BURNS-LOVERS ALERT — “THE ADDRESS TO A HAGGIS” TRANSLATED

The Scottish poet Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, which means that the anniversary celebrations this month will deafen Canadians from coast to coast. There are, after all, reputedly more statues in Canada to Burns than to any other figure. And every year hundreds of thousands of whisky- lovers from St. John’s to Victoria become temporary Scots to celebrate the man and his work at thousands of noisy Burns Suppers across the land.

As a literary Scot, I offer a public service here and now – a translation of what the heck the person at a Burns Supper who “addresses” the haggis is actually saying!

First, a word about the background. Every Burns Supper centres around his famous poem,“ The Address to a Haggis”. The haggis is marched into the dining room and “addressed” in Burns’ words before being served.

In the Ayrshire countryside where “the Ploughman Poet” lived and worked, meals were very basic, usually featuring oatmeal, herring, turnips, kale and potatoes. Meat was rare, so even the sausage-like haggis – “a peasant dish compounded of meat left-overs, oatmeal, spices and offal all pouched in a sheep’s stomach” as one scholar described it – was a special treat.

Tradition has it that Burns wrote an early version of his tongue-in-cheek poem in praise of the haggis as a surprise for a group of Ayrshire friends who expected the usual mumbled grace before the meal. Later, when he was an acclaimed poet visiting Edinburgh in 1786, he wrote the expanded version that audiences around the world know today.

Or hear today.

The big problem is that when the ceremonial haggis is borne into the room today amid scenes of napkin-waving enthusiasm and is then loudly addressed in Burns’ words, most of the diners don’t have a clue about what is being said.

It will be clear to them that a basically simple event (“Here’s the haggis. Looks good. Let’s cut it up and eat it.”) is being transformed as a joke into a mock-epic ceremony of pretended deep significance.

But the language might as well be Swahili: words like sonsie, painch, thairm, hurdies, dight, kytes, rive, sconner, nieve and jaups, among many others, are a mystery.Even worse, many of the familiar words that seem to point a way through the fog of misunderstanding – puddin’, wordy, hums, rash, nit, flood and taps among them – have totally unexpected meanings.

As a service to my Canadian fellow-citizens, to demystify the event, I offer my own translation. It has, as they say, met with some approval, with Margaret Atwood kindly calling it “brilliant” (modest cough).I make no claim that it is definitive, since many of the lines offer alternative versions that also make sense. But I can claim some expertise. Born in Kilmarnock, I grew up among farming folk in Ayrshire, and in my youth the old farmers for whom I worked in the hayfields still spoke in very much the same way as the poet. This was so much “Burns Country” that in the Stewarton kirkyard his uncle lies buried near my great-grandparents.

Later, at St. Andrew’s University, I studied Burns, and put my local knowledge to good use to win the Sloan Prize for composition in the old Scots tongue.

And I am, heaven knows, a veteran of many Burns suppers, starting in my long-ago student days, and continuing through many speeches at events in Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, and even as an import back to Scotland.

No doubt other suggested translations will occur to knowledgeable readers. It goes without saying that the 1% who do understand the poem consider themselves to be the only living authority on its meaning.

With proper humility, then, I offer up the following to allow attentive readers to astound their table companions with their learning.

Address to a Haggis

by Robert Burns

Translation by Douglas  Gibson
Verse 1: The Haggis is Greeted

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face

Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!

Aboon them a’ ye tak your place

Painch, tripe or thairm:

Weel are ye wordy of a grace

As lang’s my arm.

Greetings and good luck to your honest,

cheerful face

Great chieftain of the intestine-based race of foods!

You rank above all other dishes coming from

The paunch, tripe or guts;

You truly deserve a grace

As long as my arm.

Verse 2: Tribute is Paid to its External

Dimensions and Attractions

The groaning trencher there ye fill

Your hurdies like a distant hill

Your pin wad help to mend a mill

In time o’ need,

While thro’ your pores

the dews distil

Like amber bead.

You fill this platter that groans beneath your weight,

Your hips swell like a distant hill,

A skewer on that scale would help to mend a

In time of need,

While through your pores the dews distill

To form amber-coloured beads of moisture.

