How much poetry do you get in your daily life? Seriously. Do you get the chance to read much poetry these days? Do you thrill to the imagined sound of the words flowing from the page when you see those rhyming couplets inset from the text or do you just sort of naturally gloss over those passages to get back to the meat of the narrative? I claim to enjoy poetry and will often take a few moments to read a bit, not everyday, but a couple of times a week. Not as much as I probably should, but I figure fewer than some and more than most. I can’t take too much at one sitting though. Not sure why. I can read non-fiction or novels for hours on end, but a quarter hour of poetry and I am mostly done in. Tonight is Robert Burn’s Night, a celebration of the National Bard of Scotland, so with him in mind, won’t you join me as we stan’ and ma’e, the Bobby Burns.
I am going to admit it right off the bat, while I love the spirit and some of the turns of phrase, I have never been able to properly enjoy reading Robert Burns work. I adore listening to someone else read it, but the Scottish dialect that sounds so lovely to my ears, is hard on my eyes. It is almost as if I have to decipher it in the first pass and then go back and read it again to get the beauty of it. Whether you realize it or not, you are familiar with his work. He wrote Auld Lang Syne, for one. That wonderful Steinbeck novel, “Of Mice and Men” takes it’s title from a stanza of “To a Mouse” that read’s. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley.” I originally learned that last bit as “Oft go astray”, but that is not how he wrote it. See, that Scottish bit can be tricky. I remember being assigned to memorize “My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose” in high school, as our entry into his works. most likely because its style was the most accessible, meaning the least Scottish, of his works or maybe because Bob Dylan cited it as one of the most influential poet’s of his life, you’ll have to ask Mrs. Brown about her motivations
Burns born on January 25th in Alloway, Scotland in 1759, if the stories are to be believed, and the first “Burn’s Night” was celebrated as a memorial dinner on July 21, 1801, the fifth anniversary of his death. The celebration was then moved to his birthday each year, though there was some confusion about exactly when that was. Today it is celebrated on the 25th, but I suppose you could have a Burn’s Supper” any old time you like.
The supper has a fairly regimented structure beginning with the “piping in of the guests”, where a piper presumably pipes, followed by the Host’s Welcoming speech, after which the guests are seated and the Selkirk Grace is offered:
Some hae meat and canna eat,The Selkirk Grace
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
With grace offered, the meal can begin, generally with a comparatively uneventful soup course followed by the main event, the Haggis. Everyone stands as the Haggis is carried in, a bagpiper leading the way to the host’s table, where it is presented for inspection. The the host or his designate reads “Address to a Haggis” a long and thoroughly Scottish ode with instructions on how the Haggis is to be cut and served, which the host carries out during the recitation. The poem is concluded with a scotch whisky toast. The dinner continues with cheese courses and dessert and coffee and any other accoutrements such a fine occasion calls for. After the meal, there are a series of regimented toasts to be made, beginning with the Immortal Memory being offered to Robert Burns. Immediately after a designated gentleman is chosen to offer the “Address to the Lassies” which is followed by a lady of the party offering the “Reply to the Laddies”. It is my understanding that this is done in the spirit of good, clean fun. However, it is my experience that you could remove the word “clean” from that description without worry of contradiction. This is followed by singing some of Burns songs or lively readings of his poetry. The evening comes to its end with the host calling on one of the guests to give the vote of thanks, then everyone is asked to stand, join hands and sing “Auld Lang Syne” to bring the evening to its close.
See, I told you it was complicated, luckily the drink is not. This is one of those that has been around a long time and has gone through some changes. We are making a relatively new edition created by Simon Difford at London’s Cabinet Room, that combines the finer aspects of the older versions. So, if you grab your copy of one of the classic drink bibles, specifically “The Savoy Cocktail Book” or ” Old Waldorf-Astoria Days” or “Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” you will find slight differences, that are all accommodated and brought up to date in this modern retelling.
Grab a mixing pitcher and pop in 1 ounce of blended scotch whisky, I went with Dewar’s; 1 ounce of sweet vermouth, 1/2 an ounce of Benedictine DOM, 2 stabs of Peychaud’s bitters and one dash of absinthe, I used Corsair Red. Add ice and stir to the beat of Ryan Burns version of the Robert Burns classic song “A Man’s a Man For A’that.” When well blended strain into a chilled Nick & Nora, express a bit of lemon zest over the top and garnish with some shortbread.
That is kinda like the fella himself, remarkably complex. There is a lot going on here. It is booze forward, but with a honey thing, a touch of anise an herbal bottom note, reminiscent of the vermouth, but not quite. These are just changing flavors on your tongue. Like picking notes out of an orchestra, it is definitely a harmonious whole, but with these little trills showing through. This one expands on your palate and continues to change and opens as it warms. Very nice, indeed.
As beautiful as Burn’s words might be, they are a bit lost on the written page. They need the spoken word to really come to life and I simply lack the craft to do them justice. I dinna ken the music of the language, not really. The good news is that there are numerous places online where native speakers bring his words to life. Go online and check out Gareth Morrison performing the “Address to the Haggis” to get a feel for what the words truly mean. Take a few moments to listen to David Sibbald reading “To A Mouse” or Karen Dunbar’s haunting performance of “Tam o’Shanter“. I am the first to admit that true Scots can be a bit to wrap your mind about at first, but stick with it. If you can make it through an episode of Outlander and ken truly what ye hear, you can learn to appreciate this beautiful language. He wrote them down to preserve them but hearing those words, well, that is how the poetry was meant to be enjoyed. Ye ken? Bide safe, bide dreich and bide sane, mah mukkers.