norbert blei | updike’s poems

31 01 2009

Poetry Dispatch No.267 | January 29, 2009


Norbert Blei

He was one of our last major American writers who also paid attention to a lost art form: light verse. There was always humor in Updike’s lines, but he seemed especially fond of playing with words, rhythm, sound and ideas, “lightly’ in verse.

A contemporary of his, Phyllis McGinley, the queen of suburban light verse (THE LOVE LETTERS OF PHYLLIS McGINLEY, 1954) achieved considerable fame and respect herself in this form, though she came nowhere close to ‘also’ mastering the novel, the short story, journalism, criticism and ‘serious’ poetry.

As I continue to downsize my considerable library, I come upon book after ‘cheap’ paperback book–faded covers, yellowed or tanned pages, margin notes, underlined passages, bent spines or books still spotless, brand new…priced 35¢, 75¢, $1.00, $1.25 etc. Who could possibly love or honor these books more than I? All small, precious ‘pocket books’ that I cannot—give away? Sell? Trash? Who would want this stuff today, given what’s out there? Of what possible value would these antique texts be to anyone but (hopefully)…a ‘young’ writer who prefers to hold a real book in his hands? Or a serious reader? Any reader at all? This is the stuff even a library doesn’t want. Literary fodder. Extinct. Books destined to be ‘disappeared’ in one manner or another. So… I may as well keep them and request to be burned and buried with my old paperback books.

Among these, I find and delight in (once again), young Updike’s light verse.



My poems, at Mammon’s grim behest,
Have been collected here by Crest.
Forgive them, if they seem to thin;
Diaphanousness is no sin
In ballerinas’ skirts, so why
My own transparency decry?
It pleased me once to write them, and
I’m pleased to place them in your hand.

[from VERSE, Crest, 1965, 75¢]



Was I clever enough? Was I charming?
Did I make ay least one good pun?
Was I disconcerting? Disarming?
Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?

Did I answer that girl with white shoulders
Correctly, or should I have said
(Engagingly), “Kierkegaard smolders,
But Eliot’s ashes are dead?”

And did I, while being a smarty,
Yet some wry reserve slyly keep,
So they murmured, when I’d left the party,
“He’s deep. He’s deep. He’s deep”?

[from VERSE, Crest, 1965, 75¢]

As much as my life is devoted to reading and writing, as fortunate as I am to be always near, in touch with writers, artists, readers, here/there/everywhere, I have rarely heard ‘serious poet’ come up in any discussion of John Updike. “They” will give him his light verse…but then it’s off to his ‘pretty prose”, his cultural perceptiveness, his sexual city and suburban motifs in short and long narratives.

But here’s a reminder: the man wrote a hell of a ‘serious’ poem as well. Don’t ever forget—or deny him this.

Who knows when any writer ‘discovers’ death creeping into his work for the first time. For some, it’s there in the very beginning. For others, it slips into his or her mid-life prose and poems. Still others may inadvertently write ‘goodbye’ only days or months before they write the final word.

ALL of the above seems ‘probably” true in Updike’s light and heavy world of getting one’s whole life down in words.


Burning Trash

At night—the light turned off, the filament
Unburdened of its atom-eating charge,
His wife asleep, her breathing dipping low
To touch a swampy source—he thought of death.
Her father’s hilltop home allowed him time
To sense the nothing standing like a sheet
Of speckless glass behind his human future.
He had two comforts he could see, just two.

One was the cheerful fullness of most things:
Plump stones and clouds, expectant pods, the soil
Offering up pressure to his knees and hands.
The other was burning the trash each day.
He liked the heat, the imitation danger,
And the way, as he tossed in used-up news,
String, napkins, envelopes, and paper cups,
Hypnotic tongues of order intervened.

[Collected Poems 1953-1993 , Knopf, 1993]


Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market-
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

[from Collected Poems 1953-1993, Knopf, 1993]


The poem, “Requiem” by all indications was John Updike’s most recent—and last word on the subject. It will appear in a forthcoming collection of his work:


It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
‘Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise – depths unplumbable!
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
‘I thought he died a while ago.’
For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.


john updike | march 18, 1932 – january 27, 2009

28 01 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.168 | January 28, 2009

John Updike

March 18, 1932—January 27, 2009

On Memories, Beginnings, Endings…

To begin with the end: Updike dead at 76…another long, quiet, sleepless night…last night, yet so fully alive remembering, remembering, going through all the Updike books on my shelves, thinking as well–his death too close to home…a writer I began to follow from my own beginnings, his first stories, first books…learning so much, admiring/studying the craft…so conscious too of certain common denominators we shared in boyhood…a writer who could not separate himself from fiction, but rendered it all, everything into art. His sentences–not written but sculpted…divined. His stories held you hostage in the very first lines.

He was not Mailer or Hemingway or Bellow or Hunter. He confessed, often, his grasp was small, more mundane…quite ordinary. What else to work with, growing up rural, in Shillington, PA? (He smiled.)

And so it what childhood…memories held in safekeeping to last seventy-six years…mother, father, grandparents…the shadow of the great depression…the farm, the town, the city, the suburbs…friends, first love/many loves…marriage, wives, lovers, children, separation, divorce, remarriage, grandchildren, travel, fame…pages and pages, books and books. He owned up to it all. Made it real–no character, setting, feeling you were likely to ever forget. Be it the life and times of “Rabbit” Angstrom (surely an American masterpiece), or the tails and travails of Richard and Joan Maple. (And was there ever a greater story written on the breakup of a marriage than “Separating” loss, anxiety, etc.? Required reading for anyone who’s been there, is there, or seems headed toward that rite-of-passage. Then all those stories of childhood which seem written in gold, glowing there in afternoon sunlight, lingering forever in a way you’ll never be again.

