Tuesday, January 24, 2012

On Robert Burns And Occupy Wall Street:

For honest poverty...a man's a man for a' that
                                  Robert Burns, 1800

It’s only a couple of years since Scotland -- and the English speaking world -- celebrated the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.

It's an event that's been marked by the great and the small for much of the quarter millennium since the author of Auld Lang Syne made his splashdown on this planet; and for a man whose writing was described by no less than Walt Whitman as possessing "...the full abandon and veracity of the farm-fields and the home-brew’d flavor of the Scotch vernacular."  

2012 has been no exception. Google Robert Burns Celebration 2012 and you’ll quickly find events peripheral to his Jan 25 birthday from West Virginia to Missouri, and from Arizona to lower Manhattan. The Robert Burns Club in Melbourne Australia has been celebrating Burns since 1845. Burns suppers are held in South Africa, Hong Kong, Russia and Canada, complete with pipers and frequently with a ‘haggis processional.‘

It's doubtful there'll be much haggis parading going on this year at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in Huntington NY. But in its own fashion the Whitman Birthplace Association will get into the act, hosting the current ’Writing Fellow’ at the Robert Burns Center in Dumfries, Scotland, as part of its ‘Walking With Whitman’ reading series.

That would be Rab Wilson, born in the Ayrshire mining village of New Cumnock and a man who burst on the scene with his rendering in Scots of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 2004.

Wilson is scheduled to appear at the Birthplace on March 31, for an evening of readings in the second year of a series that will include the likes of Martin Espada, Quincey Troupe, Peter Balakian and Emily XYZ. The series kicks of Sat Feb 4, 7 p.m., when NYC performance poetry sensation Nathan Pearson appears with Nassau County Poet Laureate Linda Opyr.

If Wilson’s 2011 appearance in the US is any indication, he’ll be reading with a remarkably engaging Scots accent; possibly from the likes of such American literary luminaries as Jack Kerouac and Whitman himself; and no doubt, from Burns, a figure described in the 1870s by Henry Ward Beecher as ’a true poet, made not by the schools…he burst out, and almost from the soil. He came as a flower comes in the Spring.”

Here’s Rab Wilson on his own original poetry, ‘maistly written in Scots, tho ah write a when things in Standaurt Englis as weel. It is inspired bi ma ain personal view o whit it is like tae leeve in Scotland in the 21st Century…(and) the hale range o whit haes inspired Scots makars syne fir a thossan year or mair!’

As for Robert Burns, Wilson calls him “a poet for all seasons. He had this star quality and he had charisma. One of the greatest things we have globally is Robert Burns.”

There are marked points of similarity between Whitman and Burns. Both rose from humble origins as the sons of economically marginal rural men to become not only their nation’s greatest poet but an ambassador for the nation’s cultural heritage. As a transcendentalist, Whitman wrote of America first, but with a universality that had him saluting, in one direction, the cosmos…and in the other, the minutest workings of his molecular soul.

As for Burns, he wrote of all things Scots, and at age 25, when the first edition of his poems was published, he achieved international renown. By the time of his death 12 years later, he was recognized by many as the voice of his nation.

Whitman himself had high praise for Robert Burns, in part because of his enunciation of Romantic era notion of the dignity and value of the common, vernacular voice. “He is very close to the earth. He pick’d up his best words and tunes directly from the Scotch home-singers,“ wrote Whitman in November Boughs (1888).

“I think, indeed, one best part of Burns is the unquestionable proof he presents of the perennial existence among the laboring classes, especially farmers, of the finest latent poetic elements in their blood. (How clear it is to me that the common soil has always been, and is now, thickly strewn with just such gems.)”
Whitman’s assessment was no mere literary jacket cover blurb. A decade earlier the hugely influential Henry Ward Beecher was singing Burns’ praises, in a birthday celebration for the poet in Williamsburgh.

When Burns was alive, if you had been called upon to ask the men who were the judges of men, what man in all England and Scotland would continue to be celebrated through the scores and hundreds of years, I think his name would have been mentioned last upon the list," wrote Beecher. "They may be remembered by the archaeologist, but the peasant and the man who received their affections…is universal, and wherever there are men with hearts and susceptibilities Robert Burns‘ name is precious today.”

Beecher, a clergyman who cast a monumental shadow across the 19th century as a social reformer, abolitionist and public speaker, was not averse to singing the praises of other literary figures of the Romantic Era -- he called Lord Byron, for example, 'A Greek god...the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.'

But his praise for Burns was unreserved.

So too, by and large, was that of America's Good Gray Poet. Why? “His brightest hit is his use of the Scotch patois, so full of terms flavor’d like wild fruits or berries,” gushes Whitman before catching his breath. “Even the frequent crudeness, haste, deficiencies, (flatness and puerilities by no means absent) … are not only in consonance with the underlying spirit of the pieces, but complete the full abandon and veracity of the farm-fields and the home-brew’d flavor of the Scotch vernacular.”

