Poems for Burns Night


Our most famous poet, and maybe deservedly so. It’s his birthday today, so it’s Burns Night celebrations tonight. Everyone has their own perspective on Burns, but I won’t waffle on wi mine, instead deferring to some of our poets.

I think it does a service to Burns to offer poems that show him in a critical — if affectionate — light, because he was a relentless critic himself, taxman and ladies man though he was.

Here’s one of Edwin Morgan’s — he was our last Makar, or national poet — from his cycle The Five-Pointed Star, which are five monologues from different historical figures about Burns. James Macfarlan was a 19th Century working class Scots poet.

James Macfarlan

“A man’s a man for a’ that” – how does he know?
Traipsing with his plough, the rural hero,
Swaggering down the lea-rigs, talking to mice,
Sweating his sickly verses to entice
Lassies he’d never see again, strutting
Through the salons in his best breeches, rutting
In a cloud of claret, buttonholing
Lord This, sweet-talking Doctor That, bowling
His wit down levees, bosoms, siller quaichs –
D’ye think he’s ever heard the groans and skraighs
Of city gutters, or marked the shapes that wrap
Fog and smoke about them as if they could hap
Homelessness or keep hunger at bay? What,
Not heard or seen, but has he even thought
How some, and many, and more than many, survive,
Or don’t survive, on factory floors, or thrive
Or fail to thrive by foundry fires, or try
To find the words – sparks scatter and bolts fly –
That’s feeble – to show the new age its dark face?
The Carron Ironworks – how he laughed at the place,
Made a joke of our misery, passed on
To window-scratch his diamond-trivia, and swan
Through country-house and customs-post, servile
To the very gods from which he ought to resile!
“Liberty’s a glorious feast,” you said.
Is that right? Wouldn’t the poor rather have bread?
Burns man, I’m hard on you, I’m sorry for it.
I think such poetry is dangerous, that’s all.
Poetry must pierce the filthy wall
With cries that die on country ways. The glow
Of bonhomie will not let the future grow.

* * *

Here’s Liz Lochhead, our new Makar, with her response to Burns’ own famousd poem, To a Mouse:

From a mouse

It’s me. The eponymous the moose
The To A Mouse that – were I in your hoose,
A bit o dust ablow the bed, thon dodd o’ oose
That, quick, turns tail,
Is – eek! – a livin creature on the loose,
Wad gar you wail.

Aye, I’ve heard you fairly scraich, you seem
Gey phobic ‘boot Mice in Real Life yet dream
Aboot Man-Mouse Amity? Ye’ll rhyme a ream!
Yet, wi skirt wrapt roon,
I’ve seen ye staun up oan a chair an scream
Like Daphne Broon.

But I’m adored – on paper! – ever since
First ye got me at the schule, at yince
Enchantit – wha’d aye thocht poetry was mince
Till ye met Rabbie,
My poor, earth-born companion, an the prince
O Standard Habbie.

For yon is what they cry the form he wrote in
An’ you recite. Gey easy, as you ken, to quote in
Because it sticks. I will allow it’s stoatin,
This nifty stanza
He could go to sicc lengths wi, say sicc a lot in –
Largs to Lochranza,

Plockton to Peebles, Dumfries to Dundee,
If a wean kens ony poem aff by hert, it’s Me!
Will greet ower ma plough-torn nest, no see
The bit o’ a gap
Atween the fause Warld o’ Poetry
An baited trap.

Get Rentokil! Get real! Wha you love
‘S the ploughman in the poem, keen to prove
– Saut tears, sigh, sympathy – he’s sensitive.
Wee sermon:
Mice, men, schemes agley, Himsel’ above
cryin me Vermin.

Ploughman? That will be right! Heaven-taught?
He drank deep o The Bard, and Gray, and Pope – the lot.
I, faur frae the spontaneous outburst you thought,
Am an artifact.
For Man’s Dominion he was truly sorry? Not!
‘T was all an act.

Burns, baith man and poet, liked to dominate.
His reputation wi the lassies wasna great.
They still dinna ken whether they love to hate,
Or hate to love.
He was ‘an awfy man!’ He left them tae their fate,
Push came to shove.

Couldnae keep it in his breeks? Hell’s bells, damnation,
I wad be the vera last to gie a peroration
On the daft obsession o this prurient Nation,
His amatory antics.
He was – beating them tae it by a generation –
First o th’ Romantics.

Arguably I am a poem wha, prescient, did presage
Your Twentyfirst Century Global Distress Age.
I’m a female mouse though, he didna give a sausage
For ma sparklin een!
As for Mother Nature? Whether yez get the message
Remains to be seen.

* * *

And here’s Burns himself, a poem from a bawdy collection that only became available in the 1960s:

Yon, yon, yon lassie

I never saw a silken gown,
But I wad kiss the sleeve o’t;
I never saw a maidenhead
That I wad spier the leave o’t.

O, yon, yon, yon, lassie,
Yon, yon, yon;
I never met a bonie lass
But what wad play at yon.

Tell nae me, o’ Meg my wife,
That crowdie has na savour:
But gie to me a bonie lass
An’ let me steal the favour.

