Author Archives: Ken Cockburn

About Ken Cockburn

Ken Cockburn is an Edinburgh-based poet, translator, editor and writing tutor.

Robert Burns

I’m now offering a Robert Burns poetry walk, as well as a illustrated talk about Burns and Edinburgh.

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Robert Burns by John Tweed

Burns visited Edinburgh twice – first from late November 1786 to early May 1787, and again from mid-October 1787 to mid-February 1788 – and there are many sites on or near the Royal Mile with Burns connections.

In the Canongate Kirkyard is the grave of the poet Robert Fergusson, which Burns commissioned; and that of Nancy McLehose, Burns’ ‘Clarinda’, who he met and fell in love with in Edinburgh, and corresponded with for several years.

His memorial, on the side of Calton Hill, can be seen from the kirkyard, while lower down is Graham Fagen’s work in neon, ‘A Drama in time’ (2016), “centred on the story of the Roselle, a ship that sailed from the Port of Leith to Kingston, Jamaica in 1786. Robert Burns had booked a passage on the boat, but never sailed.”

For more details see Walks and Talks, or get in touch.

Norman MacCaig

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Norman MacCaig by David Annand

It’s almost a quarter century since the death of Norman MacCaig, on 23 January 1996.

MacCaig is often thought of as a poet of remote places – Assynt and Harris, in particular – but he lived and worked most of his life in Edinburgh, and the city features in many of his poems, including these lines on the Scottish Parliament building’s Canongate wall:

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You’ll also encounter him on Rose Street:

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MacCaig, from ‘November Night, Edinburgh’, Rose Street

I’ve just come across ‘Drop-out in Edinburgh’ from his collection The World’s Room (1974), in which the sounds of the city are neatly summed up as

… warpipes and genteel pianos
and the sawing voices of lawyers.

That poem articulates the city’s opposites as “caves of guilt… pinnacles of jubilation”. In an earlier poem, ‘Out from a Lecture’, having bemoaned the dullness of lectures and book-learning, he is heartened by an everyday epiphany:

The High Street sticks his elbows in my ribs,
Lifts up a dram of shopfronts; shuts that book.
– And I raise my little glass where like a cherry
The sun’s stuck on a chimney-stack, and drink.

Slàinte!

 

 

The Gentle Shepherd

Allan Ramsay

The poet Allan Ramsay died in Edinburgh on 7 January, 1758.

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He is remembered in Greyfriars Kirkyard by this stone, erected a century or so after his death, whose opening text reads:

In this Cemetery
Was Interred the Mortal Part
of an Immortal Poet.
ALLAN RAMSAY
Author of the GENTLE SHEPHERD,
And other admirable Poems in the Scottish Dialect.
He was born in 1686, and Died in 1758.

The following four lines confused me when I first read them, as I knew them from a gravestone elsewhere in Edinburgh.

No sculptur’d Marble here, nor pompous lay,
No storied Urn nor animated Bust;
This simple stone directs pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er the Poet’s dust.

Written in 1787 by Robert Burns for Robert Fergusson, these lines are carved on the latter’s headstone in the Canongate Kirkyard. They have been borrowed, or repurposed, to remember Ramsay, though in the process Burns and Fergusson have been forgotten. Cut-and-paste, 19th century style.

Burns Fergusson epitaph

Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd is a pastoral comedy in Scots from 1725. A few steps away from Robert Fergusson’s grave is that of Adam Smith, who said of Ramsay’s work, ‘it is the duty of a poet to write like a gentleman. I dislike that homely style which some think fit to call the language of nature and simplicity and so forth.’

Here’s a brief extract, in which a young man praises his love’s singing.

PATIE.
Jenny sings saft the ‘Broom o Cowdenknowes’,
An Rosie lilts the ‘Milkin o the Yowes’.
There’s nane like Nancy ‘Jenny Nettles’ sings;
At turns in Maggy Lauder’, Marion dings;
But when my Peggy sings, wi sweeter skill,
The ‘Boatman’ or the ‘Lass o Patie’s Mill’,-
It is a thoosand times mair sweet to me;
Tho they sing weel, they canna sing like thee.

Edina Europa: after the Fringe

These are a few photos from the Edina Europa poetry walks, which took place during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last month. They were taken by Alison Lloyd; my thanks to her for letting me use them here.

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In the Canongate Kirkyard, looking towards the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill and the Old Royal High School.

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At the grave of Johann Friedrich Lampe (1703–1751), a composer and bassonist who came to Edinburgh in 1750 to play at the recently opened Canongate Playhouse. I read from Robert Fergusson’s poem, ‘On the Canongate Playhouse in Ruins’, written after the theatre closed in 1769, and which includes the lines evoking the sounds of the playhouse:

Here shepherds, lolling in their woven bowers,
In dull recitativo often sung
Their loves, accompanied with clangour strong
From horns, from trumpets, clarinets, bassoons;
From violinos sharp, or droning bass,
Or the brisk tinkling of a harpsichord.

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Reading from Burns, with the Burns Monument emerging from the trees in the background.

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Reading another Burns poem at the grave of Adam Smith.

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Taking advantage of having the poet on hand, I asked Angus Reid to read his ‘split sonnet’ about the Scottish parliament building, dedicated to Donald Dewar and beginning with the question:

And with what sign should     the gathering place
be shown…

Thanks to everyone who came on the walks – it was as ever a pleasure to share the poems with you, and the unfolding conversations.

 

Making POETRY for the Inspiration Machine

Thanks to Angus Reid for helping me make a 10-second video for the Edinburgh Fringe’s Inspiration Machine. It takes work to make something that short!  We used an old poem of mine, POETRY, which is based loosely on a Pepsi ad from the 70s. These are Angus’s drawings that we used in the video, throwaway style, like Dylan in ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. (Nothing like showing your age…)

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Edina Europa: before the Fringe

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I’ll be leading poetry walks as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe again this year. Edina Europa looks at the Scottish capital’s links with Europe over the centuries. I’m still compiling poems and working out the itinerary, but the walks will start and end at the Scottish Poetry Library, just off the Canongate near the Scottish Parliament.

The map above (taken from an old historical atlas, and showing Europe after 1815) links Edinburgh with cities it’s been compared to: it’s well known as the ‘Athens of the North’, but it’s also been compared favourably, and alliteratively, with Paris, Palermo, Prague and Potsdam.

Today I’ve been looking at James Hogg’s portrayal in The Queen’s Wake of the Italian David Rizzio, the ill-fated favourite of Mary Queen of Scots. I also discovered that the well-known ballad ‘Mary Hamilton’ (‘Yestreen the queen had four Maries’) has its roots in Russia…

 

Poets at Edinburgh Park

These are the twelve herms of Scottish poets, overlooking the grandly named Loch Ross just by the Edinburgh Park Central tram stop, to the west of the city. On the sides of the plinth you can find some information about, and a poem by, each poet, though only Edwin Morgan wrote a poem specifically for his herm.

A human head would never do
under the mists and rains or tugged
by ruthless winds or whipped with leaves
from raving trees. But who is he
in bronze, who is the moveless one?
The poet laughed, it isn’t me.
It’s nearly me, but I am free
to dodge the showers or revel in them,
to walk the alleys under the stars
or waken where the blackbirds are.
Some day my veins will turn to bronze
and I can’t hear, or make, a song.
Then indeed I shall be my head
staring ahead, or so it seems,
but you may find me watching you,
dear traveller, or wheeling round
into your dreams.