There's more of course -- Burns was a man who helped define many of the literary tenets of the Romantic Era beyond use of the vernacular, including a fierce insistence on celebrating the dignity of the individual. His straightforward assertion that a man in honest poverty is 'a man for all that,' is sung annually at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, and a message as relevent as that resounding on the streets of America as the OWS movement speaks out against the arrogance of the elite who would 'blame the victim,' demonizing those who have not benefited from a rigged system for the narrow distribution of a nation's wealth.

Is there for honest poverty
that hangs his head, an' a' that
The coward slave, we pass him by
We dare be poor for a' that...

a man's a man for a' that
for a' that an' a' that
...the honest man, though e'er sae poor
Is king o' men for a' that.

With words like to burn in the hearts of the outsourced and the economically disenfranchised, it'd be little surprise if people today agreed with Beecher, who called Burns a benefactor to society. “He is the true benefactor who touches the inner man,' wrote Beecher. "This is the position to which must be assigned, for all time, Robert Burns.”

'For all time' is quite a long time. And a generous appraisal, perhaps, even for the man who famously wrote in his 'To A Mouse,' that it was better to be a 'wee timrous beastie' touched only by the present, instead of a man who must 'backward cast my e'e/on prospects drear/An' forward, tho I canna see/I guess and fear.'

But in appraising Scotland's premier poet's legacy, one need only be like Burns' mouse, touched by the present, and look at what's happening today on the streets of America.

And at the Walt Whitman Birthplace. That should be enough to declare that, from Wall Street to the little town of Huntington NY, the the future wasn't something Robert Burns need have feared much at all, 'for a' that.'

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


                       "Agape misce nobis" 

    "Know you what it is to be a child?” asked English poet Francis Thompson, a devotee of William Blake and a man who, in the terrible years of his addiction to opium and battle with consumption, would plead for a seat by the open fire in the Skiddaw Pub off Goldney Road in the dread cold of a London winter. “It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism … to believe in love, to believe in loveliness ... lowness into loftiness, and nothing into everything.”
    Thompson’s words seem particularly apt to me this week, after a visit to the baptismal font of William Blake located in London’s St James Church Piccadilly.
    You may know the church. Built by Christopher Wren, damaged in WWII and repaired, in danger of closing during the secular end of the 20th century. Instead of closing, the church resurrected itself as a kind of a center for spirited and 'radical welcome,' focusing on progressive action and a seeming unconditional support to the homeless, to exiles and to asylum seekers -- while additionally establishing itself as a center for classical music and the performing arts.
    I decided to visit St James Piccadilly to see Blake’s baptismal font, in what I came to recognize through the experience was a vainglorious and Quixotic attempt to ‘baptize’ myself in the same waters as the great visionary English poet.
    It being, by the way, the same day I went to Westminster Abbey, a tight-as-a-tick tourist trap well guarded by polite but rigidly punctilious church officials in royal red robes -- where I surreptitiously placed a chaste kiss on Chaucer’s tomb, hand to mouth to forehead of the tomb, while the ever-present guards were looking elsewhere.
    No guards in St James Piccadilly, but the visit to the font wasn't a lot more satisfying to the touch than placing my hand to Chaucer‘s stone tomb. I moistened my forefinger with my tongue and placed it in center of the font. I went out to a fountain in the church garden with some rain water in it, came back in and put finger to font a second time.
    Try as I might, I just could not get the feel for Blake’s DNA or the holy water he had experienced. The font was dry as a bone, seemingly centuries dry.
    Puzzled and somewhat let down, I settled into a pew near the back. And there I began to listen as a clarinetist (Nadia Wilson) and a rehearsal pianist practiced for an afternoon concert. Clarinet sonatas by Bax, Ireland, Horovitz and Martin Butler. 
    It was a moving musical experience, but it was something more.
    As I sat in the dimly lit church listening, unwashed homeless men, reclining in the pews in various states of consciousness, began to stir. One by one, as the music washed over them, they sat up and looked around, at first dazed, then with an increasing recognition of where they were and what was happening.
    It reminded me of nothing less than that famous scene depicted in a drawing in the Catacombs of Rome, reclining Christians in Corinth at a communal feast, and a woman pouring wine for them.
    Agape, Misce Nobis (Spiritual Love, mix for us), one of the drawing’s legends reads. The other inscription? Irene, Porge Calda (Peace, cleanse the wine) -- Irene being the Greek goddess/horai who symbolized Peace.
    Afterwards, 'breaking bread' with my MFA classmate Robert Peake -- who I met at the Fleet River Bakery near the Holborne Station -- I tried to explain what I'd experienced. Tried and failed, that is, over latte and a honey nut bread which Robert insisted I share with him. I didn't quite know what to say about the font and my experience of it, so instead my conversation drifted to what I'd experienced in the music.
    It wasn't til afterwards that it came to me. What had proved to have been a touchstone was not my forefinger in a dry marble font. It was in the sharing of an awakening with homeless men reclining in pews.

