If you were at a Burns supper this year, it was almost certainly online. I first came across Robert Burns at primary school when I was awarded the Burns Federation Certificate for Excellence in Recitation. I had to recite that dreadful piece of bloodthirsty doggerel, Scots Wha Hae
By secondary school, I was reading the English poets from John Donne to TS Elliot, but then I developed an obsession for the fashionable renaissance of Scots – Sydney Goodsir Smith, Alexander Scott, Norman MacCaig, Robert Garioch, and my favourite, Hugh MacDiarmid. I had a poetry poster of his Bonnie Broukit Bairn
on my bedroom wall.
Mars is braw in crammasy,
Venus in a green silk goun,
The auld mune shak’s her gowden feathers,
Their starry talk's a wheen o' blethers,
Nane for thee a thochtie sparin'
Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!
– But greet, an' in your tears ye'll drown
The haill clanjamfrie!
I remember reciting a huge chunk of his epic A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle
at a school Burns supper in the presence of the man himself. I was too immature back then to fully understand how objectionable many of his views were. I eventually learned that just because you are a great poet doesn't mean you are a good person.
As a student, I moved on and embraced 'The Liverpool Scene' with Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, based on the beat poetry of the 50s. Ten years after reciting Burns at primary, performance poetry was back in fashion.
I have spent my life trying to avoid Burns suppers but living in Ayrshire for the last 40 years hasn't made that easy. I may have tried to avoid Burns suppers but I grew to love Ayr's annual 'Burns an a' that' arts festival. I remember Patti Smith belting out Ye Jacobites by name
to a backdrop of a floodlit Culzean Castle. The person standing next to me introduced herself as Beryl Bainbridge from Liverpool. I'm ashamed to say I had never heard of her at that time. If you were to ask me my favourite Burns song today, I would say Green Grow the Rashes
sung by the late Michael Marra.
This January, however, it wasn't Robert Burns who turned thoughts to poetry but rather Joe Biden. The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was a great lover of Burns and had already booked his passage to Britain to visit Ayrshire and pay homage to his favourite poet when his life was cut short on that fateful night at the theatre. The 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden, has declared himself a lover of the Irish poets. His favourite quotation from the work of Seamus Heaney couldn't be more apt.
History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
His inaugural address came peppered with some powerful poetic language of his own. He lamented the 'lies told for power and for profit', and said 'Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire'. The most memorable line was a simple one, that 'we must end this uncivil war that pits Americans against one another'.
But the poet of the month by far was not Burns or Heaney but the wise young black woman, Amanda Gorman, who followed in the footsteps of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou when she performed at the inauguration. Her poem, The Hill We Climb
, was just what America needed to hear.
For there is always light
if only we're brave enough to see it
if only we're brave enough to be it.
Perhaps, just perhaps, this marks the start of something. Could President Biden be the one to turn the old political adage on its head, and go on to govern in poetry after campaigning in prose?