Friday, December 30, 2005

Robert Burns: The Immortal Bard

I was reflecting today on Burn's status of 'immortal bard'. In fact, when you type 'immortal bard' into google, it is not the name of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns which pops up, but England's national poet 'Shakespeare'.

I suppose Shakespeare outgoogles Burns for fairly obvious reasons. Shakespeare was a more talented writer, more prodigious in his output and he had a fabulously rich imagination. This is not to belittle Burns, only to place things in their correct perspective.

Burns is also the product of a much smaller nation, let us say about a tenth of the size of Shakespeare's England. He had no mass of brilliant contemporaries to egg him on. He had no theatre to back him up. In fact, he suffered hardship for most of his life. He was self-taught. He had to struggle against the odds. He was a lone genius. He therefore represents, conceptually, something quite different to Shakespeare.

It is interesting also that he spent so much time working on songs. I cannot think of any major English poet who is known significantly for their songs apart from perhaps William Blake and Shakespeare himself. I think Burns' interest in songs ties him to 'the people' in a way that few English poets have ever achieved, apart, perhaps, from William Blake. It reveals the origin of Burns's wide popularity.

Although I was born in Scotland and went to school there, I spent most of my life away from Scotland until the point when I went back there as a geologist to work in Aberdeen in 1998. At that point I became quite involved with other writers and with poetry performance groups in the city. I had a great many surprises when finally exposed to the reality of modern Scottish poetry.

One eye-opening aspect for me was that a large number of Scottish poets still write in local dialect in what I would say was the tradition of Burns. In Aberdeen, a very fine practioner of this style of writing is Sheena Blackhall who often writes in the local dialect of Aberdeen which is Doric.

What I think is very important to these writers is the musicality of the dialect language, a specific lilting musicality which simply doesn't exist in English.

I was also surprised by the fact that every time I gave a reading, the organisers of the reading would nearly always incorporate music on the bill of fare. I probably read around ten times in Aberdeen and on the majority of these occasions there was live music played. Either in the context of a ceilidh, or perhaps a musician playing a harp, or even a backing drummer playing while the poem was read. Sometimes, even a spontaneous fusion occurred. On other occasions, a poet would simply sing their song. Aberdeen is considered by some a gloomy city. These experiences were the absolute antithesis of that summation.

Before moving to Aberdeen, I had never dreamt of fusing my poetry with music, or of writing a song. Now, as a result of living there, I very often conceive of poems as songs. I think this is a typically Scottish way of thinking about poetry, and it is thanks in no small part to the legacy of Robert Burns that it continues.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

you need to start doing audio posts!!!

I admit I have always liked Bobby B