If there is one book of stories (his earliest stories) I would suggest for a writer just starting out to learn the tale and tell it well…it would be a paperback collection (difficult to find) called OLINGER STORIES. The map is there. And needs to be studied carefully.

One other book I urge writers, in particular, keep on their shelves and read often: SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike. A memory to take into your own consciousness and lead you where you need to go.

Here are a few excerpts from some of works mentioned above…in memory and love of an American writer who knows how story leads to story, without end. —Norbert Blei


The point, to me, is plain, and is the point, more or less, of all these Olinger stories. We are regarded unexpectedly. The muddled and inconsequent surface of things now and then parts to yield us a gift. In my boyhood I had the impression of being surrounded by an incoherent generosity, of—to quote a barefaced reminiscence I once wrote—a quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest, like a [ brick wall or a small stone, seem to affirm. A wordless reassurance these things are pressing to give. An hallucination? To transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery: is it possible or, in view of the suffering that violently colors the periphery and that at all moments threatens to move into the center, worth doing? Possibly not; but the horse-chestnut trees, the telephone poles, the porches, the green hedges recede to a calm point that in my subjective geography is still the center of the world.

[from the “Foreward” to OLINGER STORIES, Vintage Books, 1964

Shortly before the first of these personal essays was composed (but several years after the soft spring night in Shillington that it describes) I was told, perhaps in jest, of someone wanting to write my biography—to take my life, my lode of ore and heap of memories, from me! The idea seemed so repulsive that I was stimulated to put down, always with some natural hesitation and distaste, these elements of an autobiography. They record what seems to me important about my own life, and try to treat this life, this massive datum which happens to be mine, as a specimen life, representative in its odd unique¬ness of all the oddly unique lives in this world. A mode of impersonal egoism was my aim: an attempt to touch honestly upon the central veins, with a scientific dispassion and curiosity. The veins had been tapped, of course—the lode mined—in over thirty years’ worth of prose and poetry; and where an especially striking or naked parallel in my other work occurred to me, I have quoted it, as a footnote. But merciful forgetfulness has no doubt hidden many other echoes from me, as well as eroded the raw material of autobiography into shapes scarcely less imaginary, though less final, than those of fiction.

[from the “Forward” to SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike, Knopf, 1989.}

We are all of mixed blood, and produce mixed results. At a low time in my life, when I had taken an exit not from my profession but from my marriage, and left your mother and her siblings more in harm’s way than felt right, my mother in the midst of her disapproval and sadness produced a saying so comforting I pass it on to you. She sighed and said, “Well, Grampy used to say, ‘We carry our own hides to market.’ ” The saying is blunt but has the comfort of putting responsibility where it can be borne, on a frame made to fit. The comfort of my hearing it said lay of course in its partial release from tribal obligations—our debt of honor to our ancestors and our debt of shelter to our descendants. These debts are real, but realer still is a certain obligation to our own selves, the obligation to live. We are social creatures but, unlike ants and bees, not just that; there is something intrinsically and individually vital which must be defended against the claims even of virtue. Quench not the spirit. Do not hide your light beneath a bushel basket. Do not bury your talent in the ground of this world. In this grandfatherly letter about my paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, let me end by offering you, as part of your heritage, this saying ascribed to my other grandfather, John Hoyer, whom I knew well, who watched me grow from infancy and who lived in good health until he was over ninety. You carry your own hide to market.
Love, Grandpa

[“A Letter to My Grandsons”, from SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike, Knopf, 1989.}

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, these disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self—skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormentor, relentlessly pushing his cartoons and posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless-high school—strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot: without his frantic ambition and insecurity I would not now be sitting on (as my present home was named by others) Haven Hill. And my Ipswich self, a delayed second edition of that high-school self, in a town much like Shillington in its blend of sweet and tough, only more spacious and historic and blessedly free of family ghosts, and my own relative position in the “gang” improved, enhanced by a touch of wealth and celebrity, a mini-Mailer in our small salt-water pond, a stag of sorts in our herd of housewife-does, flirtatious, malicious, greedy for my quota of life’s pleasures, a distracted, mediocre father and worse husband—he seems another obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky and, in the service of his own ego, remorseless. But, then, am I his superior in anything but caution and years, and how can I disown him without disowning also his useful works, on which I still receive royalties? And when I entertain in my mind these shaggy, red-faced, overexcited, abrasive fellows, I find myself tenderly taken with their diligence, their hopefulness, their ability in spite of all to map a broad strategy and stick with it. So perhaps one cannot, after all, not love them.

[“On Being a Self Forever”, from SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike, Knopf, 1989.}

Even toward myself, as my own life’s careful manager and promoter, I feel a touch of disdain. Precociously conscious of the precious, inexplicable burden of selfhood, I have steered my unique little craft carefully, at the same time doubting that carefulness is the most sublime virtue. He that gains his life shall lose it. In this interim of gaining and losing, it clears the air to disbelieve in death and to believe that the world was created to be praised. But I inherited a skeptical temperament. My father believed in science (“Water is the great solvent”) and my mother in nature. She looked and still looks to the plants and the animals for orientation, and I have absorbed the belief that when in doubt we should behave, if not like monkeys, like “savages”—that our instincts and appetites are better guides, for a healthy life, than the advice of other human beings. People are fun, but not quite serious or trustworthy in the way that nature is. We feel safe, huddled within human institutions—churches, banks, madrigal groups—but these concoctions melt away at the basic moments. The self’s responsibility, then, is to achieve rapport if not rapture with the giant, cosmic other: to appreciate, let’s say, the walk back from the mailbox.

