A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 294

Poets who matter: 10. Robert Burns

FARMINGTON – In 1785, the Scottish poet Robert Burns, anguished after unintentionally plowing up a mouse’s nest in a stubble field, with winter coming on, wrote:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

And lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy.

His sorrow for the mouse was entwined with empathy for powerless people whose fates are in the palms of society’s elite – powerless people, indeed, like the poor poets of greater Rochester.

Last summer, their hopes and dreams were inspired by the prospect of artistic recognition. They were promised that one of their coterie would be named, by mayoral decree, as poet laureate of the Lilac City, and for many weeks they truly believed that this would happen. The headier of these local poets even thought this would lead to the founding of a great colony of rhymers, the flourishing of verse, and the complete revitalization of downtown Rochester.

But now their castle in the air, their mouse’s nest in the corn stalks, has been sliced by the cold steel plow of political philistinism.

No poet laureate for you! Never heard of a broken promise?

Despite City Hall’s worst efforts, though, we have good news, poetically speaking.

Remember Eugene P. Elander, dog officer and published poet of the Northwest Parish, a.k.a. Farmington? He’s the fellow that tried persistently to get his hands on a poet laureate application form from City Hall, and was just as persistently ignored.

Eugene’s book of poems, The Right Click, is being published, and he has already received a small monetary advance. Among the many achievements noted by this former college professor (he still serves on the faculty of Plymouth State) are the three additional verses he penned for America the Beautiful in the wake of Sept. 11, and which (he says) are part of the Congressional Record.

The first of his verses goes thus:

Oh Beautiful, for heroes all,

In buildings or in planes

For those who answered to the call,

Whom we’ll not see again;

America, America,

Sometimes your path is hard;

But we’ll not fail, right will prevail,

With faith in you, and God.

Pretty stirring stuff, Eugene, and sad it is that the residents of Rochester are starved of the chance to crown you, or another worthy poet, with laurels.

Burns, too, excelled in passionate, patriotic verse, and he was only elevated to his true rank after death, when his genius could no longer eclipse or threaten those in high positions.  Take this verse from the poem that famously starts: Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled… (… the poem that New Hampshire’s War of Independence hero, General John Stark, may possibly have plagiarized a couple of decades later, in 1809.)

By oppression’s woes and pains,

By your sons in servile chains!

We will drain our dearest veins,

But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!

Tyrants fall in every foe!

Liberty’s in every blow! -

Let us do, or die!

from Bruce’s Address to his Army at Bannockburn

If Stark, with Live Free or Die, did slightly adapt Burns’ words without attribution, he should be forgiven, for his father, Stark Sr., was a Glaswegian, and, in addition the sentiments of each creation were directed against a common enemy – the English.

Burns is equally famous for his love poetry and gained a reputation, some would even say notoriety, for his praise of the fairer sex. And it is heartening to report that ladies who had peaked in the beauty department were not abandoned by Burns’ pen. Take his description of the wife of Willie Wastle, who dwelt on the banks of my boyhood river, the Tweed.

She has an e’e, (she has but ane),

The cat has twa the very color,

Five rusty teeth forbye a stump,

A clapper-tongue would deave (deafen) a miller …

Burns was also adept at capturing the boisterousness and verve of folks on the lower rungs of society, and when I was a police officer in a wild area of Glasgow called Blackhill, in the early 1970s, pieces from his cantata, The Jolly Beggars, would often come to mind, especially if I was called to officiate at bouts of drinking gone awry.

A fig for those by law protected!

Liberty’s a glorious feast,

Courts for cowards were erected,

Churches built to please the priest.

Life is all a variorum,

We regard not how it goes;

Let them prate about decorum,

Who have characters to lose.

Sung to Jolly Mortals, Fill Your Glasses

“Eat, drink and be merry,” the motto of Blackhill’s Epicurean sector seemed to run, “for tomorrow the rent’s due.” Booze does not always convert poverty into merriment, though, even if it is legitimate stuff and not like the wood alcohol hooch that exploded Blackhill into national headlines the time some residents died and others went blind after a party. 

One night I was called to a house where a father and stepson had just done battle with machetes on a darkened stairway in Craigendmuir Street. The father, a Mr. Wright, had sustained a severed nose, which was hanging only by a sliver of skin, and I had to lay him on the floor and balance his beak back on his face to reduce blood loss. An ambulance showed up quickly and at the Royal Infirmary Wright was treated, coincidentally, by Dr. Wong.

I charged father and son with assault, and later, in court, Wright made the scurrilous accusation to the judge that I had told him, during his hour of agony, that he shouldn’t have poked his nose into other people’s business. There’s gratitude for you.

I should have sung Burns’:

I am a son of Mars, who have been in many wars,

And show my cuts and scars, wherever I come …

On another occasion, just round the corner in Acrehill Street, I had to urgently call an ambulance for a woman who had slid from her fireside seat, under the influence of drink, and began to singe in the hearth. From a neighboring seat, her husband, to whom she had not been speaking, cried out, “Burn, ya b------,” with such conviction that a lodger came running in from another room to drag her clear of the flames. The husband confided to me that he suspected the lodger of having an affair with his wife, but I still felt compelled charge him with negligence, and leave the ethical decision to the court.

Or Judgment Day …

“Ah Tam! Ah Tam! thou’ll get thy fairin’!

In hell they’ll roast ye like a herrin’!”

from Tam o’ Shanter

It was both a wrench and a relief to leave Blackhill in 1975, and take up a new constabulary challenge in Easterhouse, a sprawling, gang-ridden housing project out on Glasgow’s eastern border.

I never again met anyone who could tell roguish stories like Jeannie Duffy, or characters embroiled in as many bizarre escapades as the Lindsays or the Oswald boys; and I never encountered anyone with quite the spirit of Willie Jamieson, who help found and run the Blackhill Wolves Youth Club while defying a serious heart condition.

Most of Blackhill was bulldozed flat years ago to make way for a modern motorway, and no doubt many people in city government breathed a sigh of relief.  What had started out as a beautiful idea in 1937 – moving people from inner city slums to modern homes on the site of a former golf course – had somehow gone badly and irreversibly wrong.

But on the rare occasions that I drive on the motorway eastwards out of Glasgow, and pass where the tenements of Acrehill and Craigendmuir streets used to stand, I can still glimpse the shadows of Wee Paddy the Bleach Man, Yoho and Betty Boo.

Out of the strong came forth sweetness, right enough.

March 20, 2004


FC Home5         Previous      Next