Monday, 22 January 2007

The Burns Ward

A three-day communication course I was once on culminated in a final session, during which each of us had to share something about ourselves, something that was important and wasn't what we would normally share. One of the participants took his turn; and amidst hushed expectation stammered nervously,
"I'm a m...m...m..."
Immediately I thought I'd guessed it - there was something about that twitchy handshake, and that briefcase - but I was wrong.

He continued,
"I'm a m...m...member of the Sons of the Desert."
He was, and remains, a long-time member of the fraternity of Laurel and Hardy fans. With the
warm approval of the group, he went on to show us some of his fascinating memorabilia and explained why it was special for him.

My turn came for the AA moment (not the motoring organisation) :
"My name's Crofty...", there was a hushed expectancy, "...and I like poetry."
There it was, out in the open; but where were the warm indulgent smiles, the understanding nods; and I was sure there was a barely perceptible leaning-away by my adjacent group members. I reflected that poetry crossed a boundary in the minds of the the testosterone-heavy group; and
it was perhaps as well that I hadn't shared my liking for ballet - this was before Billy Elliot.

Anyway, there it is, I like poetry. On that occasion I think I shared the Thomas Hardy poem 'In time of the breaking of nations', and a more modern choice from Simon Armitage's collection Book of Matches. I tried to explain how unsatisfactory it is to say simply that one likes poetry; you might hate Simon Armitage or Carol Ann Duffy; but William Blake, who I can't stand, might resonate deeply within you. The best way to decide about poetry is to read it: get an anthology that cuts across eras and styles; and discover how fourteen lines can say more than fourteen chapters; or how poets can make words do judo: a few small, well crafted, innocuous sounding phrases flattening you without any apparent effort.

I was delighted when my sons were doing GCSE English; both Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage were on the syllabus. I enthused about both poets only to find that the general
class consensus was they were boring and crap. They were boring and crap simply because they were part of the syllabus; I just contributed to their crapacity by confessing my liking: it's not cool to like something that your dad likes. In much the same way I had dismissed John Betjamin and Philip Larkin when I studied for my O-Levels in the seventies. Betjamin still gets on my pip with his train-spotting.

Thursday night is a special night, it's Burns night; the night of the year when golf clubs and all other clubs for grown-ups, will be full of people claiming every tenuous association with Scotland and claiming a love for the poetry of the bard of Scotland, Robert Burns. You can hear it now:
"Oh yes Taylor is from the Gaelic, Burns himself features a derivative version of the word when he describes the "wee timorous beastie"

"Ah yes but of course my great great grandfather was actually a Burns, a dashing sort of fellow named Flash."

And after dinner speakers, who can affect anything approaching a Scottish accent, will be dusting off their pronunciation guides to tackle words like :
"Painch tripe of thairm..."
As the evening draws to its dramatic climax there will be the symbolic slaughter of that poor wee highland creature, the haggis, to the skirl of the pipes.

I have difficulty with dialect poetry, I don't have the patience but if you can bear them, many of Burns' poems are worth the effort (if you click on the link you also have the opportunity to purchase many Burns goodies, do go to the shop and have a look, the list of top-ten best sellers says it all!).

The singer Eddi Reader - remember her in Fairground Attraction - has done a stunning album of Burns' poems, with some of the best traditional musicians around: Ian Carr and John McCusker among them. So that will be my way of celebrating the night: Eddi Reader and my only connection with Scotland, a liking for malt whisky (although I am a little short at the moment, donations gratefully... etc etc)

Whether you only have an aunt who once went on a coach trip to Edinburgh or are a true Scot, enjoy Burns Night.

The title? Oh yes, sorry.
That's the punch line to a story about the Duke of Edinburgh visiting a Scottish hospital. He goes round many wards until, finally, he is shown one where all the patients have blank looks and are lying on their beds murmuring snatches of barely intelligible dialect poetry. The Duke says,
"Ah this must be the psychiatric unit."
"No", replies the guide....


wendy said...

hi there - my links to Scotland are disant my Great Grandfather was born in Govan but then moved to Jarrow (he was a shipbuilder and moved back and forth for years between the Clyde and the Tyne) - however I LOVE poetry and some friend of ours always host a Burns night party which is this Saturday night.
We all have to select a couple of favourite poems to "bring and tell". My problem is there are just too many poems...what to pick!!!

Crofty said...

Hi Wendy, that is a dilemma; some of my favourite poems aren't what I'd want to read aloud, they are the sort I'd rather chew over like a caramel. If you want something Scottish what about something by one of the other Scottish poets like Norman McCaig: try Aunt Julia

or In Praise of a Collie (although it might make people sad.)

Or for a different take on Scottish identity try In My Country by Jackie Kay,

or what about something by Liz Lockhead?

Let me know what you'd choose, my current fave for reading out loud is Michael Drayton's Sonnet: Since There's No Help Let Us Kiss and

;just cos it's so typical of a bloke and written so long ago...not much changes!

Crofty said...

I'm having a go with HTML let's see if this link to Poem of the day works:

Click here