport) of a boy taking aim at a target at an archery range, accompanied by the text
If you can think-- and not make thoughts your aimWell, you have to take the "aim" part literally to connect with the image, but that's not what Kipling is saying, is it? He's talking about active thinking, about rational thought-based behavior, that one should not use thinking for thought's sake. This is good advice, but how does it relate to a boy taking aim with an arrow? How is a boy supposed to interpret that concept when the illustration suggests such a literal idea?
There are more like that, more literal illustrations, and they raise my hackles. Can we not teach these concepts to boys, father to sons, with examples that include the arts and sciences? When we "meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same" can we not suggest that Community Service in the face of, say, a Hurricane-devastated area would serve as a better example of how to live in the world rather than show a soccer team huddled together?
I suppose I should be grateful anyone is considering father-to-son poetry at all these days, or that someone finds Kipling worth introducing to kids. I just wish we could get over the whole idea that the only way to captivate boys' attentions is through sports.