    It wasn't in the holy water, it was in the music.
    It wasn’t in the initiation, it was in the renewal.
    I had tried to touch Chaucer in his grave. I'd tried to baptize myself in Blake's own vision. Instead, my search for a visionary touchstone, at the long-dry font Blake was baptized in, found its mark in an experience of quite a different, but wholly equal kind -- 'a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism,' as Thompson put it.
    The various Christian churches recognize seven basic sacraments -- the Anglican being typical, focusing on the initiation/renewal sacraments of Baptism and Communion, and including among the other five one called 'Anointing of the Sick.'

     To see it as Thompson does, the spirit streams from sacrament to sacrament, too -- from baptism to communion to caring for the weak -- and what I had experienced was a communal and individual reawakening and celebration, in the form of music, amounting to an anointing of outcast men.
     An "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us" through unconditional compassion and art.
     Or as those wise old Greeks put it: 'Agape, Misce Nobis' -- Spiritual Love, mixing it anew -- in an old stone church in Piccadilly that had survived wars and periods of spiritual apostasy, remaking itself for fresh use in the 21st century.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

SEARCHING FOR WALT: A Visit To Velsen, Whitman's Dutch Ancestral Birth Town

     On a two day side trip to The Netherlands to visit 'The Real Holland' of farms, villages, sand dunes and canals -- and acting on a kind of hunch, I decided on Friday to try to track down Walt Whitman's Dutch ancestral birth town.
     Origin of the Van Velsors, that is. Walt's maternal family, whose influence he felt acutely not only through his strong relationship with his mother but also grandfather Cornelius -- a driver of a stage and transport wagon bringing produce from farm-to-market, and a man with whom the young Walt sometimes went as his companion.
     There being no 'Velsor' on the map, my suspicions turned quickly to Velsen, the little village near the mouth of the North Sea Canal, linking Amsterdam to the world's oceans. It only took a little patient research to prove my suspicions founded. Around 1640, and six generations back in the Van Velsor (aka Van Velsen) family tree, Walt's direct lineal ancestor Gerritt Thyszen Van Velsen came into this world in the tiny town...and it was from Velsen that he emigrated to America.
     It was short work to go from that little brainstorm to an 'official visit' to Velsen, as the Writer in Residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace -- to pay my respects, inform them of this fortuitous historical connection, and present them with a book on Whitman.
     As much a kick as it was to be the bearer of good news, what happened after that was an incredible three hour grand tour of Velsen, Spaarrnwoude, Sandpoort and the surrounding area, led by Alderman Wim Westerman.
     Westerman, who was one of the only city officials on duty that afternoon -- and anyhow having pulled 'on-call' duty for the weekend -- was only too glad to slip behind the wheel of his car and share his wealth of knowledge about the vicinity on a little tour.
     Velsen! The tiny old town is a charming corner of Holland, surrounded by wet lowland agricultural fields and the extensive system of sand dunes which protect that portion of the mainland from the sometimes furious North Sea.
     And surrounded by giant reminders that The Netherlands remains, in the 21st century, a major player in the world economy. The huge North Sea Canal which split the little town asunder for international shipping connections to Amsterdam is awash with container ships plying benignly back and forth, a kind of unearthly quiet about them. On the north side of the canal, giant industrial plants send billows of smoke into the air -- including a huge paper mill; and Tata Steel, one of Europe's top steel producers at some 6.5 million tons and 2.7 billion euros a year.
     Sounds offputting, yet a visit to Walt's ancestral home is anything but. The old town of Velsen, clustered serenely along the canal, exudes a charm which draws artists to set up shop in its numerous lofts, and visitors to wander in and admire its cobblestoned streets, and residences and shops that run the gamut from thatched farmhouse to ornate 19th century town hall.
     Velsen's a place of history and myth, not to mention whimsy. It was home to the northernmost Roman outpost, in the first century AD, according to Tacitus. The old church in the center of town was founded on the very spot that an Irish missionary introduced Christianity to this corner of Frisian Europe. It's tower? claimed by Napoleon for surveying purposes, and remains in government hands to this day.
     Beyond the perimeter of the old village are fields drained by canal after canal after canal -- and protected with triple line of defensive dykes known by the fanciful names of The Sleeper, The Dreamer and The Waker.
     The countryside is dotted with mansions from the heyday of Dutch colonial supremacy -- summer homes to the rich Amsterdam traders whose empires spread from the Low Country to the Caribbean to South Afria to Indonesia and back again...including one more recently 'bunkered' by the Germans during WWII, expecting the allies to land in Europe at Velsen.
     Nearby Spaamwoude is home to Stompe Toren, a tiny church built on a mound of dirt that villagers would gather upon in high water "to keep their feet dry." According to a well known Dutch Renaissance play, the place wasn't so small that they couldn't make a big splash in Dutch history, however -- taking over Amsterdam at one point with the help of a giant named Klaus Kitten (Klaas Van Kieten), who  measured 8'10" if the markings still found on the south side of Stompe Toren are to be believed.
     Then there's Spaarndam, certainly hometown to Frans Hals (1583-1666) the famous Dutch Renaissance painter.
     The small statue of the famous Hans Brinker in Hals' old town, however, is one attraction it's a bit harder to feel generous about when it comes to fact and fiction. After all, the Dutch Tourism Board admitted that they only put it there in 1950 to please American tourists , who refused to disbelieve that Hans was the invention of New York's own Mary Mapes Dodge, a children's author and contemporary of Whitman (and with a lineage traceable to one of the English founders of Southold, Thomas Mapes).
     One thing's without much argument, however -- the little villages around the area, including the Van Velsor's old town of Velsen, exude a charm and beauty that has been recognized for centuries. "Down by the canals are long, unbroken frontages of antique buildings; tall red gabled warehouses, of mellow russet brick, with brightly- painted doors and shutters, all reflected in unruffled water," wrote Henry Montagu Doughty in 1890.
     It's as charming now as it was then, and was so back when the Van Velsors decided to head for America.
     "No doubt Walt's ancestors knew these streets," said Alderman Westerman proudly.
     So why did they leave? "Opportunity," he said simply. "Like other people in Velsen, they were connected to what was happening in Amsterdam. The East Indies trade. The West Indies trade, There was opportunity. And I guess they just took it."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Keep Calm And Carry On

