Published: June 30, 2007

My Pipes Were Singing and other poems

Scotland is, if not unique, then certainly in limited company among the nations of the world in claiming as one of its national heroes a poet.

Robert Burns is well known outside of Scotland, and his legacy to this day plays a large part in carrying a sense of the traditions of the country to other parts of the world. As a youth learning the pipes in the early 1970s, my band’s biggest event was an annual Robert Burns Night. It was a big draw that consistently played to sold-out crowds. In addition to performances by the band, Highland and country dancing exhibitions, and consumption of allegedly-Scottish food, recitation of Burns’ songs and poetry were a featured part of the agenda, which seems appropriate, given that the event ostensibly served to honor his life and work. That capitalizing on Mr. Burns’ legacy also provided an excellent, and reliable, source of income to fund the purchase of new drums, matched chanters, reeds, kit, et cetera, was, of course, of secondary importance. The poetry was the thing.

Our humble (but lucrative) event touched hundreds of people in the years I played with the band. And I can think of dozens of acquaintances who hosted (and continue to host) private Burns Nights in their homes for themselves and their friends. Multiply this by all the other bands and individuals, in all the other cities, in all the other counties, provinces and states, in all the other countries across the world, over many decades, and the influence is potentially immense. Thus, the celebration of one poet’s life, loosely interpreted in thousands of places across the globe, spreads some sense of the Scottish culture and our music.

The sum total of the rest of my experience with poetry is a passing familiarity with the Japanese form known as Haiku, courtesy of the public school system in Alma, Michigan, USA, which attempted to educate me at about the same time I was learning the pipes. My recollection is that Haiku is generally understood (in an Occidental, non-poet’s sort of way) as three lines of verse containing five, seven, and five syllables each. That’s pretty much it.

As with so much art and design from Japan, it is simple and elegant. It is so organic and natural that even schoolchildren in the US (which country’s public education test scores compare to the rest of the world’s, shall we say, less than favorably) learn and compose it easily.

Given all that, it seems reasonable that most people across the globe have some exposure to and understanding of Haiku. We access pipes|drums via the computer, so surely we’ve all seen the computer-error messages done in Haiku form, for example:

Your computer crashed.

Arise, oh Blue Screen of Death.

No one hears your cries.

Ha ha! That’s pretty funny . . . for being poetry about computers and all.

I think, therefore, that we can agree that Haiku is very likely universal in its reach, even lending its beautiful structure to the hardscrabble world of computer-related humor, in which, I believe, the use of poetry is not common. And yet here’s a land, Scotland, with a doggone poet as a national hero – and have you ever read any Haiku about it? About bagpipes, or drummers, or pipe bands? Haggis, tartans, porridge, heather, rain, more rain, bloody-horizontal-like-a-corn-broom-in-your-face-as-you-march-into-the-circle-rain – even Highland dancing?

I have not. A form of poetry, understood across the world, so common that computer geeks use it as a vessel for their thoughts, so simple that American children learn it in grade school – and yet devoid in its ubiquity of any reference to the instruments, music and pageantry of the Land of The Poet. And I find that sad – very nearly criminal, really

Let’s give poor Burns an assist – the man has carried the mail very nearly single-handedly all these years. Haiku, by varying its subjects and tone, could become the piobaireachd of poems (albeit with a bit of a Japanese accent), to further convey piping and drumming as an art form to the world. Unleash Haiku to express the same sorts of themes seen in that great form of bagpipe music, ceol mor. To wit:

The salute

The peacock sits proud
judging the Amateur March.
Sir, close your knees, please.

Drummers keep the beat.
The tune must end – what signal?
“Boom Boom – Boom Boom” – thanks!

The faithful Steward
I am late – his duty done
Disqualifies me

Marching bandsmen – Oh!
Elegance personified –
their white pith helmets.

The lament

My pipes were singing
Horror! Where is my bass reed?
Fallen in the bag.

Lo! Pipe-band piper!
We play soon – where are you now?
You’re cut. Bring water.

Are you playing well?
The judge appears pleased – a prize?
“Good, good, good, good, last.”

The death of a friend
They were my favorite sticks.
Snapped in two – silence


Um, other, random kinds of themes that aren’t salutes or laments

Badges? We don’t need
no stinking badges. We are:
A Police Pipe Band.

Uniform – so proud!
But your kilt is wrinkled – why?
Did you sleep in it?

I must go to Checks
Single fish, no vinegar.
I am too late. Tears.

You’re in Scotland now
Traffic goes the other way
“Tourist Hit By Bus”

Simple, elegant, globally understood – poetry for the music and musicians of a poet nation. To you, my colleagues, the faithful readers of pipes|drums, may I submit the modest proposal that you create your own Haiku to promote and further our art. In the spirit that Burns’ poetry promotes a nation, let us promote piping and drumming to the world – only on the kind of funky 5/7/5 time signature of Haiku.

I close with a final thought, expressed, appropriately I believe, through Haiku:

You think you’re funny
With your poetry and jokes
Stick to the bagpipes

Your faithful servant,
Joel Kimball
June 18, 2007

p|d

Joel Kimball’s poetry goes beyond words and transcends to his music with the Grade 1 Toronto Police Pipe Band. He lives in Michigan and works in the lyrical world of American automobile production.

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