To be brought up in Scotland is to have mixed feelings towards Robert Burns. Eating beige haggis and floury tatties, while listening to Jeananne Lamont from Primary 3b performing ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’, on the recorder. Listening to the headmaster talking of the National Barred who liked rodents. Having the evening completed by the ironically titled spectacle of ‘social dance’: a morass of trodden feet and attempts to dodge the necessity of holding hands with Gareth Sneddon.

And yet, despite the often traumatic experiences of our early Burns-life, we are fiercely proud of him: a persistent elder brother about whom we frequently moan but other people criticise at their peril.

For public examples we need look no further than August this year when Jeremy Paxman condemned the writing of Burns as ‘sentimental doggerel’ in the foreword to the Scottish-based Chambers Dictionary. Later in the autumn, the Burns Culters regained the high-ground when Bob Dylan named ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ as the lyric which had the biggest effect on his life. You may be something of a cult figure, Mr Paxman, but in a kudos battle, Dylan gets it every time.

And so, with the opinions of Paxman and Dylan ringing in our ears, we enter Scotland’s ‘Year of Homecoming’ in 2009, the 250th anniversary of Burns’s birth. Theirs are not, however, the only voices that come to mind when we think of Burns. They are added to two centuries of cacophony, most of which echoes the sentiments of Dylan rather than Paxman.

However, it is not as simple as a Hampden roar trouncing lone shouts of criticism. Burns enthusiasts do not speak with a single voice. If the voices were played end-to-end, there would be years’ worth of ‘Immortal Memories’ framing ‘Rabbie’ as a family man (the author of ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’), months of him as a fornicator and drunkard (father of numberless children), weeks as a courtly lover (Clarinda’s Sylvander), weeks as a political radical, weeks as a Jacobite, weeks as ‘heaven taught ploughman’, weeks as Enlightenment educated. With a Memory that confused, why, oh, why, is it so immortal?

The confusion of praise might be accounted for by another cacophony, the many voices of Burns’s own poetry and letters. As tempting as it is to believe otherwise, it is not ‘Robert’ who speaks in ‘Tae a Moose’ or in ‘Tam O Shanter’. We struggle to extricate Burns-the-man and Burns-the-legend from Burns-the-oeuvre.

I am not suggesting that we must kill Burns to allow for the life of his work. Rather that we don’t make the mistake of feeling that because we know his life story we don’t have to read the poems.


There’s a line in the film Sliding Doors, where a character claims that we are all born knowing the Beatles lyrics, and that they should really be called the ‘foetals’. But the works of Burns, like the songs of the Beatles, do not actually come to us with our mother’s milk. We have to read them, listen to them, learn them. We can’t just skip the poetry bit.

I would like to present, for your consideration, a classic version of this laissez faire attitude to Burns – myself. How often do I sit down and read a Burns poem I have never read before? I have based my enthusiasm on a lochan of works from a sea-sized collection.

I decided to take my first step on the road to improvement by spending some time with ‘The Lea-Rig’, which was classified in my mind’s Burns-database under ‘can pretend I know it’. On socialising with the poem, I find it gives me goosebumps. This is not the prim and prissy landscape of nineteenth-century painting, where beautiful scenes feature happy workers stealing moments of love while neglected livestock rampage about them. There is real exhaustion here; the listlessness of the word ‘dowf’ and the use of ‘weary’ for both oxen and humans. The longed-for tryst cannot take place before the day’s exhausting work is over. And when that moment does come, it is not in the warm glow of a summer’s evening, but the chilled and dew-hung ‘gloaming grey’.

So, I challenge you. In the year-long Immortal Memory that will be 2009, learn by heart a Burns poem you have never previously paid any attention to. Be careful. Learning a poem by heart is a big step. You are bedding it down in your own cells, so choose wisely. Have a read through a collection, trying to shut out as much as you can of the voices of Dylan and Paxman and their like, and instead, in your own voice, start reading them out loud and pick one to learn. Maybe the voice of the poem will tell you something new about Burns – man, work or legend.

Ishbel McFarlane is an actor, learn poetry by hearter and concrete poetry fan. You can listen to her talk about Burns some more on our podcast, ‘Inside the SPL‘ (highly recommended!).

This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader Issue 4.

Read more about Robert Burns on the new (2012) Scottish Poetry Library website –

You see that’s the thing. These days they talk not just about writing your poems, but about performing them, as if they were pieces of theatre. Which of course they aren’t, are they?

Well, slam competitors seem to think they are. And so do ‘performance poets’. What about the rest of us?

Let’s imagine you’ve just published a pamphlet of poems. Your local writers’ group has invited you to come and read to them. What’ll make your reading a success?

Think about the way the brain processes aural information. People are going to hear each line only once. It’s a million miles away from reading on the page, when the eye can jump back and forward at will.

