Inside the verse: Kevin Williamson gets closer to Robert Burns

Tuesday 8 March 2011

The second of our guest bloggers, poet Kevin Williamson, talks about how he got up close and personal with Robert Burns – through committing his verses to memory.

2011 is the International Year of Forests, the International Year of Chemistry, and the International Year of the Bat.  As someone who loves forests, takes an occasional interest in chemistry, and has nothing per se against bats, I wish them all well.

But I guess we’re meant to celebrate these things. 2009, for instance, was the International Year of Astronomy.  To “celebrate” I watched every episode of ‘The Sky at Night’.  Just as I did in 2008.  And most other years.  And why not.  Patrick Moore is a national treasure and his show steadfastly and gloriously refuses to dumb down.

2009, of course, was also the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth.  Like most Scots I love the poetry and songs of Burns so any excuse for a celebration of his life and work is fine with me.  But for that special year, for reasons that wouldn’t make sense if I tried to explain them here, I chose to engage with Burns on a more personal level.

Yes, I trotted along to some of the official events.  Yes, I read the excellent new biographies of The Bard by Robert Crawford and Patrick Scott Hogg.  And yes, but with a more furrowed brow, I ploughed through ‘Fickle Man’ - the thought-provoking collection of essays on Burns edited by Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers.  But I wanted to get under the skin of the man in a way that was more personal than biography or critique permits.

So I chose to commit some of Burns’s poetry to memory.  One poem a fortnight to begin with.  This wasn’t easy.  I can barely remember, word for word, the vast majority of my own poetry. For numbers and dates and pointless trivia I’m a bit like Rain Man. But many years ago I was diagnosed with something supposedly on the same spectrum as dyslexia but related to processing sequences. (As friends and family will confirm don’t ask me for directions. Turn three corners and I’m lost.)

I’m aware of memory techniques that involve visualisation but applied to Burns’s poetry it seems sacrilege, akin to swinging a scythe through the wonderfully precise rhythms of the verse.  So I read through the poems slowly, committing them to my subconscious, word by word, couplet by couplet, verse by verse.  I would recite each poem aloud, dozens, a hundred times or more for the longer ones.  It was a most enjoyable experience. I’d recommend it.

Another enjoyable part of this process was working with the spaces between the syllables, experimenting with inflexion and tone.  The more I worked with each poem the more it revealed of itself, and of the author.  As I recited the words to deserted beaches, shower curtains and empty forests I kept thinking: “How would Burns have performed these pieces in public?”

I consider myself an old fashioned Scottish radical, a republican, and of the left, and the appeal of some of these poems is their radical and even subversive nature. Despite the risks such a venture would involve - in the political turbulence of the late 1780s and early 1790s - many of these poems were clearly written for performance.

I toyed mischievously with another thought: “If he was alive today, and immersed in 21st century poetry and radical politics, as I like to think he would have been, how would Robert Burns have performed his verse, if, say, he had been invited to an event like StAnza?”

I’ll try and answer some of these questions, as best as I can, when I present   ‘Robert Burns: Not In My Name’ at StAnza on Sunday 20th March.