When students at Manchester University erased a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling and substituted an almost equally famous one by Maya Angelou, what did their action signify? They stated publicly that it was about colonialism. This critical account confirms their reading, but situates it among a set of supplementary oppositions: ease and difficulty, childhood and maturity, power and subordination. It argues that the readily available positions in the argument – literary value, anti-racist principle – are too rigid to do justice to the historical complexity of the dialogue which the action set up. What gives us access to the opposing ideologies, not as inert orthodoxies but as lived cultures, is the poetry in use.