by Kevin Williamson
I’ve no idea if Seamus Heaney published his perceptive essay on Robert Burns on the 25th January or thereabouts. Here in Scotland you’d struggle to place an article on Burns outside the allocated few days at the end of January. Such are the ways in which our media puts its toe in the poetry waters.
The hale clamjamfry around Burns Night tends to be an enjoyably whisky-enhanced affair which I’m only too happy to join in with, and to talk about Burns with anyone that will listen. But for all the lofty speeches and worthy reflections, the annual jamborees rarely shed much light on the relationship of the Ayrshire poet to his chosen artform. The toasts tend to be about lassies, love, or the radical essence of the man. Whatever.
Heaney’s essay, included in his Finders Keepers anthology, goes much much deeper, connecting across centuries with the sonic murmurations of the poet’s voice. The essay is a joy to read, quietly explosive, as you’d expect from Heaney’s prose, with revelations on every page. Like the best essayists, Heaney opens doors to future discoveries. And like every chippy Scot, I take a keen interest in what outsiders make of our cultural touchstones.
Heaney constantly investigates the relationships between words, language, voices and community. It’s central to his work. The subject matter is important, for sure, but you could never say he was a poet who wrote primarily to make political points. The thought would’ve surely horrified him. Coming from Northern Ireland, living through the worst of The Troubles, he could hardly avoid politics, yet great thudding messages or political score points were alien to his art.
Heaney’s approach differed from those who would present their craft on a plate to either state, party or cause. Poetry had other work to do, and wasn’t “a blueprint for a better world which might spring from the mind of a social engineer. Rather it arises from the cravings of the spirit as expressed in language, in all of those patiences and impatiences which language embodies.”
When Wallace Stevens wrote that the nobility of poetry “is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without”, Heaney approved, adding, “It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.”
Heaney’s thoughts on Burns begin small - or wee – with the very first word of the first line of To A Mouse.
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie
“Even before a metre or a melody could be established, the word ‘wee’ put its stressed foot down and in one pre-emptive vocative strike took over the emotional and cultural ground, dispossessing the rights of written standard English and offering asylum to all vernacular comers."
Heaney is just getting started, a masterful critic, always noticing what is so small or so obvious it often gets over looked.
“Wee came on strong. It was entirely un-twee. It neither beckoned nor beguiled. It was just suddenly and solidly there, and there it remains to this day, like a pebble of the pre-literary and the pre-literate stuff, irreducible, undislodgeable, and undeniably true.”
He continues, warming to the subject.
“Both as a matter of poetic fact and as a matter of personal reminiscence, the opening of Burns’s poem to the mouse is a decisive occurrence. It gets into the boundless language of poetry by reason of its unchallengeable rightness as utterance, its simultaneous at oneness with the genius of English and Scottish speech; and it got under my official classroom guard and into the kitchen life, as it were, of my affections by reason of its truth to the life of the language I spoke while growing up in mid-Ulster.”
I’m quoting at length here, but how can you not. This is Heaney’s own art speech. Poet as interrogating critic and observer par excellence.
Heaney swoops down on the symmetry of another wee word, another everyday word, from the vernacular, in the final stanza of the poem.
“It is a matter of the profoundest phonetic satisfaction that the exclamation Och should be at the centre of this semi-visionary final stanza… it is a common, almost pre-linguistic particle, one of those sounds that haven’t been brought to book… living in the cave of the mouth.”
From a pair of exclamations, monosyllabic utterances, so quotidian you could miss their significance, Heaney forges on. Every paragraph is worth its weight in gold. For this I’m grateful. It’s one of many reasons I love reading essays written by poets.
It’s a very special thing to be carried in the slipstream of Heaney’s observations, sharing his owl-eyed perception. His ear, too, is hard at work, as finely tuned as the greatest of composers, for sound and syllables and the music of language.
But hang on a minute.
I was so enchanted reading Heaney’s elegant prose I could easily have overlooked what he was saying. The first word of To A Mouse; the way he says it puts a ‘stressed foot down’. Most folk you hear reading the line ‘Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie’ join the first two words together, or insert a pause between the two adjectives, so short it’s barely audible. The ee of wee hooks on lightly to the s of sleeket. Except when it stamps its foot down. Does this matter?
