Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem ‘What If’ is a motivational piece fit for the contemporary world and the array of challenges that one might confront in their life. The poem takes its structure, the series of “If” statements, from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If—.’ But, Zephaniah updated it to include a much wider range of people, hailing from a variety of economic, racial, and social backgrounds. His poem is far more inclusive than Kipling’s, which only deals with the white male experience.
Throughout the four stanzas of ‘What If,’ the speaker brings up numerous ways that the world can go bad, one’s life can become more complicated, and one might struggle. They mention bad policies, corrupt governments, and politicians, as well as dark, sunless days and economic inflation. If, the speaker says, one can come through each of these obstacles without giving into the darkness, then one will also be able to walk through life with their head held high.
You can read the full poem What If here.
In ‘What If,’ Zephaniah engages with themes of perseverance and strength, as well as injustice and strife. In the face of all that the world can throw at a single person, this speaker suggests that it’s possible to endure and come out the other side feeling proud of the way that one lived. The speaker promotes strength in the face of adversity and clear thought when confronted with politicians and policies that seek to disrupt what “you” know is right. Strife, suffering, and sorrow are all a part of this poem, as they are a part of life, but the speaker knows that “if” you get through them, life will be better on the other side.
Structure and Form
‘What If’ by Benjamin Zephaniah is a four-stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. In contrast to the rhyme scheme, the meter is not quite so regular. Most of the lines are around the same length, but they range in the number of syllables they contain.
Zephaniah makes use of several literary devices in ‘What If.’ These include but are not limited to anaphora, enjambment, and imagery. The first of these, anaphora, is a kind of repetition that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “If” which begins three lines in only the first stanza. Enjambment is another popular technique, one that appears when the poet cuts off a line or phrase before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines four and five of the second stanza and ones three and four of the first stanza.
Imagery is one of the most important devices that a poet can utilize. Without successful imagery, a poem will fall flat and leave the reader without a meaningful experience. For example, line five of the first stanza reads: “If you can await the warm delights of summer”. This is a great example in that it requires the reader to utilize multiple senses in order to envision it adequately.
If you can keep your money when governments about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
Knowing that the water is unclean.
In the first stanza of ‘What If,’ the speaker begins by listing out a number of statements beginning with the word “If.” Each of these ends without the second half of the clause. This is an effective technique that encourages the reader to move on to the second stanza in order to find out what the “if” concludes with.
In the first stanza, the poet accumulates ways of acting and methods of moving through the world that include strength and determination. He suggests that something is going to happen, presumably something good, if you can “keep your money when governments” are losing theirs or if you can be friendly when others are not, or maintain your trust and patience with the summer comes and goes without any sun. The latter is one of the most impactful statements in this first stanza as it symbolizes broader patience with the world and a desire for better times that aren’t quite here yet.
There is very physical darkness in these lines as well, especially in the last couplet in which the speaker alludes to impure drinking water, something that is a genuine health concern in countries around the world.
If you seek peace in times of war creation,
And you can see that oil merchants are to blame,
And watch bad policing mess your work up quick.
In the second stanza of ‘What If,’ the speaker goes on to put together several more “if” statements. These bring in government officials, war, imposters, “good race relations.” In this stanza, the poet puts these things forward, all of which are very relatable to the contemporary world and the work that good people try to put into motion, only to have it stymied by “bad policing” and “dis-united nations.” Once again, these “if” statements are building up to something, but it’s not yet clear what that is.
If you can make one heap of all your savings
And risk buying a small house and plot,
Except the knowledge that justice can be wrong.
The next stanza puts forward some of the many struggles that one might face in life and is quite reminiscent of a few of the lines in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If—.’ The speaker suggests that it’s possible one uses all their savings to buy a small house and then has to sit and watch the economy fall apart. There might be negative equity one has to deal with and a loss of “social services.” Without these things, or with these things, life is harder. It takes strength and endurance to continue moving forward in life. The speaker asks the reader to consider what it takes to continue on when everything, even justice, seems wrong.
If you can speak the truth to common people
Or walk with Kings and Queens and live no lie,
That you can hold your head high as you walk the streets.
In the final eight lines of ‘What If,’ the speaker finally gets to the second part of all the “If” statements. He concludes by saying that “you will find / That you can hold your head high as you walk the street” if you are able to endure and stay strong throughout life. This includes speaking the truth “to common people” and not getting caught up in the trappings of power or censorship. It requires hard work and determination to continue on when times are tough, but the speaker knows that anyone who is able to push through will be proud of the way they live.
Readers who enjoyed ‘What If’ should also consider reading some of Zephaniah’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘We Refugees,’ ‘Dis Poetry,’ and ‘Everybody is Doing It.’ The latter, ‘Everybody is Doing It,’ is a very interesting poem in which the poet depicts various dance forms from around the world. Everyone is dancing, the speaker says, no matter who they are or where they come from. ‘Dis Poetry’ is a poem about poetry. In it, the speaker describes what poetry means to him. Zephaniah uses a very obvious dialect in the poem to create a personal perspective. In ‘We Refugees,’ the speaker discusses how easy it is to become a refugee and how everyone reading the poem is descended from a refugee of some kind.