[“On Being a Self Forever”, from SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike, Knopf, 1989.}

norbert blei | skating backwards

27 01 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 167 | January 27, 2009

Skating Backwards

Norbert Blei

Once after the war the small boy went from the city in a new blue Buick convertible and skated a frozen river in a forest preserve with his favorite uncle who was like a father to him.

Uncle Stephan was a soccer player, a soft ball player, an archer, a photographer, a singer, and a speed skater. He was married to Aunt Edith who always complained about her health. Uncle Stephan had a thin mustache and wore flashy shirts and pants the boy’s father called race track clothes. The blue Buick convertible, the family suspected, was bought on the black market after the war when new cars were almost impossible to buy. Uncle Stephan, who worked for his family’s business, which he hated, was a neighborhood butcher who provided for the family during the war when food was scarce. Packages of meat wrapped in pink butcher paper and tied in coarse string would miraculously appear once a week behind their kitchen doors.

There was some mystery and jealousy to Uncle Stephan which was never mentioned outright. Something about the way he dressed, the way he spent money, the way he ignored Aunt Edith while she worshipped him, which was whispered by the father, the mother, aunts and uncles in the family. But in Uncle Stephan’s presence all this disappeared. The family always seemed happy to see him. Everyone ate and drank and laughed and told stories. Often stories in another language. Sometimes Uncle Stephan would reach for the small boy, “Come here, Sport,” grab him and tickle him till the boy screamed, and Aunt Edith would scold the uncle, accuse him of acting like a child, and the boy, filled with laugher and tears, would come back for more.

He loved Uncle Stephan, who often took him for thick strawberry malts, drove him around the city in his black market Buick with the top down, kidded him about girls, taught him to play soccer and soft ball. Uncle Stephan knew everything. All the boy’s aunts loved him. Including the boy’s mother.

“Okay, Sport,” he said to the boy as they approached the frozen river,” let’s see if you can catch me.”

In the boy’s eyes, he had entered a Christmas card world of woods and snow and children in bright mufflers skating on ice in an afternoon sun slowly turning to twilight skies and lavender shadows, backlighting the black branches etched in snow. He skated very slowly, uncertain of his balance, absorbing the natural world around him, feeling a part of it. It was like nothing he ever witnessed or felt in his neighborhood. Nothing so alluring as a river and the quiet of a forest in winter.

This was the same river where one summer he stood on a bridge and watched men fish from green wooden row boats with white numbers painted on the bow. Bullheads and carp and sunfish were somewhere under his feet at the moment, somewhere under the ice. This was the same river he had seen his Uncle Stephan one golden autumn kissing a woman against a tree. The boy pushed hard with his blades, glided, pushed again and fell. Got up and followed the curving river of ice, his legs shaking.

Up ahead he could hear Uncle Stephan singing, see him moving gracefully on black leather skates with long silver blades. See him making a beautiful arc in the distance and pause to wait for the boy under the bare branches of an old willow tree leaning over the frozen bank. A young girl about the same age as the boy, stood next to him.

“Here he comes,” he could hear his uncle tell the girl. “He likes you. He’s shy around pretty girls.” Both the girl and the uncle smiled and began skating backwards in circles around the boy as he approached.

The girl had beautiful dark eyes and long brown hair. She wore a red coat, red mittens, and furry white earmuffs. She stopped in front of the boy and extended her arms toward him. The boy took hold of the girl’s red-mittened hands and followed her as she skated backwards, pulling him toward her.

Slowly he fell into the rhythm, push…pull, push…pull…

The boy was in love with the girl, the long white river of ice, the black branches of the trees overhead against the falling light. The uncle went back to the car to get his camera and took a picture of them skating away from him down the river, holding hands, balancing each other. Neither had much to say and the afternoon passed quickly.

“Time to go, Sport,” the uncle yelled. “It’s getting dark.”

Years later, alone on a small lake a great distance from the city, near an invisible Canadian border where he settled in midlife, the boy who is now the age of his Uncle that afternoon on the river, skates backwards in the night, swiftly gliding around and around a frozen lake, extending his arms toward the darkness, pulling it with him.

Copy of the original publication of the hand-painted cover edition of 25 copies.

from WINTER BOOK, Ellis Press, 2002; originally published by Chris Halla, Page 5, #6, (Limited Edition), 1995, as a chapter of an experimental novel, WHAT I KNOW BY HEART SO FAR. Winter Book is a mature performance with a satisfying sense of completion. The season is winter; the dominant theme is the acceptance of small wonders, including decay and obscurity. Like Blei himself, Winter Book is alternately nostalgic, angry, and amusing. It is in some respects a very public book, in others a very personal collection. The journalistic profiles are Blei’s own experiences and friends, including public figures like Chan Harris and Al Johnson, and Door County natives, poets, musicians, and artists. Blei’s fictions explore the Door landscape on a deeper level. Blei is an astute observer whose attitudes are shared by readers inside and outside the County. Once again the personal becomes the public, and Winter Book, like Door Way, records communal experience.

robert burns | some hae meat

24 01 2009

Poetry Dispatch No.266 | January 25, 2009

Happy 250th Birthday, Bobbie Burns!