I’m reminded of the great jazz pianist Thelonius Monk. His flat-fingered approach to hitting the keys was unique and instantly recognisable. Monk seemed to inhabit sonic worlds that sang between the notes. The pause between his notes could almost deafen, become charged with emotion, or be a huge hall of sound in itself. Heaney hears a much longer pause between the opening two words in that first line of To A Mouse than most of its modern day reciters. He’s listening hard. He hears the commas. Takes note. Each adjective stands distinct, apart, on its own feet. This changes things.
Burns’s poems are meant to be read aloud and savoured on the tongue. This is where Heaney leads us. I’ve performed the work of Burns for many years now, putting my own distinct stamp on his words, so these things do matter to me. I try to imagine how Burns himself would have performed his work. Which syllables he’d stress. How long he’d hold a pause. The tone, the skirl, the accelerations.
There aren’t many primary sources to guide us but there is one eyewitness account of how Burns once read to the great and good of the Scottish capital. A poet on the make. But he seems to fake it. He stares out a window, seemingly disinterested, going through the motions. The Edinburgh elite weren’t his target audience. Much of his work seems to be written with his drinking buddies in mind, to be performed in raucous Ayrshire taverns.
There’s still no better to place to perform Burns than in front of a juiced-up crowd. This January, out of necessity, pandemic rules applied. Still, I was grateful to be asked to take part in an online Burns Night organised by the National Trust of Scotland. The big plus was that I got to perform Tam o’ Shanter in the Burns Cottage itself, accompanied on guitar by my ancient, trusty, drouthy crony, Craig Lithgow.
As I prepared to growl, snarl and pose my way through Burns’s epic tale of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (my spin) I was aware that four foot to my left, in my peripheral vision, was the alcove bed where the Scottish Bard was born.
It struck me that this was actual bedroom where the poet once cried out from his childhood nightmares. Where flickering shadows cast by oil lamps and stumps of candles flitted across walls. This was the very room where the deathly silence of night was once disturbed, where a young Burns must have lain awake, terrorised by the unearthly sounds of unknown creatures. I knew this was the room where an auld Scotch nanny fired his feverish imagination with terrifying tales of demons, witches, bogles, cantraips, and suchlike. It was quite was unsettling, enough to send a ghostly chill down the spine, to perform in the very place where the tentacles of Tam o’ Shanter originated and first wrapped themselves around the child’s frightened psyche.
I was aware of all this and it helped drive my interpretation. I jettisoned knowing jauntiness, couthiness, and traditional comic effects, to perform the poem as an Orpheus in the Underworld drama, a man’s desperate flight from the seductive realms of Evil. The predominant tone was dark, gothic and sexual. Online commentators compared it to both Alex Harvey and Nick Cave. I’ll take that.
But before I get carried away with any hyperbole comparisons I should add that the online audience was very much split. My snarled, punky interpretations of the Burns epic were not to everyone’s taste. Some, the more traditionalists perhaps, absolutely loathed what I did with Tam. And made their feelings known, loudly, in the online comments (see below). Others said it was the best Tam they’d ever seen. On both counts, it was job done.
I was thinking about all of this when I was interviewed on the subject of Robert Burns for the magazine Fokus – a Swedish culture and news magazine – non too plussed about publishing articles on poets out of season. The zoom chat I had with their journalist, Charlotta Lindell, ranged across poetry, language, politics and art. It was again refreshing to find that outside of Scotland Burns is taken seriously as an artist rather than a national icon, with all the associated baggage.
It’s always a pleasure to kick back against anything put on a pedestal, wrapped in tartan, or preserved in amber. Art comes from the heart and soul and the craft of it. Heaney hits yet another nail on the head when he writes, “Burns is a world poet because of his genius, not because of his Scottishness.”
There’s a lot more I could unpack from Heaney’s tremendous essay. It meanders and surges and digresses as these things tend to do, across subject matter, returning repeatedly to Burns. There’s so much in its 18 pages and I’ve barely scratched the surface here—just him looking at two wee words. You’ll need to hunt it down for yourself to enjoy its full magnificence. I’ll leave you with this paragraph, the one that lends the essay its title.
“What produces the art is not the medium, but what is made of it. For example, I am predisposed to like Burns’s ‘The Twa Dogs’ because of its unfoolable, realistic sense of the world, its uncorny, wily humour and its unmitigated sense of justice, but I could say that about Burns’s letters as well; what distinguishes it as a poem is the way it combines reliable tone and technical virtuosity – the pitch of the voice and the musical trueness of it. It is because of a special mixture of intimacy and documentary accuracy in the art speech of the poem that none of the humour is at the expense of the dogs and none of the virtuosity is knowing."