O, yon, yon, yon, lassie,
Yon, yon, yon;
I never met a bonie lass
But what wad play at yon.

Gie me her I kis’t yestreen,
I vow but she was handsome,
For ilka birss upon her cunt,
Was worth a royal ransom.

An’ yon, yon, yon, lassie,
Yon, yon, yon,
I never saw a bonie lass
But what wad do yon.

* * *

Lastly, here’s WN Herbert on a bit of contemporary Scots lit, that that owes its affiliation to our other most famous poet . . .

Cabaret McGonagall

Come aa ye dottlit, brain-deid lunks,
ye hibernatin cyber-punks,
gadget-gadjies, comics-geeks,
guys wi perfect rat’s physiques,
fowk wi fuck-aa social skills,
fowk that winae tak thir pills
gin ye cannae even pley fuitball
treh thi Cabaret McGonagall

Thi décor pits a cap oan oorie,
ut’s puke-n-flock à la Tandoori;
there’s a sculpture made frae canine stools,
there’s a robot armadillo drools
when shown a photie o thi Pope,
and a salad spinner cerved fae dope:
gin ye cannae design a piss oan thi wall
treh thi Cabaret McGonagall

We got: Clangers, Blimpers, gowks in mohair jimpers,
Bangers Whimpers, cats wi stupit simpers –
Ciamar a thu, how are you, and hoozit gaun pal,
welcome to thi Cabaret Guillaume McGonagall.
We got: Dadaists, badass gits, shits wi RADA voices,
Futurists wi sutured wrists and bygets o James Joyce’s –
Bienvenue, wha thi fuck are you, let’s drink thi nicht away,
come oan yir own, or oan thi phone, or to thi Cabaret

Come aa ye bards that cannae scan,
fowk too scared tae get a tan,
come aa ye anxious-chicken tykes
wi stabilisers oan yir bikes,
fowk whas mithers waash thir pants,
fowk wha drink deodorants:
fowk that think they caused thi Fall
like thi Cabaret McGonagall.

Fur aa that’s cheesy, static, stale,
this place gaes sae far aff thi scale
o ony Wigwam Bam-meter
mimesis was brak thi pentameter;
in oarder tae improve thi species’ genes,
ye’ll find self-oaperatin guillotines:
bring yir knittin, bring yir shawl
tae thi Cabaret McGonagall

We got: Berkoffs, jerk-offs, noodles wi nae knickers,
Ubuists, tubes wi zits, poodles dressed as vicars –
Gutenaben Aiberdeen, wilkommen Cumbernauld,
thi dregs o Scoatland gaither at Chez McGonagall.
We got: mimes in tights, a MacDiarmidite that’iz ainsel contradicts,
kelpies, selkies, grown men that think they’re Picts –
Buonaserra Oban and Ola! Tae aa Strathspey,
come in disguise jist tae despise thi haill damn Cabaret.

Panic-attack Mac is oor DJ,
thi drugs he tuke werr aa Class A,
sae noo he cannae laive thi bog;
thon ambient soond’s him layin a log.
Feelin hungry? Sook a plook
thi son o Sawney bean’s oor cook:
gin consumin human’s diz not appal
treh thi Bistro de McGonagall.

Waatch Paranoia Pete pit speed
intil auld Flaubert’s parrot feed,
and noo ut’s squaakin oot in leids
naebody kens till uts beak bleeds
and when ut faas richt aff uts perch,
Pete gees himsel a boady search:
thi evidence is there fur all
at thi Cabaret McGonagall.

We got: weirdos, beardos, splutniks, fools,
Culdees, bauldies, Trekkies, ghouls –
Airheids fae thi West Coast, steely knives and all,
welcome to thi Hotel Guillame McGonagall.
We got: Imagists, bigamists, fowk dug up wi beakers,
lit.mag.eds, shit-thir-beds, and fans o thi new Seekers –
Doric loons wi Bothy tunes that ploo yir wits tae clay;
ut’s open mike fur any shite doon at thi Cabaret.

Alpha males ur no allowed
amang this outré-foutery crowd
tho gin they wear thir alphaboots
there’s nane o us can keep thum oot,
and damn-aa wimmen care tae visit,
and nane o thum iver seem tae miss it:
gin you suspeck yir dick’s too small
treh thi Cabaret McGonagall.

There’s dum-dum boys wi wuiden heids
and Myrna Loy is snoggin Steed,
there’s wan drunk wearin breeks he’s peed –
naw – thon’s thi Venerable Bede;
in fack thon auld scribe smeels lyk ten o um,
he’s no cheenged’iz habit I thi last millenium:
gin thi wits ye werr boarn wi hae stertit tae stall
treh thi Cabaret McGonagall.

We got: Loplops and robocops and Perry Comatose,
Cyclops and ZZ Top and fowk that pick thir nose –
Fare-ye-weel and cheery-bye and bonne nuit tae you all,
Thi booncirs think we ought tae leave thi Club McGonagall.
But we got: Moptops and bebop bats and Krapp’s Last Tapeworm friends,
Swap-Shop vets and neurocrats, but damn-aa sapiens –
Arrevederchi Rothesay, atque vale tae thi Tay,
Eh wish that Eh has ne’er set eye upon this Cabaret.

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