Liz Lochhead addresses the Bard

January 25, 2011

In Addressing the Bard, we asked twelve contemporary poets to respond to Burns. We got an elegy on an otter, a view of the credit crunch, a celebration of friendship, a political satire… Writing in Gaelic, Scots and English, the poets comment on Burns’s poems, and how each chose to respond to the bard. An exciting and provocative new anthology. A Scottish Poetry Library exclusive! You can buy Addressing the Bard from our shop.

We reprint Liz Lochhead’s contribution, on ‘To A Mouse’, below.

To A Mouse – though it’s about a dozen or twenty years before its time – arguably could be the first poem of the Romantic era. It’s easy to see why Wordsworth and Keats – and Byron – admired Burns so much. It’s also a very ‘green’ poem. For our time. It was the first Burns poem which, fifty years ago, when I was ten, I learned off by heart, reciting it at the 200th Anniversary Burns Competition in the Miners’ Welfare Hall. ( See, I wasn’t a good enough singer to be allowed to do ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ or ‘Ca the Yowes’ or ‘Flow Gently Sweet Afton…’) Our village – an old mining village turned into a scheme, post-war housing for the nearby industrial town of Motherwell in Lanarkshire – had lots of what they always called ‘Burns Afficionados’ among the working men, the steelmen and the miners and the joiners and the shopkeepers, great enthusiasts for ‘our national bard’ among our teachers and our parents.

My poem ‘From a Mouse’ (in Addressing the Bard, edited by Douglas Gifford) is a parody, the sincerest form of flattery, a wee bit of fun. But I was trying to laugh at myself and my own hypocrisy at loving the mouse in the poem and being so afraid of the wee creatures in real life – I do stand on chairs and scream like a woman in a comic! And I wanted to do this in a very imperfect  version of ‘Burns Stanza’ – or ‘Standard Habbie’ as it’s known. I wanted this mouse to see through human beings and, in its own voice, talk back, take the mickey (aargh – no pun intended) out of Scotsmen – and Scotswomen – who sentimentalise Burns as a simple ‘heaven-taught ploughman’. Whereas, although he was always poor and did work long and hard and unsuccessfully at farming, still he was very thoroughly, if largely self-educated, incredibly widely read. And I especially wanted to satirise our partial and prurient interest in his life and loves and personality rather than concentrating on the words he wrote. Which are the whole point. So varied in tone and register, they go brilliantly swooping, sometimes within the one poem, from high to low, from posh English to intimate Ayrshire dialect with such sophistication, confidence, brio, tenderness, intimacy, humour — and, whiles, frankly relished coorse-ness.

2 Responses to “Liz Lochhead addresses the Bard”

  1. Iain Says:

    Ah, this really makes me want to get my hands on the actual poem now!

    Happy Burns Day everyone.

  2. Paul Heinowski Says:

    The oral tradition includes sagas and prayers as well as songs. So there is unmusical poetry as well as musical. Poetry differs from song in the same way as it differs from prose: and also overlaps in the same ways.


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