Sunday, 10 January 2010

Remembering Auld Acquaintance - A Night Out with Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems

I’m particularly fond of John Carey’s theory regarding the British and their relationship (or lack of) with the arts. I’ll oversimplify grossly to keep it brief, but it’s essentially that a lot of British people have been put off engaging with art due to the way it’s been taught and regarded since the Second World War, as elitist trophies to be admired rather than works to be engaged with and actively enjoyed, works which may still have vital ideas, maybe even something to say about our own time. He further argues that if this attitude were to be changed in the teaching and presentation of art, more people would find works of art accessible rather than offputting. Essentially, he’s passionate about trying to bring art to the people by democratising it. It’s best expressed in his book Pure Pleasure , which selects books not for perceived literary merit but by how much enjoyment can be derived from them. Professor Carey struck a chord with me there, particularly with some of my own reading experiences and as such A Night Out With Robert Burns looked like an ideal book for me. It seeks to take Burns from the cosy nostalgic tomb in which he’s generally been sealed, and reposition him as still vibrant and relevant today.Introductions for each poem are provided by Andrew O’Hagan. For much of the book I wasn’t quite sure O’Hagan was the ideal man to write and select the introductions, dropping names such as Seamus Heaney’s into these paragraphs comes across as a tad elitist. Various poems in the first three sections occasionally raise the spectre of that whisky fuelled nostalgia. While that might seem offputting, there was occasionally a certain element of that to Burns’ work, so their inclusion is valid. As I progressed through the book though, it became more and more clear how much thought had been put into both the selection of, and the introductions to, the poems, how they were designed to complement rather than tell what the poems are about. O’Hagan selects the poems not because of perceived greatness (although his most famous works are present and correct) but for the pleasure that can be derived from them and to give a good overview. The introductions generally bring out an aspect of the poetry without directly telling or patronising the reader, the occasional mention of famous friends is a small price to pay there – I was particularly fond of the use of one of the Mail’s more hysterical pieces.Where I found this collection scoring highly was in the final section, dealing with the more political poems. The relevant passages accompanying the poems are immaculately selected and really bring out the obvious anger and frustration that course through Burns’ words. It’s this section more than the other three which gives cause to re-evaluate what you think you know about Burns.In the end O’Hagan proves a fine advocate for Burns (although bracketing him with Shakespeare may be taking things a touch too far). As a perfect host, he only intrudes on proceedings when necessary, remembering Burns is the star of the show and not he. The rough energy and vibrancy of Burns’ words are allowed the space to speak for themselves whilst being given a relevant modern cultural context. It may not entirely bring Burns out of the Scottish dialect ghetto, but as an exercise in trying to correct historical misperceptions of a great figure it’s hugely successful.

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