Verse 3: The Personification of Rustic Labour Slices the Haggis

His knife see rustic

Labour dight,

An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright

Like ony ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm-reekin’, rich!

Watch as rustic Labour wipes his knife,

And cuts you up with easy skill,

Digging a great trench in your bright

moist innards

Just like a ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Steaming, warm, with good rich smells!

Verse 4: An Imagined Group of Diners

Demolishes the Haggis

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive,

Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,

Till all their weel-swall’d kytes belyve

Are bent like drums;

Then auld guidman, maist like to rive

“Bethankit!” hums.

Then, wielding their horn spoons they dig in,

Stretching and competing,

Every man for himself, on they drive,

Till in due course all of their

well-swollen bellies

Are stretched tight as drums;

Then the master of the house, the one most likely to burst,

Stammers the usual grace after meat, “God be thanked!”

Verse 5: Effete French Dishes Are Disparaged

Is there that owre his French ragout,

Or olio that wad staw a sow

Or fricassee wad mak her spew,

Wi’ perfect sconner,

Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view

On sic a dinner?

Is it possible that anyone- over his French“ragout”,

Or his “olio” stew that would bloat even a sow,

Or his” fricassee” that would make her vomit,

In total disgust –

Could look down in a sneering, scornful way

On such a dinner as this haggis?

Verse 6: Those Who Eat Effete French Dishes Are Disparaged

Poor devil! See him owre his trash

As feckless as a wither’d rash,

His spindle shank a guid whip-lash

His nieve a nit;

Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash

O how unfit!

 

Poor devil! Just look at him eating his trashy fare,

As feeble as a withered reed,

His skinny leg, thin as the end of a whip,

His dainty fist small as a hazelnut;

How unfit he is to play a dashing part

In battles at sea or on the land!

Verse 7: By Contrast, Tribute is Paid to the Formidable Nature of Haggis-Fed Men

But mark the rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread

Clap in his walie nieve a blade,

He’ll mak it whissle;

An’ legs an arms, an’ heads will sned,

Like taps o’ thrissle.

But consider the haggis-fed man from the country,

The very earth trembles beneath his heavy tread,

Put a blade into his mighty fist,

And he’ll make it whistle to good effect,

Shearing off opponents’ legs and arms, and  heads

As easily as cutting off thistle tops.

Verse 8: The Gods Are Invoked To Keep

Scotland Supplied with Haggis

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,

And dish them out their bill o’ fare

Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware

That jaups in luggies;

But, if ye wish her gratefu’ pray’r

Gie her a Haggis!

You Powers who look after mankind,

And distribute food among them,

Old Scotland wants no watery dishes

That splash around in their bowls;

But, if you want her prayers of gratitude,

Give her a Haggis!

Address to a Haggis : The colour commentary

Verse 1

In the old days Burns extremists in Scotland would greet the entry of the haggis by standing on their chairs, putting their right foot on the table, drinking a dram of whisky, then tossing the empty glass back over their shoulders to the floor.

This is no longer advised. Because this is a mock epic, however, the person addressing the haggis tends to adopt a properly exaggerated tone, full of dramatic gestures.

Verse 2

Hurdies, translated here as hips, can also mean buttocks. Pin can mean hip-bone, but some believe that Burns was also making a pun on the virile nature of the jutting skewer. A mill would of course, contain the largest piece of machinery known to the poet’s audience.

Verse 3

The reference to His knife allows the orator to brandish the knife to great effect, before the actual moment of slicing. One hero in my presence turned in mid-brandish to lunge at the attendant chef who was standing respectfully beside him, and proceeded to impale his white chef ‘s hat. It is very important that this move be rehearsed with the chef.

A knowledgeable orator will pronounce dight, slight, bright and sight as licht, bricht,and sicht – as in “braw bricht moonlicht nicht”.

Verse 4

Deil tak the hindmost” – devil take the hindmost – i.e. the slowest, has entered the general language. As has the parallel proverb based on spooning from a common dish: “ He who sups with the devil will need a long spoon”.

