Burns Night


Our fondness for a wee dram and a party is one of the things which makes us Scottish so it’s no surprise that we like to celebrate one of our greatest poetic voices, Rabbie Burns.

Burns was many things to many people; poet, lyricist, farmer, womanizer…The Bard is probably the most apt title for the man. His poetry, even the stuff he wrote in English, is wonderful. That goes without saying. Yet on days such a these, where we celebrate the man’s brilliant canon of work and his literary genius we really should remember how vital he was to the Scots vernacular, because without him the Scots language would have died. Granted, he wrote a great deal in English too, but the importance of his work in Scots, even the “light-Scots” stuff, shouldn’t be overlooked.

In order to really get to the root of why Burns is lauded one has to go back a few years, back as far as James VI of Scotland or later James I of Great Britain. After the Union of the Crowns in 1603 Scots was held as being the sister language to English, however in the years that followed written Scots had almost vanished completely. Although court poets from the time like Montgomerie and Scott wrote in Scots, and there is evidence which suggests that even when James VI did become the King of Great Britain that he still spoke in Scots, as the English influence in literature and language started to spread Northwards the language started to take a bit of a beating.

Linguistically Scots had and still has many different characteristics which allowed it to be differentiated from English in many ways. Over time, as English started to become more wide spread across Scotland, the vernacular was eventually filtered out of our speech and that had an impact on our writing. Indeed, Scots eventually became the language of the working class and of rural communities.

Burns changed all of that because when he came around by and large, Scots was effectively dead. If it wasn’t for Burns there’s a pretty decent chance that the Scots which exists in different parts of Scotland simply wouldn’t exist.

Although Burns is well know for his Scots language poetry it’s easy for one to overlook how he played with the Scots vernacular in his verse. Many look back on Burns now and think nothing of the fact his work is in Scots; we know it no other way. Yet without his poetry there would be very little Scottish language to speak of.

His poetry is about more than just the Romanticism we know it for; it’s about the exploration of a language which was slowly dying and he, along with a few other poets from the era (Like Fergusson and, before him, Ramsey – a vernacular revivalist in his own right, and probably responsible for bringing Scots back from the brink), brought it back, demonstrating that it’s a colourful, vibrant and above all relevant creative force.

Which was ironic really. Pre-reformation, medieval and renaissance Scottish literature is markedly different from what was happening in England, France and Italy in the same period. Aside from being linguistically different, it was a whole different beast thematically and the language really played a huge part in making it that way. Yet between the renaissance and the 18th century there’s a massive black hole in the canon of Scottish literature. Our language was part of the driving force behind our creative pursuits but it seems that no one of note really crafted anything of great literary merit between the Union and Burns.

Burns brought Scots back to life.

So when you remember Burns on this January night remember that he was more than just a hugely gifted master poet, a brilliant lyricist and an important songwriter – he breathed life into a dying language. If you’ve ever spoken in slang, met anyone who has, seen a TV show or a film which in which anyone speaks in Scots, read Hugh MacDiarmid, Tom Leonard, James Kelman or Irvine Welsh remember that without Burns none of it would exist.

Oh and one more thing; poetry is meant to be read aloud. When you see a Burns poem today don’t just read it to yourself in silence, read it aloud. Perform it. Poetry is, and always will be, about performance. Burns knew it, and I’m sure he’d love it if you read one of his aloud. One should embrace not only the sentiment behind his work but the language of it too. I’m sure he’d appreciate that even more.

Below you will find “The Fornicator”. I probably don’t need to explain what it’s about. Enjoy and have a great Burns night.

The Fornicator. A New Song
by Robert Burns

Ye jovial boys who love the joys,
The blissful joys of lovers;
Yet dare avow with dauntless brow,
when th’ bonie lass discovers;
I pray draw near and lend an ear,
and welcome in a frater,
For I’ve lately been on quarantine,
A proven Fornicator.

Before the congregation wide
I pass’d the muster fairly,
My handsome Betsey by my side,
We gat our ditty rarely;
But my downcast eye by chance did spy
What made my lips to water,
Those limbs so clean where I, between,
Commenc’d a Fornicator.

With rueful face and signs of grace
I pay’d the buttock-hire,
The night was dark and thro’ the park
I could not by convoy her;
A parting kiss, what could I less,
My vows began to scatter,
My Betsey fell – lal de dal lal lal,
I am a Fornicator.