     Whilst waiting to do my workshop for the Suffolk Poetry Society on the Shotwell peninsula for Ian Griffiths and the rest I've had a lovely time of it in Southwold a cold North Sea beach in Suffolk 'where England juts out furthest into the German Sea.' Home to Adnams  Ale, numerous Pilgrim emigres to America (inc. Rev John Youngs, founder of  Southold LI) and the Anglo-French naval engagement with the Dutch in 1672, battle of Solebay, sinking of the Royal James and all that.
     It's a 21st century family-friendly throwback to old tawdry Victorian seaside resorts, with chip shops, arcades, amusements, seagulls to throw rocks at, and a long pier (623 feet). Also, colorful monopoly box cabins strung like  Christmas candy along the strand. Very long promenade too, stretching distanceless to the north and south from the pier, with plenty of sandy groins (Eng term groynes) that possess just enough patches of pebble (Eng term: shingles) to comb a bit. There's not much in the way of driftwood or shells, but the blueblack rocks are important for decorating sand castles.
     The pier, which was reconstituted just in 2001 from a fanciful thing that had been constructed in 1900, was deliberately weakened in two places during the war to keep Germans from landing their tanks on it. 'Keep Calm And Carry On' advised the British government to its citizens, as they watched the horizon of cloud and gunmetal sea for genuine German warplanes.
     Today's pier juts out into a gentler world. It has a number of amusements, but above all a great arcade of coin operated items, designed by Tim Hunkin, a 21st century cartoonist and artist-engineer known for works like  Rubberworld, Anthropologists Fundraising Ritual and The Secret Life of Machines.  And The Vulgar Life of Clocks. For Southwold Pier, he's devised a number of fine instruments of terrible delight: Autofrisk and Gene Forecaster. Instant Eclipse.  Microbreak. a wolf with red glowing eyes you look at face to face. A bathyscape that seems to plunge. Whack A Banker. The Disgusting Spectacle. Pet  Or Meat, A device at which you spin an arrow and see where it lands -- then view what happens to the lamb in detail. 'Is It Art,' where you present any object to the expert and he will tell you authoratively whether it is art or not.
     Monstrous and fanciful things they are, constructed of rough old metal like one of those old fashioned iron 'have fun helping spastics' penny catching devices, but with contemporary nuances and modern sensibilities, computer enhancements and video components. Like the lifesize mechanical dog you can actually walk, he wags his tail and looks back at you stupidly as you hold the leash, he trots along and barks and there's a video image you follow as you walk him. He chases nasty looking tabby cats one after the next, until as a grand finale to the game he leaps off a cliff into the sea. Never walk alone again!
     Gotta be there to appreciate the feel I think, it's all about pluck and polity disrupted with perverse English inventiveness and enhanced with the iron cracking jaws of Jack the Ripper. Lovely and bloody cold, as they say.
     Keep calm and carry on. Last night we came home chilled to the bone and ordered in Indian food, curries and kormas, balti, chapatis and plenty of chutney. That warmed us up all right!