Verse 5

Note that sow rhymes with ragout and spew. If you wonder where hog-calling competitors of the U.S. got their “sooo-eee” call, look no further. The Scots (and the Scotch-Irish settlers from Ulster) who poured into the Appalachians to settle the American West originated the call when out on their homesteads in search of their sows, using the equivalent of “piggy, piggy”.

Verse 6

The orator usually lets himself/ herself go at this point, since the whole verse is ideally delivered through a sneer, with “Poor devil” properly pronounced “ puir deeil”, which goes well with a sneer.

Verse 7

Frequently a sturdy attendant is singled out as the rustic, haggis-fed, and his manly frame indicated , his shoulders clapped resoundingly, and so on. Equally effective is to single out a small, frail, bespectacled, undeniably urban figure for this role, preferably a blushing lawyer or accountant.

Verse 8

The final line, “Gie her a Haggis!”, is usually delivered as a climax ,with all the company joining in. Frequently this is followed by everyone drinking a toast of whisky. Or simply drinking more whisky, showing that they have grasped the essence of the event.

 

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ABOUT THE YOUNG POET, CLAIRE CALDWELL

In Scotland, my mother had a first cousin called Douglas Caldwell. (I may even have been named after him, since we had no previous Dougs in the family). After service in the Navy in the Second World War he disappeared, sailing for parts unknown.  More than thirty years later he got in touch, to reveal that he now lived in Canada, in Toronto,  the city that was now my home.

Even better, he revealed that he had three children , including a son named Doug, who was a Producer at CBC Radio, where I did free-lance things. It turned out that I and Doug and his wife Judy McAlpine, also a CBC Producer, had lots of friends in common. Exciting contact was made among these unknown cousins, and their children, and our lives were enriched as our families expanded.

That’s why in November Jane and I were delighted to have our house provide the setting for a launch party for a new book of poetry by Doug and Judy’s amazing daughter Claire. INVASIVE SPECIES is her first book, but followers of the poetry scene in Canada already know her as the 2013 winner of the Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize. She is a credit to McGill, where she got her B.A., and to Guelph, where she earned her MFA.

As for the poetry (which inspired the National Post to single her out as an important new voice) let me just quote from the first verse of  “Bear Safety” (which Claire read aloud on our staircase):

Bears could be anywhere

 

On the subway at rush hour.

Between couch cushions.

In the drawer with dull pencils

and batteries and nothing

you need. In the eavestrough.

On a soccer field

during a lightning storm.

In the pocket of your dirty jeans,

your unlaced sneakers.

Run a hand under the sheets

before bedtime. Bears prefer to sleep

on Egyptian cotton.

They can usually tell if it’s cheap……..

 

INVASIVE SPECIES is published by Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers.

The Al Purdy Show (Part Three)

So we came to the night of the show, February 6 at 7:30.

As the whip-cracking Director of the show, Laura McLeod was tough on all of us who were going to appear onstage, insisting on everyone showing up for sound checks at 6:15. This allowed us lots of time to mingle in the Koerner Hall Green Room, where I got to meet  Alex Gagliano, from Upper Canada College, the young man who was going to be reciting a Purdy poem from memory, on behalf of Scott Griffin’s poetry-promoting project. The room was loud with poets renewing old acquaintance, and there was an air of pleasure as well as the usual backstage excitement. We were all very glad to be part of this.

purdy

Photos courtesy John Degen

In my dual role, performer and front-of-house-greeter, I was able to roam among the audience in the drinks area, where I saw lots of friends, thanking them for coming, and pointing out the amazing silent auction items that Valerie Jacobs and her crew had spent much of the afternoon laying out. Later the Random House blogger for Hazlitt was to report that in the cocktail party crowd somebody pointed me out as “the bearded guy,” kindly describing me as “Al Purdy’s first publisher.” (Wrong! In fact, Sandra Campbell’s forthcoming biography of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press, Both Hands, establishes that this grand old man, usually associated with poets like Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Duncan Campbell Scott, was actually Al’s first publisher, with a 1945 chapbook!) I even met Josh Knelman, who kindly recalled my days as a soccer coach for youngsters like him. Then I was able to join my family group (including my second cousin, Claire Caldwell, who as a young poet made the ideal guest) and enjoy the first half of the show.