But for her sake this vow I make,
And solemnly I swear it,
That while I own a single crown,
She’s welcome for to share it;
And my roguish boy his mother’s joy,
And the darling of his pater,
For him I boast my pains and cost,
Although a Fornicator.

Ye wenching blades whose hireling jades,
Have tipt you off blue-boram,
I tell ye plain, I do distain
To rank you in the quorum;
But a bonie lass upon the grass
To teach her esse mater;
And no reward but for regard,
O that’s a Fornicator.

Your warlike kings and heroes bold,
Great captains and commanders;
Your mighty Cesars fam’d of old,
And conquering Alexanders;
In fields they fought and laurels bought
And bulwarks strong did batter,
And still they grac’d our noble list
And ranked Fornicator!

The Wind Makes this Old House Sing

The wind makes this old house creek.
Where Victorian walls meet modern windows
the wind makes this old house sing.

The gale force breeze
forces its way through the cracks
so hard that your breath starts to freeze

and the wind makes this old house creek.

When these walls talk
they never shut up.

The wind brings this old house to life,
old wooden floors and new plastic doors
converse with each other in frozen language;

when these walls talk
it’s all you can hear.

Day Three Hundred and Sixty Three: Our Dust

Our Dust

Every day a piece of ourselves is lost
when we move a little, shed a little, dust a little.

Dead cells tell a story;
our whole lives could be replayed in the dust that fell

to the floor when I was down cleaning on hands and knees,
and memories of the past came floating back.

From the fight in ’07, when the wind was howling outside,
I thought we’d never see the end of it until you held me close and sighed,

To the day you graduated in ’09, when we drank until we couldn’t see,
and fell home drunk, glad that the silly black flat hat signalled the end of your degree.

Or that time when you dropped the ashtray
and it shattered on the floor, causing the neighbour below

to bang on the ceiling, disturbing the dust some more.
The events of our lives are distributed amongst our possessions

with a fine layer of grey which chronicles the passage of time,
little bits of dust, fragments from a life before.

Dust is where we came from
Dust is what we become

Dust is perhaps where we belong.

Day Three Hundred and Sixty: A Slice of Genius

I’m not at home, so the story I’ve posted for the past couple of days will have to wait til tomorrow. Sorry.

I got a copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg for Christmas. It’s a great book and easily the best present I got courtesy of Jennifer. I found this poem in it. It’s awesome. Ginsberg was a genius. I hope you agree. Enjoy.

Wild Orphan

by Allen Ginsberg

Blandly mother
takes him strolling
by railroad and by river
–he’s the son of the absconded
hot rod angel–
and he imagines cars
and rides them in his dreams,

so lonely growing up among
the imaginary automobiles
and dead souls of Tarrytown

to create
out of his own imagination
the beauty of his wild
forebears–a mythology
he cannot inherit.

Will he later hallucinate
his gods? Waking
among mysteries with
an insane gleam
of recollection?

The recognition–
something so rare
in his soul,
met only in dreams
of another life.

A question of the soul.
And the injured
losing their injury
in their innocence
–a cock, a cross,
an excellence of love.

And the father grieves
in flophouse
complexities of memory
a thousand miles
away, unknowing
of the unexpected
youthful stranger
bumming toward his door.

New York, April 13, 1952

Day Three Hundred and Fifty Six/Fifty Seven: Taxi Driver Monologue

I’m combining two days here because of dodgy internet.

Yeah so we’re nearing the end of 2011 and thus the end of my challenge. More thoughts will follow on that, however I’m actually looking forward to not blogging every day so I can focus more on creative work without a deadline. I think I’ll do a post a week though.


Anyway, this is based on a real conversation. I tried to remember as much of it as I can, so there’s hardly any fiction in it but what it does do is give little suggestions and insights into the character of the narrator. It’s a monologue and yes, the conversation really was as one sided as it appears.

Taxi Driver (Sans Bickle)

