Poetry and Song

My toast to Bobbie Burns
My toast to Bobbie Burns

One of my favorite nights of the year is Burns Night, hosted by my dear friends Dave and Maggie.* The hallmarks of Burns Night, in addition to the Haggis and Scotch, are poetry and song. On the best of the nights, we’ve taken turns – breathless – in the living room sharing words and music. We usually begin with actual songs and poems written by Robbie Burns. (“My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” often gets sung more than once.) We recite his poetry. (Cally’s rendition of “Ode to a Haggis” is breathtaking.) Dave reads “Address to the Deil”.

Somewhere around an hour in, one of us gives the Toast to Robbie Burns. I was on duty a few years ago and actually read a biography of the Bard of Scotland. Since then, I’ve been on duty in case there’s some failure of speaker to arrive.

Then we start slipping into the vaguely Celtic. Adam does his priceless rendition of “Maids When You’re Young Never Wed an Old Man”. Maggie’s father lifts a mournful voice for “Kathleen Mavourneen”. There’s Shakespeare, Byron, Tennyson – by heart or from the books that lay scattered at our feet.

We slide fully into just poetry, and just song. Nick recites Kite. We belt out “Barrett’s Privateers”. Cori’s liquid voice slides through “Jock o’ Hazeldeen”. The night ends swaying, holding hands, singing “Auld Lange Syne” (all verses) while looking into the eyes and hearts of these people to whom we have grown suddenly, unaccountably close through these greatest magic-makers: poetry and song. We have all fallen in love with each other in the silence after the singing. I leave with a joyful heart, and can’t wait for the next year.

But I’ve never done it at one of my parties, for all my love and passion for it. Why not? I’ve wondered often.

During Christmas and Easter, I often stand at the front of the church as I play my trumpet. It’s a day a lot of visitors come, of course, and I can watch them as they worship with us. There’s a particular kind of visitor I haven’t quite come to understand yet. The stand with the congregation during the hymns. They often even hold the hymnal in their hands. But they remain stoically silent – jaws clenched and unmoving as the rest of us sing. I wonder: are they there against their wills? Do they think they “can’t sing”? (Do they think we can?!) Do they think that church is something you watch, instead of something you do?

Last year I toasted decked in my tam
Last year I toasted decked in my tam – thanks to Joe for the picture!

That is – I think – the heart of it. We have become a world of watchers. We don’t sound good enough. We aren’t skilled enough. We were told when we were little that we can’t carry a tune. Please, for heaven’s sake be quiet. We all hear the world’s best musicians and artists (remixed, studio supported) every day. How can our voice compete? It can’t. And so we shut up. And our neighbor/friend/partner/kid is also not nearly as good as what’s on the radio, so we make fun of them. We have an entire tv genre built around making fun of people for thinking they can sing. In truth, the moment Adam and I first met was over our shared defiance of this cultural norm. He was walking down the hall of our dorm singing “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”. Instead of giving him the “you’re weird” look, I picked up the chorus. (Prescient, eh?)

I love to sing, even though my voice is decidedly mediocre. I love to hear my friends sing – even if they’ll never be Brandy Clark** I love to look in their sincere and vulnerable faces as they recite a poem they learned by heart when they were fourteen. I love Nick’s sock puppet hand, Callie’s slicing of the Haggis, Dave’s delightful “deil” and Cori’s key change on “Jock o’ Hazeldeen”. On those Sundays when I couldn’t find faith in my heart, I still came to church to sing the old old songs with my friends until faith could find its way back.

Where to go from here? I wish I could call on you all to sing – in public, with your friends. But even I’m too chicken (too wise? too often shot down? too defeated?) to call my friends to song. Perhaps instead I can remind you that the joy is not in the passive listening, it is in the listening to a friend. There is something about singing together which is powerful and precious. Sing to each other, my beloved companions. Quote poems. Sing to me. And together we can fill the world with a joyful noise.

Thane (top row) singing at his school’s winter concert

* New people at Burns Night sometimes ask how I know Dave or Maggie. My favorite reply is that I married him/her. It’s true. I did.
** I don’t remember ever hearing Brandy play guitar or sing in high school. I can’t remember if she was even in choir, and I’m pretty sure she never got a solo in our high school concerts.

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