Tag Archives: poetry

Great Scot! What You Should Know about Robbie Burns

People all over the world celebrate Robbie Burns Day today. Burns wrote an ode to a mouse (which I blogged homage a few years ago) and an address to a haggis, but what is the source of the man’s immortal appeal? According to a BBC documentary, “Robert Burns achieved more with his poetry than any writer since Shakespeare.” In celebration of his 258th birthday, let’s consider some questions about the freedom-loving Scottish bard.

Robbie Burns, the greatest Scotsman of all time

Robbie Burns, the greatest Scotsman of all time

  1. Is Robert Burns the greatest Scot of all time? Yes, according to a 2009 survey of STV viewers. Not bad, considering he was up against the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K. Rowling, Andrew Carnegie, Sir Alexander Fleming, Sir William Wallace, Annie Lennox and Sir Sean Connery.
  2. What language did Burns use? Burns said of English, “I have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue.” Scots, his native tongue, is not “funny-sounding English;” it is a language that developed alongside and eventually separately from English.
  3. Didn’t he play for the Chicago Blackhawks? Yes, yes he did.
  4. With a name like Burns, was he a destructive force? Well let’s see. A few days after his birth, Jan. 25, 1759, a storm tears apart his home. Next thing you know, the composer Handel dies. A few months later, General Wolfe dies on the Plains of Abraham. Less than 20 years after that, the American Revolution. Then the French are storming the Bastille and heads are rolling. But look what happens when Burns dies in 1796, whaddaya know, suddenly the Americans and the Ottoman Empire are shaking hands over the Treaty of Tripoli, and everybody calms down.
  5. What did he wear under his kilt? Burns was forever kiltless, because during his lifetime it was illegal to wear a kilt! You know Robbie Burns would have supported Idle No More!
  6. What’s taking so long for Gerard Butler to get his Robert Burns movie made? Well, come on; they just made a movie about Robbie Burns in 1930. Isn’t it a bit soon to be making another one?
  7. This guy’s good. Where can I see him in Toronto? There’s a statue of “the Ploughman Poet” on the east side of Allan Gardens. If you see people in kilts reading poetry around that area today, that’s where the statue is.

1 Comment

Filed under literature, tradition, Uncategorized, writing

Deaf Jam: the Poetry of ASL

Deaf Jam

Deaf Jam documentary (USA 2011)

Deaf Jam, a documentary which celebrates American Sign Language poetry, is screening on the afternoon of May 10th at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. People unfamiliar with sign language may find it difficult to conceive of ASL poetry. “Like, how does it rhyme?” Poetry in any language is about more than the sounds of the words and sentences; it is about creative ways of expressing ideas and emotions. And ASL is at no disadvantage in that department.

Whereas a word in English is made of syllables and letters, a sign in ASL has the following five components:

  1. Orientation (which way the palm is facing)
  2. Location (of hand(s) in relation to head/body)
  3. Hand shape(s)
  4. Movement (of hands/head/body)
  5. Facial expression

By manipulating these elements, an ASL speaker can express simple and complex thoughts in amazing, innovative ways. Sign language is equal to spoken language in emotional and intellectual range, and, just as English does, ASL uses metaphor, connotation, wordplay, and all manner of poetic devises. ASL is handy with puns and can be flat out ironic. English poetry can make patterns of word sounds; ASL poetry can make patterns of sign shapes. Signs can be shuffled, pulled apart, and reconfigured in ways parallel to how words can be in English and other languages.

ASL does not differ from spoken languages in its boundless capacity to convey even the most nuanced and subtle concepts and feelings. The difference is that, whereas a spoken language is, for a hearing person, an auditory experience—even when read silently—, sign language is visual (except for the Deaf-blind, for whom sign language is tactile), and although it can be transcribed for academic purposes, ASL is not written and read communicatively. Therefore, ASL poetry is not written and read; ASL poetry is performed.

Remembering the observation that, Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,I will not try to describe ASL poetry, but for a hint about the sorts of things involved, consider this scene from the film.

In Deaf Jam, Aneta Brodski,* a student at Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NYC, is participating in an extra-curricular poetry program.

When Aneta introduces herself, she fingerspells her name (lightning fast) as one normally does, but when she performs (“raps”) her name, she signs each letter (designated by shape) with movement/location that incorporates the meaning of another sign so that her name becomes a story:

A + “dress up”; N + “look at me”; E + “I’m cool”; T + “walking in high heels”; A + “stumble”.

There is a lot more to ASL poetry than that; it’s really something you have to see. And the same goes for Deaf Jam, so if you can, go see the Canadian premiere on May 10th at 3:30pm, Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West, Toronto. If not, find out more at http://www.deafjam.org/ or PBS.

*Aneta, like her parents, was born deaf. Her language, and the language of her family, is ASL. Statistically, this is uncommon. The typically hearing parents of Deaf children have to—or should!—learn signing as a second language.

Leave a comment

Filed under cross cultural understanding, documentary, language, languages and communication

Robbie Burns Haggis

Happy Burns Day to you!

Och, you look famished — hungry enough to eat a horse, or sheep entrails. Come, pull up a chair and have a wee nibble o’ haggis!

Fresh butcher-made haggis hot out of the oven

Haggis out of Focus (might've been the whisky), prepared by ethical butcher, cooked at home

Listen: (My Luve is Like a) Red Red Rose

Read: Got haggis? You should — it’s Robbie Burns Day (below)

Robert Burns was born Jan. 25, 1759. His birthday is celebrated all over the world. Best known for having written “To a Mouse” and “Auld Lang Syne,” he also wrote “Address to a Haggis,” an ode to Scotland’s notorious national dish. Burns called it the “great chieftain o’ the pudding race,” but if you find it hard to think of haggis as a delicacy, think of it as sheep recycling. In honour of Burns, let’s consider the haggis, which he immortalized with a “grace as lang’s my arm.”

They say those who love sausages wouldn’t want to know what goes into making them. That goes double for Scotland’s chieftain of sausages. How haggis is made is a simple question to answer: take a sheep’s heart, liver, lungs and anything tasty that might be stuck to them, mince them up with onions, oats and suet (or maybe sweat), fry it all up and sew it into the sheep’s stomach or intestine (whichever you find more appetizing). The next question is “why?” It is a way to enjoy and preserve those precious, tasty bits that might get you through a few cauld winter nichts.

Haggis, which basically means “hash” (or hacked up bits that no one would eat if they were identifiable), is not nearly as horrible as you might reasonably imagine it to be. Granted, before it’s cooked it starts off looking like road kill, but once it’s been hacked, minced, fried, stuffed, stitched, boiled and roasted, it comes out looking like, well, cooked road kill.

By the time it gets to your plate, haggis no longer looks like, um, anything in particular. In taste and texture it’s kind of like a spicy shepherd’s pie. As if that weren’t fancy enough, haggis is generally served with a side of tatties ’n’ neeps (a lovely pair, especially when they’re mashed together). That may sound a bit risqué, but it’s actually just vegetables: potatoes and turnips.

Once you’ve gone through all this trouble, don’t just sit in front of the telly and chow down. You have to dress up in your kilt, parade the haggis to the table marching in step with your household bagpiper and then recite the “Address to a Haggis” in your most obnoxious faux-Scottish accent and pretend you know what it means.

Then you pour a wee nip of whisky from the teapot and toast Burns, then toast the lassies. Repeat until the teapot runs dry.

6 Comments

Filed under food, language, tradition