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Issue 43 - Poet's legacy

Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009


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Poet's legacy

Although poetry commands its own following, it is more often than not sidelined in the fast world of prose and spoken word. So it was striking to hear the words of Elizabeth Alexander, America’s chosen poet, spoken earlier this year on the steps of the Capital Building in Washington. “Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.” She follows three legendary American versifiers in the task – Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, and Miller Williams – and you could see that her audience of hundreds of thousands was profoundly moved.

Poetry works like that. It is the flower of the sub-conscious and the substance of song, emerging at its best when human compassion is at a loss for expression. It captures the moment and triggers the emotions, which makes it all the more apposite that in Scotland this year we should be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s National Bard.

I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of the Harlemborn Elizabeth Alexander until the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama, but have since discovered that she is a Yale professor of African American studies and English literature. She will therefore be aware of the influence of Robert Burns, and presumably those who preceded and followed after him. Keep it simple and down-to-earth. That was their message.

For Scotland has a rich portfolio of such poetry from the verses of Sir Richard Maitland and Gavin Dunbar in the 16th century to the more contemporary examples of Norman McCaig, George Mackay Brown, Edwin Morgan and Alistair Reid. Poets, by the very nature of their talent are a breed apart, yet a breed within.

In 1787, Burns himself paid for a stone to be raised in Edinburgh’s Canongate kirkyard in memory of his idol Robert Fergusson, the author of 83 poems, 33 in the Scots dialect, who in 1774, only nine years older than Burns, died in an asylum at the age of 24. Two hundred and thirty years later, a walking statue of him by the sculptor David Annand was erected in Edinburgh on the pavement in front of the church (pictured).

Dying young in those days seemed to be the poet’s lot, but there was always the compensation, had they but known it, that they would become immortal.

Burns himself was only 37 when he died in 1796, which in itself speaks volumes about mortality and the fickleness of achievement and fame. In this regard, I am reminded of a Burns Supper some years ago where a colleague regaled the guests with verses which the majority of them assumed to be examples of the more obscure work of Scotland’s Bard. In fact, they were by Robert Fergusson, whom most of them claimed to have heard of, but in all probability had not. I love those situations where those who are over-confident in their conceits are caught out.

Both Burns and Fergusson, aside from romantic distraction, had a similar knack of undermining such pretentiousness. Think of Holy Willie’s Prayer and AMan’s a Man for a’That.

“By numbers, too, he could divine That three times three just made up nine; But now he’s dead!” Just in case you are wondering, that was Robert Fergusson.

In more recent times, the politics, foibles and aspirations of Scotland have been closely scrutinised and lampooned in such monumental poetic works as McDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, and Sorley MacLean’s Hallaig.

Unfortunately, I suspect that Elizabeth Anderson’s sentiments might appear to be rather too upbeat to have won their approval.

Optimism is not a dominant Scottish characteristic.

Nevertheless, with the poignancy of such a high profile international boost as President Obama’s inauguration, it could be that poetry, as a form of expression, will experience a welcome and long overdue revival. Scotland is already well served with its own Scottish Poetry Library (, which is situated down a close opposite the Canongate Kirk in the Capital, and is responsible for organising a string of events across Scotland.

In this Year of the Homecoming, National Poetry Day falls on 8th October. Let’s see if those transatlantic influences play their part.

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