(Robert Burns, Washington Island, and Bill Olson)


For a’ that, an a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

–Robt. Burns

My friend and fellow writer, Bill Olson, who lives just a half-hour’s ferry-boar ride north of me on Washington Island, sent me this poem right after Obama’s inauguration, reminding me as well that the grand old Scot poet, Robert Burns, celebrates his 250th on January 25th. Ah, but now there’s a name from the past. And when was the last time you read Bobbie Burns? Let that old sound of the langauge just dance around in your mouth? What a joy, the poets past and present, and how they speak to us still, from every corner of the world.

I don’t get over the Island (some 30 square miles) as much as I would like, though I love the place and nourish, at times, the thought of moving there, the romance of ‘running-away-from-it-all’…Ken Kesey’s destination-sign on the magic bus: FURTHER…that kind of journey both To and Away–especially in summer, when everything gets just way too much on the mainland. Winter on the Island has an unexplainable attraction as well. I like the uniqueness of the people over there as well, all 600-plus of them presently and—down through history, to the ‘outsiders’ (truly from all walks of life) who have ‘settled’ in and away over there—some maybe just plain hiding out.

I like the fact that there’s a writer/poet Bill Olson on the Island, (who sometimes flies his flag upside down in protest)…who preserves the memory of Robert Burns from that isolated location. I remember hearing of the annual Robert Burns get-together for years, and always wished the hell I had attended one.

To have Bill tell it: “We moved to the Island 20 years ago with one regret – missing our Burns friends and the annual Burns birthday bash. So I got together with some others on the Island who claimed Scottish heritage (and some who only wish they could) and for the next 10 years we had our own Burns Suppers. We even found a piper. We often had as many as 50 in attendance, once even during a blizzard. By the 10th year however I could no longer depend on help and sadly had to discontinue the event. People still ask when we’ll have another. Perhaps we will someday.”

Why the Burns attraction for a man named Olson (a name so rooted to this Scandinavian landscape? Says Bill:

“Who else, poet or other, has a birthday celebrated literally around the world? Not even Shakespeare. I guess only Jesus Christ would qualify. So, what’s the deal? Well, it started as a Scottish thing. Robert Burns lived in a time of a resurgence of Scottish pride. He fed this hunger for overcoming the English subjugation as well as the Presbyterian repression. The plowman poet spoke not only to his fellow commoners but also the intellectuals of Edinburgh and many Scottish lords of the manors. Scots were settling in almost every country around the globe. They took his poetry with them. And even today we celebrate his works each time we sing “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot” or refer to lines from Burns poetry such as “Oh would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us” or “Time and tide wait for no man” or even when we wear a “Tam o’Shanter.”

“Thirty or so years ago I caught the genealogy bug and since half of my ancestors came from Scotland I joined two Scottish clubs. Then I went to my first Burns Supper. WOW! It was Burns, Burns, Burns – and I loved it. I was befriended by a Scottish immigrant who absolutely exuded Burns. He could recite long poems such as “Tam o’Shanter” or “Holy Willies Prayer.” He fought with British troops in North Africa and told me that the one book he carried through the war was a small volume of Burns verse.I began to understand most of the lowlands Scots which was used by Burns in most of his poems. He wrote of everything from a wee mouse to his pet sheep, his collie, his lasses (and there were many), his religion, his friends and his enemies. I even bought a kilt to wear to various Scottish festivities.

“And I developed a taste for single malt Glenlivet. So that’s why Burns.”

–Robert Burns, Bill Olson, Norbert Blei


Some Hae Meat

by Robert Burns

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thanit.

Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) (also known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and in Scotland as simply The Bard) was a poet and a lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, and is celebrated worldwide. He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English and a ‘light’ Scots dialect, accessible to an audience beyond Scotland. He also wrote in standard English, and in these pieces, his political or civil commentary is often at its most blunt.

He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. A cultural icon in Scotland and among the Scottish Diaspora around the world, celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong on Scottish literature.

As well as making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year), and Scots Wha Hae served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well-known across the world today, include A Red, Red Rose, A Man’s A Man for A’ That, To a Louse, To a Mouse, The Battle of Sherramuir, Tam O’Shanter and .Ae Fond Kiss

Burns was born two miles (3 km) south of Ayr, in Alloway, South Ayrshire, Scotland, the eldest of the seven children of William Burness (1721-1784) (Robert Burns spelled his surname Burness until 1786), a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar, The Mearns, and Agnes Broun (1732-1820), the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire.

He was born in a house built by his father (now the Burns Cottage Museum), where he lived until Easter 1766, when he was seven years old. William Burness sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre Mount Oliphant farm, southeast of Alloway. Here Burns grew up in poverty and hardship, and the severe manual labour of the farm left its traces in a premature stoop and a weakened constitution.

He had little regular schooling and got much of his education from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history and also wrote for them A Manual Of Christian Belief. He was also taught by John Murdoch (1747-1824), who opened an ‘adventure school’ in Alloway in 1763 and taught Latin, French, and mathematics to both Robert and his brother Gilbert (1760-1827) from 1765 to 1768 until Murdoch left the parish. After a few years of home education, Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School during the summer of 1772 before returning at harvest time to full-time farm labouring until 1773, when he was sent to lodge with Murdoch for three weeks to study grammar, French, and Latin.