Traditional aural forms (like songs and ballads) compensate for this by incorporating lots of repetition. If you hear the chorus or repeating phrase ten times, at least the key words will connect.

Your poetry, however, may well be free verse, with no repetitive structures to help the ear follow. Your audience is going to have to concentrate intensely to pick up every word and phrase. You need to help them.

That’s one reason why introductions to poems are important. They allow the audience to get into correct listening mode, the equivalent of ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’

Links between the poems allow you to switch between intense poem-register and conversational ease. The audience needs that. If you dive from one intense poem right into another, the chances are you’ll lose them. Listening well is really difficult.

Reading well isn’t easy either, of course, but it’s an art you can learn. Go and hear other poets in performance and learn from what they do (or don’t do), just as they have learned from others. Here are a few tips for starters.

1. Practise. Make sure you know how long both poems and links will last so you don’t, in any circumstances, over-run your time.

2. Read slowly and carefully. Speed kills.

3. Make your mouth work. Every single syllable needs to be heard.

4. Know the poems. (Know where they are in the book too.) If you know them well, you’ll know which line’s the one that trips you—and you’ll be ready for it.

5. Prepare your links as well as your poems. Keep the proportion right.

6. The closing words of each poem are crucial. If you look down at the page as you read them, your voice will go into your boots.

7. Before you start a poem, pause. When you end a poem, pause. Let a silence open. That silence is the white space at the top and bottom of the page, and it needs to be heard.

8. Look at your audience from time to time. If they can’t hear you, or aren’t following you, you’ll see it and adjust.

9. Keep your sense of humour. If you totally duff up a poem, stop. Apologise. Start again.

10. Not all poems will work equally well in performance. Choose those that do.

11. Make it varied. An intensely sad poem benefits from the contrast with something lighter.

12. Stand proud. It’s not about you, it’s about the words. Trust them. If they’re good ones, they will carry you

Helena Nelson is the founder and publisher of HappenStance Press, who this month celebrated their 5th birthday and last week won the Michael Marks Publishers’ Award. This column first appeared in Issue 3 of our Poetry Reader.

weatherman says sun for the weekend!We contemplated our summer reading lists!

We attended the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, having assisted Don Paterson in selecting a poetry strand within the programme.

We ate toffee cake.

Geoffrey Hill was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford with 1,156 votes. He will be the 44th Professor of Poetry since the role was created in 1708. We’ve been following the campaign with interest…

We were delighted with the volume of applicants for our library assistant job. Thank you to all who applied, and for taking an interest in our library and our work. Candidates for interview will be contacted sometime next week. The applications have now closed, but the Edinburgh College of Art are seeking a library assistant.

We are pleased for HappenStance Press, publisher Helena Nelson and poet Selima Hill for their recent success in the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets.

With a little tutelage and a lot of encouragement from the lovely Chris Scott, we got our Flickr groove on! We’ll be building more content, including old and wonderful scans, as the weeks go on. What would you like to see there?

Our Robyn addressed the Cockburn Society for their annual meeting. On Twitter, @thecockburn said:

great job by Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library. Everyone really enjoyed the lecture! @ByLeavesWeLive

We are waltzing off into the weekend now! Lizzie’s on duty tomorrow – do pop in and say hello if you’re in the area. Most importantly, whatever you do this weekend, whatever you read, enjoy!

Library Assistant (0.5 FTE)

£14,550 to £16,629 per annum (pro rata)

You will work as part of the Library team, primarily involved in the daily operation of the issue desk, reporting to the Reader Services Librarian.   The issue desk is the first point of contact with library users and you will be required to provide assistance and support to users in a friendly and efficient manner. You will also contribute to other library processes and procedures as required.

Educated to higher level or equivalent with excellent customer care skills, you will be IT literate and a self-starter with strong organisational skills. You will be a self-motivator and good team player. Experience of working in an academic library and of computer based library management systems is desirable.

To apply please see, (‘staff’ and then ‘jobs at eca’) email or contact 0131 221 6292 (24 hours).

The closing date for applications is Friday 2nd July 2010. Interviews are expected to be held on Tuesday 27th July 2010.

A week or so ago, our colleagues up the road at the Scottish Book Trust unveiled their plans for summer reading. Now we enjoy a good list, and we also love a good book, so the natural next step was to compile our own…

Lizzie (Assistant Librarian)
It would be so nice to really read some poetry slowly rather than just hunting through it … I could start with any of Iain Crichton Smith’s …

Shoring up some time for Dark Matter: poems of space as I didn’t get time to take it in when it first came out

Anna of all the Russias: the life of Anna Akhmatova by Elaine Feinstein.

And as a break from poetry (yes, really!): Lustrum, the second in Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero

Julie (Librarian)

Art and Text from Black Dog Publishing – I got this for my birthday – full of images of work by artists using text.