So, how’s life? Ah’m pretty good maself. Ye sorted for Christmas, aye? Nice wan. Aye, it’s pretty cauld innit? Well me n wife ur aff tae Spain in two days; Spain fur the Christmas holidays. Lookin forward tae it. A damn sight better than here in the cauld fur Christmas ah kin tell ye. Wis jist a wee cheap deal we saw in the windae eh that Barrheed Travel oan Oswald Street. Thought it’d be nice tae get away fur Christmas tae the sun. It’s jist me n the wife ye see, aw the kids huv flown the nest so aye, that’s us, aff tae Tenerife fur ten days. Ah heard oan the radio that its tae be right cauld later oan in the week so ah’m glad tae be aff tae Spain. 60 degrees ere there, so it is. Just workin a wee bit extra fur some spending money tae take ere. Ah started at 12 and ah reckon ah’ll stay oan tae about 7 or 8 o clock the night. Ah wis gonnae start earlier but ah hud tae take me wee grandwean tae the school this mornin ye know? So aye, ah took him doon there an went back tae the hoose an that’s when the wife says tae us that we’ll need to go doon tae her brother’s the night. Ah was like why? An she wis like, cause we’re aff tae Tenerife for Christmas so ah’ll need tae gie him his Christmas present afore we go so that was like fair enough. Ah picked the wee yin up fae the school again at aboot 11 an dropped him aff at his maws then ah went doon tae the taxi rank tae talk tae some eh the drivers fur a bit an then ah decided that ah’d come oan fur the day at 12. Ah’ll tell ye man, that brother eh hers pure scunners me. He asked us tae get him 60 fags fae the duty free oan oor way back. Fur his Christmas like, y’know? The guy cannae afford them like cause he’s no workin. Husnae worked for years. He’s on that disability benefit cause he’s only goat wan leg. He’s got diabetes tae like an he was telt that if he did nae stop smokin he’d lose his leg. Did he listen but? Did he hell. He just kept oan smokin. Ah tell ye son, if somebody telt me ah was gonnae lose ma leg ah’d have stopped smokin right there on the spot. He’s a stubborn bastard, y’know? So aye, he asked us tae get him 60 fags but ah telt him naw. We cannae afford that for his Christmas plus ah didnae want tae encourage his smokin like. He’s a bit eh a plonker, just sits oan his arse aw day watchin the telly. Him and his brother, ma other brother-in-law, hate each other. He lives in England noo like. Don’t hink they’ve seen each other in years. They used tae be in the RAF thegether ye see, but stationed at different barracks’. That younger wan, the wan wae the leg, he used to borrow money aff eh loads eh folk in his barracks then no pay it back. Eventually he moved tae another barrack an when his brother moved intae the barracks he used tae be in aw the squaddies wur like, your brother owes us money an he said aye, ma brother does. No me. Ma brother. Whit ye want me tae dae aboot it? So ever since then they’ve hated each other. He even telt him tae stop smokin tae. He’s a surgeon y’know, so he knows whit he’s talkin aboot. Ah mean, what’s an aeroplane fitter gonnae know aboot amputation? Shoulda listened tae his brother cause he wis a surgeon, knows whit he’s talkin aboot so he does. Mebbe if he listened tae him he’d no be such an auld crabbit git. So aye, that’s ma night sorted efter ma shift. Crimea Street eh? Is that just next tae the MoD building aye? Just aff Brown Street aye, aye, ah know where ye ur. Ah’ll get ye there awright. Nae worries at aw son.

Day Three Hundred and Forty Eight: Stranger Fruit

It’s actually gotten to the stage where I have to look at the post from yesterday to figure out what number of day we’re on.

Anyway, some people found yesterday’s post uplifting. That’s good, and I’m actually working on a poem related to yesterdays post which may or may not see the light of day some time soon.

What I’m about to post is probably not that uplifting. However it is pretty powerful.

I’ve already posted some Seamus Heaney and the poem posted by him before was taken from his collection ‘North’ which this next poem also happens to be taken from. You can read a nice wee article which talks about this poem here. As ever all right belong to the original author.

Strange Fruit
by Seamus Heaney

Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd.
Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.
They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair
And made an exhibition of its coil,
Let the air at her leathery beauty.
Pash of tallow, perishable treasure:
Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod,
Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings.
Diodorus Siculus confessed
His gradual ease among the likes of this:
Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.

Day Three Hundred and Forty One: More Morgan

More studying today. More medieval literature. I won’t bore you with the details.

Instead, here’s an Edwin Morgan poem for you. It’s wonderful. All rights belong to his estate etc. I claim no ownership

One Cigarette
by Edwin Morgan

No smoke without you, my fire.
After you left,
your cigarette glowed on in my ashtray
and sent up a long thread of such quiet grey
I smiled to wonder who would believe its signal
of so much love. One cigarette
in the non-smoker’s tray.
As the last spire
trembles up, a sudden draught
blows it winding into my face.
Is it smell, is it taste?
You are here again, and I am drunk on your tobacco lips.
Out with the light.
Let the smoke lie back in the dark.
Till I hear the very ash
sigh down among the flowers of brass
I’ll breathe, and long past midnight, your last kiss.