For the second time in fifty years
I come to the Marble Quarry.
Last time, a boy, I came with my father.
Now I am here with my son.
Afternoon heat streams from the marble,
White light chipped from the earth.
At the island quarry’s hoist and jetty
Underwater abandoned altars,
Veined slabs, shine through the waves.
We eye up shards among the scarred,
Discarded blocks. I tell my son
How my dad handed me a monumental
Offcut, heavy as an unfinished temple.
We scour what’s left. I pick a piece
That fits my hand, and hand it to him
Gingerly. It fits his hand too.
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. Robert Crawford chose ‘Epistle to a Young Friend‘.
Robert Crawford comments:
When I saw that Burns’s ‘Epistle to a Young Friend’ was to be part of the contents of this book, I was intrigued. Though its celebration of ‘being independant’ may glance towards better known poems, this is not a Burns poem that would rank among my favourites. Yet its theme and its balance between openness and secrecy appeal to me, and I thought I had a poem that might sit beside it – a few seats along the same pew.
The parent-child relationship had some interest for Burns, who wrote about his own father and celebrated his household in ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. Whether or not she grew to like it, Burns did address a poem to his first-born daughter, but, as far as we know, he never addressed poems to any of his sons. In writing his ‘Epistle to a Young Friend’ for his ‘youthfu’ friend’ Andrew Hunter Aiken, son of Burns’s Ayr lawyer and supporter Robert Aiken, Burns came as close as he ever did to writing a poem addressed from a father to a son. I find this 1786 poem a little too pious, and suspect Burns (whose own life was as complex as ever at the time) was preaching to himself when he considered ‘th’ illicit rove’. The bit of the poem I like best are the lines where he advises the youth to ‘still keep something to yoursel/ Ye scarcely tell to ony.’ If this verse epistle is full of explicit advice-giving, it is also about a subtler transmission of values from one generation to the next, and it’s powered by a wish to stay faithful to something handed down.
We’re quite wary now about this sort of formal advice-giving, and about ideas of inherited wisdom. Men may be more awkward about these things than women. In my poem, conscious I was approaching the age of fifty, I wanted to write very plainly and openly about an experience I shared with my fourteen-year-old son, but which also reminded me (and was patterned on) an experience I had shared with my father when I was aged about fourteen. The poem was written substantially in 2008 when we went for a long walk on the island of Iona on a very hot day – but if the setting seems a bit more Mediterranean and Classical, that’s fine by me. It involves a moment between my son and me, but also wider concerns of handing down, passing on what matters. In some ways it’s very open, but it’s trying, too, to communicate something not said, not fully spelled out. Sometimes it’s poetry’s wish to bring together openness with a wish to smuggle the unsayable that makes it matter. A poem is an open secret.