My essay for the Sunday Herald on Robert Burns our contemporary (here's the published version). My thanks personally to Liam Mcilvanney for his input, and to Robert Crawford for his brilliant biography, The Bard. (Image is by David Mach).
The greatest hits ... and myths ... of Robert Burns
We know that the life and work of Scotland’s Bard is testament to the triumph of creativity over personal struggles ... but it also shows that Burns was every bit as adept at fashioning an iconic persona as David Bowie, Madonna and today’s rock stars. A modern celebration of Burns Day by Pat Kane
You'll know him by his Twitter handle: @RoboBurns.
His profile pic is mid-to-late 20s, head shaved but cheek aglow and eyes dark pools, a Celtic cyber-tattoo curling half-way up his neck. He's an IT temp-worker, servicing a large public bureaucracy. One side of his brain is fixing glitches, enabling broken pay runs, amidst the office dividers; the other is listening for bitter-sweet lines, feeling for the hurt and joy in the everyday.
He's got to belt home down the M4 today, juiced up with about three double espressos, two squirming weans to pick up from one carnaptious grannie, to drop off at a stone-faced ex (it's her weekend). But then: his weekend! On the day in Saturday @RoboBurns will code, loop, work on the flow of his lyrics (pitched somewhere between Leshmahagow and LA). He crowdsources his projects, for both love and a wee bit of money. He’ll do some hacktivism for a human rights site; or he’ll mash-up some political clips for the #indy campaign. Whatever. It’s a bit-torrent of creativity: no boundaries.
And then the beginning of the rest of the weekend, rolling in the deep of a Saturday night. He'll start in one howff (as Granda used to call it), trawling in a net-full of geeks, teachers, leechers, radicals, ranters, relatives.Then they'll sprawl and starfish across the dens and halls of Glasvegas. Tapping covert notes on the revelries into his mobile, @RoboBurns will stay on the whisky all night, that's safest (though as for his pals…)
What's never safe is the point at which the pools of his dark brown eyes meet the crazy fashion contacts of someone else’s. And if they’re pretty and smart, worldly and friendly, then who knows where he’ll end up in the wee small hours, or how long the walk of shame the next Sunday morning. For the thing about @RoboBurns is, he dearly loves the lassies, o...
* * *
That’s my early-twenty-first-century Robert Burns - roaming the streets of Scotland with a smartphone, a multimedia art practice, a job with the state, radical sympathies and an addiction to Saturday nights. Yours will be different. Yet the closer you look at the biography and writing of Robert Burns, the more startling his contemporary relevance becomes.
Leave aside, just for a moment, the sheer heights of his poetic genius: there’s no exemplar to be drawn from that, just reverent admiration. But Burns’s life has much to tell us (mostly good, occasionally bad) about how to sustain and progress your creativity, amid the most grinding, insupportive conditions. Burns’ struggles around art-making, money and career, sexuality and family, ideas and politics, are to a very familiar extent our own.
For one thing, Burns was as masterful in the skills of hype and self-promotion as any modern commercial artist. He used his roots to wow the urban-tastemakers of his time as adroitly as any scruffy band or conceptual artist right now, advancing roughly on unsuspecting metropolitan elites.
Robert Crawford’s recent Burns biography makes this crystal clear. Very early on in his writing career, Burns began to evolve a conception of himself as “The Bard” - the kind of “authentic” poet that a Scotland, still struggling to reconcile its native linguistic and cultural traditions with the strictures and demands of Union, would need and love.
Yet this was an 18th century Ayrshire agricultural worker who, by virtue of his father’s improving mentality, and the input of a brilliant local teacher John Murdoch, was completely up to speed with London letters and the best of English literature.
In the same way as an aspirational teen in a Scottish scheme today would use the Net to enrich and deepen their taste, the young Burns voraciously read the foreign pages of newspapers and The Spectator magazine, drank in the elegances of Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope, conceived of himself as a “man of sentiment” (or what we might call today an “emo-kid”). Fascinatingly, Crawford suggests that actually getting to University might have wasted Burns’ talent - making him embarrassed to draw freely from local language and lore.
But by the time he mounted his pony and struck out for the literary circles of Edinburgh, following up a few leads of interest on his locally-published first volume, Burns had his “peasant-poet” routine almost entirely worked out.
It’s often cited that the Burns “humble genius” myth first started with his Edinburgh reviewers (“this Heaven-taught Ploughman”, Henry Mackenzie wrote in the fabulously-named The Lounger). But Burns’ own PR had completely cued them up. His prefaces and epigraphs in the Kilmarnock editions go on about “The Simple Bard, unbroke by rules of art / He pours the wild effusions of the heart”. He claimed to be an artless composer, while also referencing poetic greats like Ramsay and Fergusson.
And there’s a bottom-line here: in order to secure publication of his volume, Burns has to use his social networks to find advance subscribers - exactly parallel to the kind of hustling that creatives currently do on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. (Whether this means continuity, or that we’re going backwards, is up for argument). In either case, declaring your modest artistic virtue is often the best default tone to extract cash: “Not the mercenary bow over a counter” as Burns writes, “but the heart-throbbing gratitude of the Bard”.
Feigned simplicity, then as now, sells well. A contemporary of Burns, Robert Anderson, once asked him about the highly literate references buried in his poems. Anderson reports Burns as replying that it was “part of the machinery, as he called it, of his poetical character to pass for an illiterate ploughman who wrote from pure inspiration”.
Joni Mitchell’s line from A Free Man in Paris, “stoking the star-making machinery behind the popular song”, comes to mind. As does Robert Zimmerman - otherwise known as the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan - and his oft-proclaimed love of Burns: both of them artful constructors of their outsider status for commercial markets.