By the age of 15, Burns was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant. During the harvest of 1774, he was assisted by Nelly Kilpatrick (1759-1820), who inspired his first attempt at poetry, O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass. In the summer of 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald, where he met Peggy Thomson (b.1762), to whom he wrote two songs, Now Westlin’ Winds and I Dream’d I Lay.

At Whitsun, 1777, William Burness removed his large family from the unfavourable conditions of Mount Oliphant to the 130-acre (0.53 km2) farm at Lochlea, near Tarbolton, where they stayed until Burness’s death in 1784. Subsequently, the family became integrated into the community of Tarbolton. To his father’s disapproval, Robert joined a country dancing school in 1779 and, with Gilbert, formed the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club the following year. In 1780 Burns became a Freemason at Lodge St David, Tarbolton. His earliest existing letters date from this time, when he began making romantic overtures to Alison Begbie (b. 1762). In spite of four songs written for her and a suggestion that he was willing to marry her, she rejected him.

In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine to learn to become a flax-dresser, but during the New Year celebrations of 1781/1782 the flax shop caught fire and was sufficiently damaged to send him home to Lochlea farm.

He continued to write poems and songs and began a Commonplace Book in 1783, while his father fought a legal dispute with his landlord. The case went to the Court of Session, and Burness was upheld in January 1784, a fortnight before he died. Robert and Gilbert made an ineffectual struggle to keep on the farm, but after its failure they moved to the farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline in March, which they maintained with an uphill fight for the next four years. During the summer of 1784, he came to know a group of girls known collectively as The Belles of Mauchline, one of whom was Jean Armour, the daughter of a stonemason from Mauchline.

His casual love affairs did not endear him to the elders of the local kirk and created for him a reputation for dissoluteness amongst his neighbours. His first illegitimate child, Elizabeth Paton Burns (1785-1817), was born to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760-circa 1799), as he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour. She bore him twins in 1786, and although her father initially forbade their marriage, they were eventually married in 1788. She bore him nine children in total, but only three survived infancy.

During a rift in his relationship with Jean Armour in 1786, and as his prospects in farming declined, he began an affair with Mary Campbell (1763-1786), to whom he dedicated the poems The Highland Lassie O, Highland Mary and To Mary in Heaven. Their relationship has been the subject of much conjecture, and it has been suggested that they may have married. They planned to emigrate to Jamaica, where Burns intended to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. He was dissuaded by a letter from Thomas Blacklock, and before the plans could be acted upon, Campbell died suddenly of a fever in Greenock. That summer, he published the first of his collections of verse, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, which created a sensation and has been recognised as a significant literary event.

At the suggestion of his brother, Robert Burns published his poems in the volume Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, known as the Kilmarnock volume. First proposals were published in April 1786 before the poems were finally published in Kilmarnock in July 1786 and sold for 3 shillings. Brought out by John Wilson, a local printer in Kilmarnock, it contained much of his best writing, including The Twa Dogs, Address to the Deil, Hallowe’en, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, To a Mouse, and To a Mountain Daisy, many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm. The success of the work was immediate, and soon he was known across the country.

Burns was invited to Edinburgh on 14 December 1786 to oversee the preparation of a revised edition, the first Edinburgh edition, by William Creech, which was finally published on 17 April 1787 (within a week of this event, Burns sold his copyright to Creech for 100 guineas). In Edinburgh, he was received as an equal by the city’s brilliant men of letters and was a guest at aristocratic gatherings, where he bore himself with unaffected dignity. Here he encountered, and made a lasting impression on, the 16-year-old Walter Scott, who described him later with great admiration:

“ His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His features are presented in Mr Nasmyth’s picture but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits … there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time. „— Walter Scott

His stay in the city resulted in some lifelong friendships, among which were those with Lord Glencairn, and Frances Anna Dunlop (1730-1815), who became his occasional sponsor and with whom he corresponded for the rest of his life. He embarked on a relationship with the separated Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose (1758-1841), with whom he exchanged passionate letters under pseudonyms (Burns called himself ‘Sylvander’ and Nancy ‘Clarinda’). When it became clear that Nancy would not be easily seduced into a physical relationship, Burns moved on to Jenny Clow (1766-1792), Nancy’s domestic servant, who bore him a son, Robert Burns Clow in 1788. His relationship with Nancy concluded in 1791 with a final meeting in Edinburgh before she sailed to Jamaica for what transpired to be a short-lived reconciliation with her estranged husband. Before she left, he sent her the manuscript of Ae Fond Kiss as a farewell to her.

In Edinburgh in early 1787 he met James Johnson, a struggling music engraver and music seller with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. Burns shared this interest and became an enthusiastic contributor to The Scots Musical Museum. The first volume of this was published in 1787 and included three songs by Burns. He contributed 40 songs to volume 2, and would end up responsible for about a third of the 600 songs in the whole collection as well as making a considerable editorial contribution. The final volume was published in 1803.

On his return to Ayrshire on 18 February 1788, he resumed his relationship with Jean Armour and took a lease on the farm of Ellisland near Dumfries on 18 March (settling there on 11 June) but trained as an exciseman should farming continue to prove unsuccessful. He was appointed duties in Customs and Excise in 1789 and eventually gave up the farm in 1791. Meanwhile, he was writing at his best, and in November 1790 had produced Tam O’ Shanter. About this time he was offered and declined an appointment in London on the staff of the Star newspaper, and refused to become a candidate for a newly-created Chair of Agriculture in the University of Edinburgh, although influential friends offered to support his claims. After giving up his farm he removed to Dumfries.