I’ve just finished Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne so I’m now going to work my way through his The Complete Essays.

At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig is in my summer pile.

I’m interested in sound and silence at the moment, so have a pile of books on those subjects, including Listening by Jean-Luc Nancy

I’m planning to catch up with a couple of Bloodaxe lecture titles – Silent Letters of the Alphabet by Ruth Padel, and Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield

Poetry I’m thinking of:

The Best of It:  Selected Poems by Kay Ryan has caught my eye and is my must-buy read (the cover and design is gorgeous)

And  then I’m planning to spend some time really getting to know the work WS Merwin, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, WS Graham

And dip again into some constant favourites, such as Thomas A Clark, Robert Creeley, John Burnside, Alice Oswald

And I really want to spend lots of time exploring – a fantastic source of visual, sound and experimental poetry and other artforms

I’m not really reading novels that often any more but I do like Scandinavian crime now and then. I’m thinking of starting the influential Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö from the 1960s.

Robyn (Director)

Orlando Figes: Natasha’s Dance: a cultural history of Russia

Bill Manhire: The Victims of Lightning [poems]

Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs

Kay Ryan:  The Best of It: new and selected poems

Into The Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets 1938-2008, translated by Jennie Feldman, Stephen Romer

Laura (intern)

Bill Bryson – At Home,  A Short History of Private Life

Carol Ann Duffy – Love Poems

Curtis Sittenfeld – American Wife

John Carlin – Invictus

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings

George R. R. Martin – A Feast for Crows ( Book 4 of a Song of Ice and Fire)

Jules Watson – The Swan Maiden

Lisa (intern)

Just now I need to finish a huge biography of George I by Ragnhild Hatton. I expect my summer will feature some David Roberts murder mysteries, as Amazon recommended him for me, and some Mary Stewart. I also intend to read The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey, and maybe some more Alys Clare, I just finished one of hers and loved it… can you spot a strong crime and suspense theme? Other than that I will stroll down to my local library and take home anything that looks promising.

Peggy (Communications Officer and Events Programmer)

I am currently entertaining a torrid obsession with the work of novelist Richard Yates, which has recently been heightened by a wonderful gift of the titles I didn’t have. Having just read Disturbing the Peace, and currently on A Good School, the ones left to read (sadly few) are A Special Providence, Liars in Love and Cold Spring Harbor.

In order to delay the pain of finishing the above too quickly, I intend to finally tackle some of the bedside books that have been piling up of late. I’ll be dipping into Alex Ross’s tome The Rest is Noise, an epic sweep of the story of 20th-century music, and Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, a more manageable tome now it’s in paperback.

There’ll have to be a bit of Paul Muldoon: in preparation for our summer exhibiton Plan B, Muldoon’s poems interpreted through the photography of Norman McBeath, I think now’s the time for his The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures. I’m also dying to finally read Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.

What are you reading?

The Signet Library was alive with the sound of excited chit chat, tangy raspberry mocktails and tiny breakfast canapés this morning, for the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Julie, Robyn and I were in attendance for the unveiling of this year’s programme, the first under the directorship of Nick Barley. We’re incredibly excited to be involved again this year, having assisted Don Paterson in his guest selection of a poetry strand. Participating poets include Seamus Heaney, Jackie Kay, John Stammers, Sinead Morrisey, John Glenday and many more. And what with the mini-festival within a festival, Unbound, there’ll be music, poetry and story at night – every night, for free! – in the rouged embrace of the Highland Park Spiegeltent. The programme for Unbound will be released in 3 weeks time in collaboration with the Skinny.

If you haven’t picked up your paper programme, you can drop in and get one from us, or download it online. Get circling and get deciding! What’s your hot ticket? And for those of you unable to make it, we’ll be blogging the poetry strand right here. August, come hither!

Last night the winners of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets were announced at a readings and award ceremony at the British Library. Selima Hill won the Michael Marks Poetry Award for her pamphlet Advice on Wearing Animal Prints, while Scottish press HappenStance won the Michael Marks Publishers’ Award.

Chair of the judges Ali Smith commended the winners, saying “Selima Hill’s Advice on Wearing Animal Prints is a courageous work; startling, strange and unforgettable, it’s a piece of disciplined wildness which grows in power with each re-read.” She admired HappenStance for “the elegance, thoughtfulness and clarity of their design, and the infectious interaction, open-mindedness and energy of their publishing ethos.”

Both winners, selected from over 150 entries, were presented with a cheque for £5,000 by Lady Marks.

We want to offer our warm congratulations to all shortlisted candidates and both winners, and are particularly delighted for Helena Nelson, HappenStance founder and publisher, and long time supporter of the work of the SPL and the poetry of others. Just last week we were pleased to play a part in a successful and rousing 5th birthday party for HappenStance here in the library. Above is the impressive cake!