Kevin McGowin provided this review.
Growing up in a family intensely aware and proud of its Scottish heritage, Robert Burns (after Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses) was the first poet I ever read — and probably the first poet of note (Edward Lear doesn’t really count) I ever heard read. My father read Burns’ “lighter” poems to me as a child, and later introduced me to his friend Duncan McFarlaine, a native Scotsman, who read and recited Burns with much more authority and fervor — and after a few whiskeys and in between puffs of Kents, he’d slip in a few poems from Burns’ infamous English-banned The Merry Muses of Caledonia, which, if you can find it, makes Henry Miller look like Beatrix Potter. I’d love to have a recording of Matt Muir reading it.
Muir emerges as a serious and patriotic Scotsman (the only kind) reading neither the slight “anthology pieces” nor the Merry Muses, either. This disc contains clear and lucid readings of thirteen of Burns’ poems, both long and short, famous and no — plus a staged interview which concludes the CD, in which Muir, portrayed on the cover as a jolly, 70-ish ex-rogue who has seen the bottom of more than a few bottles of Scotch, becomes a sort of apologist for Burns and undercuts the work he’s just read by asserting that the man is wrongly seen today as a drinker and womanizer, and that Burns would doubtless be very pleased by the institution of the Scottish Parliament, etc.
I see his point, and while there’s no need to gloss over anything, the point is quite simple: Burns was, and is, a poet of the people, the Scottish people. He serves as a bridge between the ancient rustic farming culture of Scotland, where yes, people drank too much and had lots of unprotected sex in the Rye, but hey! Guess what! They still do. Yet Burns (1759-1796) was really the Scottish cultural emissary — to France, and yes, to England and America — and managed to amass a huge body of work (over 1,000 poems) in the course of a life that saw the birth of the Industrial Revolution and all that that entails for an agrarian society ruled by a monarchy. It’s not too bad for a well-liked man still read today and for years to come who managed to more or less drink himself to death at the age of 37 (more like 57 today, yet at 13 I told myself that if I ever made it to the exact age Burns was when he died I’d have a bottle, in his honor. Seven weeks, folks!).
But Robert Burns was very much a man of his Times and his Country, which is part of what makes him so well-loved. What I’d always tacitly assumed was that this affection was essentially nostalgic. I’d failed to see Burns’ real appeal, as a poet who sprang from a rich and ancient oral tradition and wrote as such, and what his real appeal was even in his lifetime — until now.
Matt Muir reads the poems masterfully and with such nuance that I could do without the overdubbed fiddle-and-tavern sound effects; but these are turned off for the longer selections, and in Burns’ masterpiece, “Tam o’ Shanter,” I heard him as he should be heard, for the first time. In this poem, we hear both how good Burns is and how expertly Muir understands him at once. The poet’s real theme, here and elsewhere, is bittersweet and wise, and at times hilarious. The theme is the ephemeral nature of time and the losses that immediately follow pleasure in this life, and Muir reads the well-known stanzas of the poem as part of the whole, bringing his voice either up or down in keeping with the meaning of the words in context, much like an expert actor reciting a Shakespearean soliloquy or, more appropriately, like a conductor of a famous piece of great music.
For this is music, this poetry I’d come to find almost trite — and at once I understood Burns’ appeal as a sort of pre-Byronic rock star-like figure. Muir’s cadences are impassioned, with caesuras placed as many as three places in a single line so as to add to the breathless power of his rushing the next, and after a moment or two, I realized that what I was listening to reminded me less of other taped Burns readings I’ve heard than … rap music. Not the words, not even the themes, the meter! You know that Caucasian rapper who won the Grammy and the Oscar? The one some academics champion as having broken new ground in rap through his complex metrical innovations? Burns did it in the 1780s.
Want to test this? Get the Muir CD, or, failing that, get a copy of “Tam o’ Shanter” and a copy of The Eminem Show, go to its most heralded track (“Without Me”) and read Burns like that. Funny — I just now took a four lines from each in three places, and scanned them metrically. No, it’s not exact, of course, but in two of three cases it was very close. They sell an Eminem karaoke disc in stores now. I’ll bet if you used it as a soundtrack to Muir’s reading of Robert Burns, it would be right on in more than a few places.
So what does this show? For me, it demonstrates that certain metrical patterns of recitation are implicitly and linguistically adept at producing certain responses in the listener — for with Muir, we suddenly become listener, not “reader.” And no, I didn’t smoke a blunt before I did this — but hey! Might be fun. You think Robert Burns would object? Ha.
And we thought it was a song for New Years’ and “My heart is like a red, red rose….” Sure, but not any more than William Blake is “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright….” There is a musical power in poetry read aloud. And if the poem is good, that power can bypass the critical mind and go right for the gut, or the heart. Wallace Stevens called this effect “pure poetry.” But Wallace Stevens doesn’t stand as the unofficial spokesman for a nation or a culture that, more than perhaps any other, acts from pure emotion.
In closing, I won’t say that I’ve utterly captured in this review the reasons for Burns’ enduring appeal, nor do I mean to suggest one does not fully “get” Robert Burns until one has heard Matt Muir read him aloud.
But it’s sure something to think about on your next cross-country drive with Matt Muir. Or your next bottle of cheap Scotch. With Robert Burns.
(Rowan Arts, 2003)