It was at this time that, being requested to write lyrics for The Melodies of Scotland, he responded by contributing over 100 songs. He made major contributions to George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice as well as to James Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum. Arguably his claim to immortality chiefly rests on these volumes which placed him in the front rank of lyric poets. Burns described how he had to master singing the tune before he composed the words:

“ My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chuse my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed – which is generally the most difficult part of the business – I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my, pen goes. —Robert Burns

Burns also worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not Burns’s), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many of Burns’s most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. For example, Auld Lang Syne is set to the traditional tune Can Ye Labour Lea, A Red, Red Rose is set to the tune of Major Graham and The Battle of Sherramuir is set to the Cameronian Rant.

His direct literary influences in the use of Scots in poetry were Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) and Robert Fergusson. Burns’s poetry also drew upon a substantial familiarity and knowledge of Classical, Biblical, and English literature, as well as the Scottish Makar tradition. Burns was skilled in writing not only in the Scots language but also in the Scottish English dialect of the English language. Some of his works, such as Love and Liberty (also known as The Jolly Beggars), are written in both Scots and English for various effects.

His themes included republicanism (he lived during the French Revolutionary period) and Radicalism which he expressed covertly in Scots Wha Hae, Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender roles, commentary on the Scottish Kirk of his time, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality, and the beneficial aspects of popular socialising (carousing, Scotch whisky, folk songs, and so forth). Burns and his works were a source of inspiration to the pioneers of liberalism, socialism and the campaign for Scottish self-government, and he is still widely respected by political activists today, ironically even by conservatives and establishment figures because after his death Burns became drawn into the very fabric of Scotland’s national identity. It is this, perhaps unique, ability to appeal to all strands of political opinion in the country that have led him to be widely acclaimed as the national poet.

Burns’s views on these themes in many ways parallel those of William Blake, but it is believed that, although contemporaries, they were unaware of each other. Burns’s works are less overtly mystical.

He is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education by calling him a “heaven-taught ploughman.” Burns would influence later Scottish writers, especially Hugh MacDiarmid, who fought to dismantle the sentimental cult that had dominated Scottish literature in MacDiarmid’s opinion.

Robert Burns was initiated into Lodge St David Tarbolton on 4 July 1781, when he was 22. He was passed and raised on 1 October 1781. Later his lodge became dormant and Burns joined Lodge St James Tarbolton Kilwinning number 135. The location of the Temple where he was made a Freemason is unknown, but on 30 June 1784 the meeting place of the lodge became the “Manson Inn” in Tarbolton, and one month later, on 27 July 1784, Burns became Depute Master, which he held until 1788, often honoured with supreme command.

Although regularly meeting in Tarbolton, the “Burns Lodge” also removed itself to hold meetings in Mauchline. During 1784 he was heavily involved in Lodge business, attending all nine meetings, passing and raising brethren and generally running the Lodge. Similarly, in 1785 he was equally involved as Depute Master, where he again attended all nine lodge meetings amongst other duties of the Lodge. During 1785 he initiated and passed his brother Gilbert being raised on 1 March 1788. He must have been a very popular and well-respected Depute Master, as the minutes show that there were more lodge meetings well attended during the Burns period than at any other time.

At a meeting of Lodge St. Andrew in Edinburgh in 1787, in the presence of the Grand Master and Grand Lodge of Scotland, Burns was toasted by the Grand Master, Francis Chateris. When he was received into Edinburgh Lodges, his occupation was recorded as a “poet”. In early 1787, he was feted by the Edinburgh Masonic fraternity. The Edinburgh period of Burns’s life was fateful, as further editions of the Kilmarnock Edition were sponsored by the Edinburgh Freemasons, ensuring that his name spread around Scotland and subsequently to England and abroad.

During his tour of the South of Scotland, as he was collecting material for The Scots Musical Museum, he visited lodges throughout Ayrshire and became an honorary member of a number of them. On 18 May 1787 he arrived at Eyemouth, Berwickshire, where a meeting was convened of Royal Arch and Burns became a Royal Arch Mason. On his journey home to Ayrshire, he passed through Dumfries (where he later lived), the site of the Globe Inn, which he described as his “favourite howff”(or “inn”). Burns’s accommodations at the inn, which is still in use, can be visited by arrangement. His final resting place, the Burns Mausoleum, is also in Dumfries at St.Michaels Kirk. He was posthumously given the freedom of the town.

On 25 July 1787, after being re-elected Depute Master, he presided at a meeting where several well-known Masons were given honorary membership. During his Highland tour, he visited many other lodges. During the period from his election as Depute Master in 1784, Lodge St James had been convened 70 times. Burns was present 33 times and was 25 times the presiding officer. His last meeting at his mother lodge, St James Kilwinning, was on 11 November 1788.

He joined Lodge Dumfries St Andrew Number 179 on 27 December 1788. Out of the six Lodges in Dumfries, he joined the one which was the weakest. The records of this lodge are scant, and we hear no more of him until 30 November 1792, when Burns was elected Senior Warden. From this date until his final meeting in the Lodge on 14 April 1796, it appears that the Lodge met only five times. There are no records of Burns visiting any other Lodges. On 28th August 1787 Burns visited Stirling and passed through Bridge of Allan on his way to the Roman fort at Braco. In 1793 he wrote his poem “By Allan Stream”

As his health began to give way, Burns began to age prematurely and fell into fits of despondency. The habits of intemperance (alleged mainly by temperance activist James Currie) are said to have aggravated his long-standing rheumatic heart condition. In fact, his death was caused by bacterial endocarditis exacerbated by a streptococcal infection reaching his blood following a dental extraction in winter 1795, and it was no doubt further affected by the three months of famine culminating in the Dumfries Food Riots of March 1796, and on 21 July 1796 he died in Dumfries at the age of 37. The funeral took place on 25 July 1796, the day his son Maxwell was born. A memorial edition of his poems was published to raise money for his wife and children, and within a short time of his death, money started pouring in from all over Scotland to support them.

