Leeze me on rhyme! It’s aye a treasure,
My chief, amaist my only pleasure…
from ‘Second Epistle to Davie’
While London’s steekit beh thi snaw
and ilka sleekit chitterin jaw
is ettlin tae describe
hoo drifts ur white, and ice is cauld,
and feel thi lave maun be enthralled –
Eh’ve Bowmore tae imbibe.
And as the nicht – mair dreh nor me –
draas in, Eh think Eh’ll scrieve
a wee epistle tae, let’s see,
thi deid and Doctor Grieve –
auld hermits, wee MacDiarmids,
thi ghaist o guid Lapraik:
here’s a ravie fur young Davie,
an a rant fur Rabbie’s sake.
Fur the tartan telephone is playin
‘For Auld Lang Syne’; some cloud’s displayin –
well, it’s no quite the Batsign – weans
wull hae nae clue,
but aa thir dominies are prayin
tae Burns’s Ploo.
Some anniversary or ither
huz gote thi lot tae plot thigither
and ask frae whaur – Stranraer? – or whither
remeid sall come:
they’ve caaed aa gowks fur blinks o blether
baith deep and dumb.
In stately manses Haggismen
puhl sheeps’ wames owre thir heids and then
descend beh greenie poles tae dens
whaur desks await;
they raise thir stumpy Haggispens
and smear on slates.
While maskless weemen keep ut edgy
an gee wir man a retro-wedgie –
remind us hoo his views got sketchy
on burds and… beasts;
demand thir haggises be veggie
and, glorious, feast.
And aa the waant-tae-bes are Robins
mair willin tae wark hard than Dobbin
and fuhl o antifreeze fae bobbin
fur bacon rinds –
thir beaks, aa chipped, let slip thi sobbin
of achin minds.
Thi anely time that Scots gets read
is when thi year lukes nearly dead –
it seems tae need extremes;
when winterin leaves are lipped wi frost
and wolf-pack winds pursue the lost
and ink, in deep freeze, dreams.
When Naichur jinks yir toon’s defence
and bursts yir comfort’s net
wi snaw fitbaas, then tae thi tense
come wurds thi waurm furget:
deep-layerin, like swearin,
we dig oot attitudes;
wi stanzas come answers
tae city pseuds and prudes.
Whit Burns wiz sayin tae Lapraik
wiz whit we are’s eneuch tae make
a puckle lines that salve life’s paiks:
we need nae ticks
nor teachers’ nods, nor critics’ shakes –
we’re no that thick.
Ut’s no that anely crambo goes
that jingles oot, jejunely, woes:
Burns claims he disnae ken whit’s prose,
but see hoo crafty his rhyme flows,
and braid as Tay.
Whit Burns bethankit Davie fur
wiz freenship in thi dargin dirr:
when, pure ramfeezlet, thochts gae whirr,
tae knock back gills
by ithers’ ingles, bields fae smirr,
can stave aff ills.
But here Eh sit wi midnicht’s nip,
or leh doon whaur thi verses slip,
or rise tae brose and habbies’ grip
aa oan ma tod,
neglectin meh professorship,
in the nemm o Gode!
Fur twenty fehv years – mair – Eh’ve trehd
tae scrieve in Scots and it’s nae leh
Eh’m nae young billy – why deny
Eh’ve ootlived Burns?
Fae Davie tae Lapraik we fleh
wi nae returns.
Ootlived, but no ootwritten yet,
nae superbard, nor Guardian pet
nor whit maist fowk wad read;
tho fit fur (no sae) prehvut letters
wi a dictionair sae crossword-setters
micht love me when Eh’m deid.
But whit Burns foond inben oor speak’s
a glede fur aa McSlackers:
gin Doric’s heat is kin tae Greek
Eh’ll scrieve ‘To a Moussaka.’
And thi ithers? Jist brithers
and sisters eftir aa:
still-hopefu peers and hoped-fur feres –
Eh think thi ink micht thaw…
About this poem
This poem was written as part of the Scottish Poetry Library's Addressing the Bard project in 2009. Twelve contemporary poets were asked to select a poem by Robert Burns and respond to it. W. N. Herbert chose 'Epistle to Davie'.
W. N. Herbert comments:
I found myself being drawn towards Burns’s epistles because of their blithe irreverence; something about Burns writing these almost-private letters, half-knowing they’d be read, spoke to me. Read by people who might well be gentry, or the learned folk he satirises, caught between envy and pity – rhymes to be overheard by those who didn’t have to labour as he and his correspondents did, hard physical work in the cold.
I liked both the wintriness and the exhaustion – the cold snap that astonished the south of England was fresh in my mind, as were the heaps of marking, etc. I was wading through. Not exactly a snowdrift, but it freezes the imagination. I also liked the irony that here was someone who may have learnt Scots in a Dundee tenement, but who had, despite much feckless ineptitude, ended up a professor, empathising with a man who mock-dismisses university education in favour of self-knowledge.
The epistles have an edge I wanted to reflect by, if not quite biting the hand that commissioned me, certainly giving it a nip. As the poem says, I and a few others have been writing in Scots for, euphemistically, a while, and as a result are accustomed to becoming ‘interesting’ around certain dates, while the rest of the year/decade Scots is consigned to its kennel of outmoded incomprehensibility. I wanted to say something about that incomprehension.
Burns’s language is so filled with a liveliness of register, rhythm and vocabulary, I find I sometimes don’t understand why people don’t understand him – surely the sheer exuberance of that voice must knock everyone’s poetry socks off. And then I remember we don’t all own or choose to wear our poetry socks. Much of what Burns says, like much of what Shakespeare says, must now be assumed to be brilliant because people like me bang on about it. And surely nothing people like me are enthusiastic about can really be any good.
But one of the things I’ve always loved about Burns is his improvisational energy – when he says he’s going to stay up all night and write the poem, you not only believe him, you want him to do exactly that, you want the ideas that come because he’s put himself on the spot, and the immediacy and intimacy that comes with that, something that brings us back to what it is to write a letter.
No one writes letters anymore, or no one younger than fifty, but everyone has that moment when they catch themselves communicating full-tilt with someone else, in the excited knowledge that the ideas are just flowing, each from the previous. What Burns does, in such a masterful manner it’s practically invisible, is give the impression he’s dashing off a few such thoughts in two of the most intricate stanza forms Scots has, the Cherrie and the Slae, and the Standard Habbie.
Poetry at its best is always poised between absolute control and completely unpredictable freedom, between perfectly-cadenced utterance and the roughest turn of phrase, between the arcane image and the most everyday occurrence. It occurs when one of these turns into its opposite, or appears to – and this is what happens over and over as we eavesdrop on Burns anticipating a dram with Lapraik, or sharing a sly joke with Davie. I had no one equivalent to write to for my poem, so I thought of you.