Oh, What a Company! Burns and Conversation

Posted 1 year ago by Mat

There is one greatest virtue that comes through civilization: conversation.

Law exists for two reasons: to protect the vulnerable and to further human potential. Beyond that, the greatest privilege of education, social stability and international engagement with others, is conversation.

It has to be more than two: dialogue is good but it isn’t enough. You have to admit, acknowledge, give way, to the fact of multitude, plurality, many voices, many nations, all within the constraints of human habitation. We can’t live underwater or in outer space: we’re of the earth, and the earth means, conversation. Geographies and histories, places and time, colours and rhythm, dynamics and rest, listening: and then taking part, engagement, investment, to try to help to make it worthwhile.

So: Scotland, writers, singers, storytellers: Burns, surely, pre-eminently, as you might wish, a name and card and character and body of work anyone (almost anyone) will recognise. But as Rab Wilson points out, among others, most recently gone, Tom Leonard. Yet all stay open to the conversation, but not to be swamped. Not to be overwhelmed by the inanity of others, in a 24/7 cacophony, the perpetual avalanche of the utterly banal, the assertive, the closed. You have to sense and exercise, deliver that duty to maintain your own voice

Television. Memail. Politicos and Management.

No. We’d like to talk with you.

I was talking to a colleague recently who said she had not dared to speak her preference for NO in 2014, the Scottish independence referendum. She felt, she said, intimidated, by the exuberant enthusiasm of the YES people. I said she should have talked to me. I would have loved to hear more, quietly, in conversation, why she would wish to vote NO. I’d like to understand.

But fear makes ignorance, ignorance violence, violence stoppage, and stoppage is blockage and thwart.

Demonise the other and you end all conversation’s possibilities. Recognise that other as a person and the prospects become infinite.

So please, let’s have that conversation. Here’s an open door. And Burns, as almost always, shows the way. Of course he should be read first through all his poems and songs. The fact that he collected so many songs, rewriting or adjusting many of them and matching them to music is of equal significance with his achievement as a poet. But he should also be read through his letters and journals, his accounts of his tours of the Highlands and Borders. He emerges as a writer continually in touch with other people, either in his verse-letters to fellow poets in Ayrshire (correspondence in verse by other poets can be read along with Burns’s poems so that you can see the bagatelle taking place), or physically in the company of men and women of different economic strata. Burns may be a singular phenomenon but he is continually a social poet.

And that society, the conversation it invites, is open. It leads us into the broader spectrum of writers and artists whose commitment remains to a vision of a different social order, where, in William Dunbar’s words, law might be delivered equally to ape and unicorn, eagle and wren. These would include Scottish poets from long before Henryson to MacDiarmid and further, and writers from all around the world, from Whitman and Tolstoy to Lorca, Neruda, Soyinka and Joyce. Burns opens the door to all these writers, and back to the whole history of Scottish literature, and he points forward to the writers who come after him.

And thus, by such description, he is not alone. Kathleen Jamie sets it out: ‘Pass the tambourine. Let us bash out praises.’  And here’s Ed Dorn, in ‘If It Should Ever Come’:


And we are all there together


time will wave as willows do

and adios will be truly, yes,

laughing at what is forgotten

and talking of what's new


And here’s Hugh MacDiarmid, listening in Langholm to the sound of those three rivers, the Wauchope, the Esk, the Ewes, coming to a confluence in Langholm, writing their sounds and movement in his poem ‘Water Music’ and ending its first part like this:


And you’ve me in your creel again

Brim or shallow, bauch or bricht,

Singin’ in the mornin’

Corrieneuchin’ a’ the nicht.


The prospect of the day: let’s sing ourselves into that happily –

And then the night falls: let’s start talking through it, let’s have that conversation –

Rab mentions a mural in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum depicting a dinner party, Burns in the centre of a company including Beethoven, Che Guevara, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Mohammed Ali. But why limit ourselves? Why not an even grander, days and nights long gathering where folk can come and go as time and inclination prompt, open especially to all the less familiar. Let’s say, Marian Evans, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Melville, Margaret Oliphant, Alasdair Mac Mhaigstir Alastair, Richard Stark, Chester Himes, Janet Evanovich, Duncan Ban MacIntyre, Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (or Mary MacLeod), Màiri Mhòr nan Òran (or Mary MacPherson), Sileas na Ceapaich, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and of course, we could go on – oh, what a company that might be, and what an endless flow and drift, tides and currents, conversations quiet and tender, strong and various, distanced and close, calculating and impassioned. What languages!

And the thing to understand is, it is already here. All art is a conversation, usually with the dead. But it is a living dialogue, between any reader and all the wealth of the world, through time, and between readers all over the world and our contemporaries, here and now.

Which is once again to acknowledge: listening. Good reading. Good writing. Good conversation means that others attend, attentive. Your own response, as theirs must be, is exactly that: responding to what’s been said. What you say has to be unsaid before, a contribution, freely given. Or as someone else once put it:


Say what it is, you have to say.

If nothing, then be silent.


So there’s good guidance. What remains is everything. It’s a big world, pilgrims. Let’s take a big bite.


Alan Riach is Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. He has published widely on matters concerning Scottish literature, visual culture and on culture within a political context. He has also published several highly regarded volumes of poetry, most recently, The Winter Book (2017).

A Year of Conversation 2019 is a collaborative project designed to celebrate, initiate and explore conversation through the creativity of those who live here. 



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