There are many organizations around the world named after Burns, as well as a large number of statues and memorials. Organisations include the Robert Burns Fellowship of the University of Otago, and the Burns Club Atlanta in the United States. Towns named after Robert Burns include Burns, New York, and Burns, Oregon. Burns’ birthplace in Alloway is now a public museum, and significant 19th-century monuments to him stand in Alloway and Edinburgh. In the suburb of Summerhill in Dumfries, the majority of the streets have names with Burns connotations. A BR Standard Class 7 steam locomotive was named after him, along with a later British Rail Class 87 electric locomotive, No.87035.

The Royal Mail has twice issued postage stamps commemorating Burns. In 1966, two stamps were issued, priced fourpence and 1 shilling and threepence, both carrying Burns’s portrait. In 1996, an issue commemorating the bicentenary of his death comprised four stamps, priced 19 pence, 25 pence, 41 pence and 60 pence, and included quotes from Burns’s poems.

Robert Burns is pictured on the £5 banknote (since 1971) of the Clydesdale Bank, one of the Scottish banks with the right to issue banknotes. On the reverse of the note there is a vignette of a field mouse and a wild rose which refers to Burns’s poem “to a mouse”. In September 2007, the Bank of Scotland redesigned their banknotes and Robert Burns’ statue is now portrayed on the reverse side of new £5. In 2009 the Royal Mint will issue a commemorative two pound coin featuring a quote from Auld Lang Syne.

In 1996, a musical called Red Red Rose won third place at a competition for new musicals in Denmark. The musical was about Burns’s life and he was played by John Barrowman. On 25 January 2008 a musical play about the love affair between Robert Burns and Nancy McLehose entitled “Clarinda”, written by Mike Gibb and Kevin Walsh, premiered in Edinburgh before touring Scotland. In April 2008 a cast CD of the score was released (

Burns Night, effectively a second national day, is celebrated on 25 January with Burns suppers around the world, and is still more widely observed than the official national day, Saint Andrew’s Day, or the proposed North American celebration Tartan Day. The format of Burns suppers has not changed since Robert’s death in 1796. The basic format starts with a general welcome and announcements followed with the Selkirk Grace. After the grace comes the piping and cutting of the haggis, where Robert’s famous Address To a Haggis is read and the haggis is cut open. The event usually allows for people to start eating just after the haggis is presented. This is when the reading called the “immortal memory”, an overview of Robert’s life and work, is given; the event usually concludes with the singing of Auld Lang Syne. source

tom tomorrow | this modern world

17 01 2009


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.166 | January 17, 2009


(“BYE, BYE BUSH”… AND ALL THAT, and more…)

Editor’s Note: Among my numerous attempts the past 40 years to survive as a ‘local’ writer in this rural Wisconsin location, contribute something to the community culture (via what passes for local newspapers, shopping guides, entertainment sheets here) that might address everything from the stark beauty of the landscape; environmental concerns; portraits of local people (from farmers, fishermen, ministers, etc.…to the ‘movers and shakers’); somewhat and/or slightly satirical pieces on any and all issues that needed an airing out (including political palaver), there was a moment in time when I co-edited (along with John Nelson, who left the scene a year ago) a publication called The Door Voice which we felt had much potential. (Unfulfilled.)

For all of the reasons these things usually fail, wear you down, bleed you dry, so too did The Door Voice. We never expected to make any real money at it. And if you are in any way associated with the arts, this is a given. And you get better at it through the years.

Nevertheless, the dream and the joy work hand-in-hand for whatever amount of time the gods smile down upon you. Not at all unlike, in fact, very similar to small press and literary little mag publishing. You just can’t wait to gather ideas and content for the next issue, contact the writers, artists, people you hope will contribute to making the publication both popular and provocative…not to mention get your own words in edge-wise–essay, column, interview, poem or story.

I read as many ‘alternate publications’ of substance as possible. The Door Voice was definitely that given the two or three parochial publication available. Two of the best alternate publications in the state were/are The Shepherd Express (Milwaukee) and Isthmus (Madison). I had once met the editor of Isthmus, Marc Eisen (former editor, sad to say) on a trip to Madison and in time did a little writing for the paper. For years I received a complimentary copy of Isthmus every week, for which I remain forever grateful.

One of the many reasons I enjoyed the depth and scope of Marc Eisen’s weekly Isthmus each was the presence of a little known (then) political cartoon called THIS MODERN WORLD by Tom Tomorrow. It was usually done in six, sometimes, four, panels. It was always ‘right-on’, given the momentary message and mess in Washington.

headoneTomorrow’s main character is ‘Sparky, the Wonder Penguin’ (with red visor), who can be sardonic, skeptical, soul-searching and smart-ass, all in one. (Not to mention “LIBERAL.”) A Boston Terrier by the name of ‘Blinky’ also appears on occasion. And then he draws the real-life characters—as real as they are/were. Sorta. Tomorrow was the cartoonist’s answer to America’s right-wing, trash-talk radio & TV. Only smarter. Funnier. And you had to really read his cartoon, not just take a free ride on the pictures. However, not everyone was fortunate enough to find Tomorrow’s work then in the mainstream media. Enter (again) …the alternative newspapers and magazines, the small press, etc. That underground heart and soul of American culture—where T.T. thrived.

headtwoOn a hunch I thought maybe I could address the ‘underground heart’ of Tom Tomorrow, ask his permission to reprint THIS MODERN WORLD in The Door Voice—free. Was Door County ready for political satire? Why not? Next to find Tom Tomorrow. I called Marc Eisen at Isthmus, asked if he could help. Within minutes I was talking on the phone to Tom Tomorrow in California (only his name wasn’t Tom Tomorrow, it was Dan Perkins), and he was on his way, moving back to New York and sure, I could use/reprint his work. Just credit the source.