Yet if you can forge a market for yourself, you can sometimes sustain your art at its best. The acclaimed Burnsian (and son of William) Liam Mcilvanney sees this carefully-fashioned “heaven-taught ploughman” image as giving Burns real creative freedom.
“He could deploy ‘vulgar’ language and subversive politics with comparative impunity”, Mcilvanney says. “By posing as someone who doesn’t know any better, Burns disarms those critics who would seek to attack him for his satirical treatment of aristocrats and MPs in ‘The Twa Dogs’, or for addressing the monarch in an earthy demotic in ‘A Dream’. This very sophisticated use of personae, this conscious manipulation of his own image, positions Burns as a decidedly ‘modern’ poet.”
So is Burns doing the kind of strategic, seductive role-play we see in James Brown, David Bowie, Prince, Madonna, Lady Gaga? Yes and no. There’s no doubt that Burns had a deeply rock’n’roll attitude to life, almost classic 1960s and 70s Led Zeppelinesque. The essentially mistreated spouse Jean Armour - “her indoors”, as the monsters of rock might say - bore him many children, but also endured her husband’s constant amorous roving (and siring).
But Burns’s near-anarchic commitment to revelry, drinking, male companionship, not just in real life but in his poetry, had a political edge (as it often has in rock’n’roll). This, at least, was a zone free from the meddling ministrations of state and church. And given the political and religious pressures of his time, Burns’ libertarianism (blending into libertinism) can be understood, if not entirely forgiven.
The late 18th century Kirk regularly wielded its power to publicly shame those it regarded as immoral. At the same time, the authorities dispatched agents and militia to sniff out those who had Republican or Revolutionary tendencies. Burns’ held fiercely insurrectionist views, and these could often only be expressed in works distributed privately, or anonymously, and sometimes even posthumously (“Is There For Honest Poverty”, his great radical anthem, appeared only after his death).
The contemporary parallel for the political Burns, trying to reconcile his radicalism with his need to support his family, might not necessarily be located in Scotland. (Though, as our Twitter-nerd at the beginning suggests, a contemporary Scottish Burns might be as interested in the Pirate Party, the Occupy movements and Julian Assange as the original Bard was in the French and American revolutions).
We might be more likely to find this version of Burns in a Middle-Eastern or East-Asian state, just before or just after its “Spring” moment. He or she would be struggling to find a way to express a desire for democracy and justice in their words, images, notes or blogs - barely sustained by a private life marked by chaotic or collapsed relationships, shortages of money, food and power, and the daily intrusions of an unreformed theocracy or oligarchy. Something like Asghar Farhadi’s 2012 Oscar-winning Iranian movie, A Separation, is arguably more deeply “Burns-like” than any contemporary Scottish art, produced under much less oppressive conditions.
Roaming around in Burns’ life - a difficult, overlapping, messy life, which teaches us (in Don Paterson’s words) that hypocrisy is damnable, but inconsistency much less so - we keep finding parallels that remind us of when our modern times began, and how present at its turbulent starting point Burns was.
Take financial crisis, for example. As Liam Macilvanney says, “Burns lived at a time of failing banks - the Ayr Bank collapsed in 1772, with disastrous consequences. Economic security was becoming increasingly chimerical for entire classes of people, including cotters and tenant farmers like Burns and those around him. His poems exploring this condition – like ‘Lines Written on a Banknote’ – may sound newly relevant to today’s readers”. Macilvanney is right: “Wae worth thy power, thou cursed leaf!... I see the children of affliction unaided, through thy curs’d restriction”.
Burns wrong the Banknote poem in a state of economic anxiety, considering a move to Jamaica as a manager in a slave-colony. And there’s the hypocrisy charge, easily levelled at Burns: not only a relentless Priapus who wrote great and tender love songs, but a potential coloniser and government excise-man who wrote “The Slaves Lament” and “The Tree of Liberty”.
Yet what is more modern than to try to pursue progressive values, in a fuzzy and compromised world? Where every discardable plastic purchase irreversibly heats the planet; where every casual chomp in a coffee shop is implicated in half the world’s food getting thrown away; where our offices and hospitals are cleaned and tended by those who globalisation has sucked away from their homelands?
Our contemporary Burns would want to face all this, lyricise it, and in doing so make it universal and philosophical. Is there any line more deeply pertinent to our ecological crisis than those from To A Mouse: “I'm truly sorry man's dominion/Has broken nature's social union”? And if we want to figure out whether a world of brands and marketing is to be ripped up and torn down, or could somehow be put to enlightened or improving use, we might usefully dwell on the global impact of the Burns brand itself.
There are more statues to Robert Burns in the US than to any other single poet; his impact in Russia and China, on writers like Maya Angelou and Seamus Heaney, Walt Whitman and Toni Morrison, is well-known. We probably underestimate the importance of that scene in When Harry Met Sally: Billy Crystal stands at a New York party and wonders, “My whole life, I don’t know what this song means....'Should old acquaintance be forgot'...” And Meg Ryan eventually answers: “It’s about old friends”. Could we ask for anything better than a verse of broad Scots being recognised every year, on most locations across this planet, as a tribute to lasting friendship and personal connection?
There’s no point in sanitising or simplifying Robert Burns. Indeed, in his firecracker rotations around some very recognisable poles - love and money, politics and philosophy, sex and regret - what we should be celebrating is The Bard's struggle to hold it together, and yet move forward, striving for as much eloquence and self-knowledge as we can in the process. Not a bad model for modern living.
And you probably saw him out there, last Saturday night: that tattooed, shaven-headed guy in the corner of the club. Sneaking snapshots and videos; thumbing out notes on his phone. And occasionally, just to get the feel of it, @RoboBurns will step up for a birl with a lassie on the dance floor.