Because I had seen the script, I knew the opening was going to be spectacular. With a black and white photograph of the A-frame filling the screen onstage, the house lights went down and Al Purdy’s voice filled the hall, reading the opening lines of “The Country North of Belleville.” After a few lines, the house lights slowly rose and Gordon Pinsent walked onstage. As Al’s voice faded away, Gordon seamlessly took up the poem with the words:

“Yet this is the country of defeat
Where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
Year after year up the ancient hills . . .”

Gordon finished the poem, to enraptured applause, and introduced the rest of the evening  as a “ literary barn-raising.”
And we were off.

Marni Jackson’s brilliant script was based around two principles. Everything should centre around Al and his poetry; and there should be constant variety on the stage. So Gordon Pinsent was followed by Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, who read “At the Quinte Hotel” then sang a song and played guitar.

Steve Heighton turned the event into a fashion show by wearing one of Al’s distinctive shirts (and recommending other items at the Silent Auction) before reading “Necropsy of Love.”

It was time for a Greek Chorus, with Gillian Savigny, Leigh Kotsilides (no typecasting there!), and Moez Surani, led by Robert Priest. They sang and then produced a choral version of “In Search of Owen Roblin.” Then Robert introduced young Alex Gagliano, who recited “Thank God I’m Normal” with its ringing final line, “ Why — why the sonsabitches!”

Michael Enright then brought his CBC gravitas to the proceedings, telling us the story of Al Purdy’s life. Then, in the role of M.C., which he was to adopt increasingly, he introduced more music in the form of author-musician Dave Bidini, of The Rheostatics, here appearing along with Bidiniband and The Billie Hollies. bidiniband

That rousing musical interlude led to the 35-minute intermission, where two of Patrick White’s friends, reluctant attendees, were exulting that this Al Purdy was clearly “the coolest guy ever!”

Here my account of the evening becomes scattered, because after the intermission I was backstage throughout (except for my moment in the sun, when I got to talk about my role as Al’s publisher, to pay tribute . . . very briefly . . .  to George Goodwin and the organising committee — “You’ll find their names in the programme” — before praising Eurithe, and Jean Baird “with us tonight from Vancouver.” Then it was “on with the show,” and an introduction for Ken Babstock).

But from my perch in the Green Room, watching the fuzzy screen, or from the wings, I enjoyed the video produced by Brian D. Johnson, then Phil Hall and Karen Solie doing their duet reading of “Shall We Gather at the River,” George Elliott Clarke, as Toronto’s Poet Laureate, reading “In Cabbagetown,” and then the Skydiggers (Andy Maize, Josh Finlayson and Michael Johnstone), who filed off, brushing shoulders with me as the applause from their music still rang around the hall.

After Ken Babstock, Michael Enright brought Margaret Atwood onstage for a sit-down interview (hey, we haven’t had an interview yet!), which was great fun (as listeners to The Sunday Edition were to learn). It ended with Margaret reading “Wilderness Gothic.” Dennis Lee then talked briefly about Al and read “In My Grandfather’s Country,” which sounded even better from the wings, where the cast was assembling for the Finale, where George Bowering led us in “Say the Names,” with chosen poets hollering out “Lillooet” or “Nahanni” on cue.

saythenames

For this finale, which turned into a curtain call, Michael Enright and I bracketed the poets ranged along the stage. Beside me was Gordon  Pinsent, whom I had telephoned so many months ago to ask if he would perhaps be interested in helping with this event we were planning. To be with him as the waves of applause . . . no, more than that, the waves of affection . . . came washing over us from the audience was unforgettable. Then in an unrehearsed way we waved to the audience and walked off, dazed and delighted.

Later, when I was able to leave all the happy handshaking backstage, the audience was still filing out, and were clearly delighted, saying very kind things.

And, after the nail-biting lead-up, we ended up selling over 700 tickets! In fact, we ran out of programmes, because we had to set the number of the print run a couple of days in advance, when printing 500 seemed sensible. And we made money, and Duncan Patterson’s plans to fix up the A-frame can now go forward.

And, yes, as I had predicted to the Metro Morning audience, it was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime event where others will say . . . “You were there?”