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins, at this stage in his career, appears in major Americans newspapers and magazines. Even magazine covers! You can find his work regularly, on line at Salon. He has books.(Check Amazon) His website is: or just click on the header image.

Finally, in celebration of Bush’s long ride home, back to Texas this coming week, and given the continued bad and growing history he’s left us…I thought it might be appropriate to reprint Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon from the January 2, 2009 issue of Isthmus. —Norbert Blei


lydia davis | new year’s resolution

16 01 2009


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.165 | January 15, 2009


…the new year…resolutions…etc.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t know at what point I decided the new year wasn’t new. Come the midnight hour you were the same as you were before. You would wake up in the morning who you always were. Despite all the celebration, tomorrow was pretty much moving down the same path to the end, long or short. Nobody knew.

Resolutions. The same bullshit every year. The media is filled with it. RESOLVED: To be a new you. Save the time and effort. It’s not going to happen. You’re you. Accept it like a Beckett character—“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Not that there won’t come those times you’re determined (resolved?) to change your life—as Rilke advised you must do. Sure. Maybe just a little. In changing your life, you’re changing you? Think about it.

Years ago, I resolved each New Year’s Day to begin a new writing project. A book. One year, January 1, I began making daily notes, observations about the natural landscape I was trying to adjust to after city life–all that was new, different, here in fields, woods, water, calling for attention. I lost my way a few times, almost abandoning that path. There were other things to do, more seductive, more challenging. But eventually RESOLUTION forced me back—or forward. At year’s end, I had a book.

I resolved never to follow that path again. Though I maintain a journal when it calls me.

To resolve little. Not to force change, but let it inhabit you, astonish you with no determination on your part. You’re who you always were, but come the time there may be something new going on, pay attention. You never expected this to happen but here it is. Go on. —Norbert Blei



By Lydia Davis

I ask my friend Bob what his New Year’s Resolutions are and he says, with a shrug (indicating that this is obvious or not surprising ): to drink less, to lose weight… He asks me the same, but I am not ready to answer him yet. I have been studying my Zen again, in a mild way, out of desperation over the holidays, though mild desperation. A medal or a rotten tomato, it’s all the same, says the book I have been reading. After a few days of consideration, I think the most truthful answer to my friend Bob would be: My New Year’s Resolution is to learn to see myself as nothing. Is this com¬petitive? He wants to lose some weight, I want to learn to see myself as nothing. Of course, to be competitive is not in keeping with any Buddhist philosophy. A true nothing is not competitive. But I don’t think I’m being competitive when I say it. I am feeling truly humble, at that moment. Or I think I am—in fact, can anyone be truly humble at the moment they say they want to learn to be nothing? But there is another problem, which I have been wanting to describe to Bob for a few weeks now: at last, halfway through your life, you are smart enough to see that it all amounts to nothing, even success amounts to nothing. But how does a person learn to see herself as nothing when she has already had so much trouble learning to see herself as, something in the first place? It’s so confusing. You spend the first half of your life learning that you are something after all, now you have to spend the second half learning to see yourself as nothing. You have been a negative nothing, now you want to be a positive nothing. I have begun trying, in these first days of the New Year, bur so far it’s pretty difficult. I’m pretty close to nothing all morning, but by late afternoon what is in me that is something starts throwing its weight around. This happens many days. By evening, I’m full of something and it’s often something nasty and pushy. So what I think at this point is that I’m aiming too high, that maybe nothing is too much, to begin with. Maybe for now I should just try, each day, to be a little less than I usually am.

from SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT, Stories, Picador USA/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002


Lydia Davis (born 1947) is a contemporary American author and translator of French. She is the daughter of Robert Gorham Davis and Hope Hale Davis. From 1974 to 1978 Davis was married to Paul Auster, with whom she has a son, Daniel Auster. Davis is currently married to painter Alan Cote, with whom she has a son, Theo Cote. She is a professor of creative writing at University at Albany, SUNY.

She has published six collections of short stories, including The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories (1976) and Break It Down (1986). Her most recent collection is Varieties of Disturbance, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007. Her stories are acclaimed for their brevity and humour. Many are only one or two sentences. In fact some of her stories are considered poetry or somewhere between philosophy, poetry and short story. Davis has also translated Proust, Blanchot, Foucault, Michel Leiris, and other French writers. In October 2003 Davis received the coveted MacArthur Genius award for Writing.

Selected works

  • * The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories (1976)
  • * Sketches for a Life of Wassilly (1981)
  • * Story and Other Stories (1983)
  • * Break It Down (1986)
  • * The End of the Story (novel) (1995)
  • * Almost No Memory (1997)
  • * Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2002)
  • * Varieties of Disturbance (2007)

Varieties of Disturbance has been nominated for the 2007 National Book Award. source