It’s the third episode of a six-part miniseries that examines the books, movies, music, comics, and other popular culture that directly addresses or is about the attacks of September 11, 2001. In this episode, I look at literature. Selections include poems by Toni Morrison, Abigail Deutsch, Deborah Garrison, and others; short stories by Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates; andGae Polisner’s novel The Memory of Things.
A quick content warning: Though these events are now 20 years in the past, they are still traumatizing to many, and I also discuss some of my personal feelings and views, so listener discretion is advised.
I have a battered and bookmarked copy of the tenth edition An Introduction to Poetry by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia on my classroom bookshelf that I use for reference in planning my AP Literature poetry units each year. It’s one of those textbook-meets-anthology books that English teachers like myself seem to collect throughout the decades of their careers, and I’ve found this one to be especially helpful because of the way that the authors take us through the genre and its forms via the lens of various literary devices. When the reference dialect, one of my favorites to teach*, they include an excerpt from “Auld Lang Syne” as an example of how a poem written in a particular English dialect sounds richer when read using those words, pointing out that “auld lang syne” when translated into standard English would mean “old long since”, which doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The song, which is credited to Robert Burns in 1788, is an indelible piece of our popular culture and the traditional soundtrack to midnight on January 1. Burns gets credit for a number of the verses, but he is quoted as giving credit to the tradition of passing down folk music, saying that quite a bit of the inspiration from the song came from “an old song, one of the olden tunes, and which has never been in print, or even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” In fact, Burns also references a poem by James Watson from around 1711, and when it is all put together, we get these lyrics (courtesy of Scotland’s official website)**:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne.
Chorus: For auld lang syne, my jo, For auld lang syne, We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne,
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp! And surely I’ll be mine! And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes And pu’d the gowans fine; But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot Sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn, Frae mornin’ sun till dine; But seas between us braid hae roar’d Sin auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! And gie’s a hand o’ thine! And we’ll tak a right guid willy waught, For auld lang syne.
Should old acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, And long, long ago.
And for long, long ago, my dear For long, long ago, We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For long, long ago And surely youll buy your pint-jug! And surely I’ll buy mine! And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For long, long ago. Chorus
We two have run about the hills And pulled the daisies fine; But we’ve wandered manys the weary foot Since long, long ago.
We two have paddled in the stream, From morning sun till dine; But seas between us broad have roared Since long, long ago.
And there’s a hand, my trusty friend! And give us a hand of yours! And we’ll take a deep draught of good-will For long, long ago.
I included the song’s lyrics in their entirety here because like a number of older songs that are traditionally sung, we tend to forget or neglect that they’re much longer than we realize. Also important to note is that the tune of the song was not Burns’ composition but was a traditional Scottish folk tune–in other words, the lyrics were just put to music, even if that was not Burns’ intended tune.*** The tradition of singing it to celebrate the new year began in Scotland, and Scots have a particular ritual of sorts to go along with it:
It has long been a much-loved Scottish tradition to sing the song just before midnight. Everyone stands in a circle holding hands, then at the beginning of the final verse (‘And there’s a hand my trusty friend’) they cross their arms across their bodies so that their left hand is holding the hand of the person on their right, and their right hand holds that of the person on their left. When the song ends, everyone rushes to the middle, still holding hands, and probably giggling.
With the phrase meaning “for old time’s sake” and intended to be sung at the end of a long night of celebrating, “Auld Lang Syne” winds up being a perfect drinking song about friendship. When you sing it to someone or with someone, you are connecting with them across the years and honoring what you’ve shared. And that first verse being a rhetorical question is key, especially with New Year’s Day wiping away the past and in some cases saying good riddance. So we wind up having to ask ourselves “Do we really want to get rid of everything?” Then we look at all we’ve done in the past and decide that we will drink to our friendship for old time’s sake.****
Now, I’m a fan of traditional drinking songs and have been so since I discovered Great Big Sea in the late Nineties. But many of those songs tend to be upbeat and rowdy, the party having to come to you for a few minutes. “Auld Lang Syne” is appropriate for midnigth when you are more than a few in and clinging to whatever second or third wind you’ve gotten.***** And it’s sentimental, a folk song version of “The real treasure was the friends we made along the way.” No wonder it’s sung at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Funny enough, this year seemed like a reckoning more than anything, so “Auld Lang Syne” is less sentimental and more of a cling to hope. Or maybe it’s a positive reminder. Singing a song where you ask yourself “Are you going to forget your old friends?” at the end of a very tough year does help you put things into perspective, even if the question is rhetorical and you’re actually supposed to answer “No. Of course I won’t forget them.”
As I contemplate this question at the end of the end of 2020, there are those people whom I can’t forget and wish were with me to celebrate ringing out this stressful, tough year. And yet, there are also those old acquaintances I should forget. Not that they weren’t really friends to begin with or anything (that’s too simple of a way of thinking, to be honest). People change, circumstances reveal things, or you just grow apart. So, sometimes the real treasure is the friends you lost along the way. I don’t want to get into too much about how tough this year was, especially since we can all offer up our particular 2020 stories, except to say that there were moments in the year that were revealing and while some of them still hurt in a way, they’re moments I am grateful for.
I continue to be grateful for them and am grateful that I can head into 2021 with a glimmer of hope, because I need to say something other than complaining about what a shit year it’s been. It’s not being a Pollyanna; I just think contributing something more positive is important. Consider my cup of kindness raised to those who I’d like to remember and my best wishes for a happy, healthy new year.
*It’s really only one of my favorites to teach because I can whip out a flawless Long Island accent that always amuses my class.
**It’s not hard to see someone’s twenty-post Twitter thread about Robert Burns being a plagiarist and how this somehow ties into classist oppression.
***This is also true of another song that is commonly sung in America, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
****Unless, of course, you’re Dan Fogelberg. Then it’s a lover.
*****Or, if you’re me, you wake up because you fell asleep in the big chair at around 9:30.
Was she willing when she sat
and posed a pretty photograph
to save her flowering and fair
for days to come
for days to share
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
I found this photograph
in stacks between the old joist walls
in a place where time is lost
lost behind where all things fall
broken books and calendars,
Letters script in careful hand,
the music to a standard tune by
some forgotten big brass band
From the thresh hold what’s to see
of our brave new century
television’s just a dream
of radio and silver screen
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
Was her childhood filled with rhyme
or stolen books of passion crimes?
was she innocent or blind to the
cruelty of her time?
was she fearful in her day?
was she hopeful? did she pray?
were there skeletons inside
family secrets sworn to hide?
did she feel the heat that stirs
the fall from grace of wayward girls?
was she tempted to pretend
in love and laughter until the end?
The cover of the “Born to Choose” compilation, the CD released to benefit NARAL upon which “Photograph” appeared.
Over spring break, I was talking about R.E.M. with a friend of mine for a future episode of his podcast, and over the course of our conversation, this song that the band recorded with Natalie Merchant in 1993 (which is around the time the band was riding the success of Automatic for the People and Merchant was nearing the end of her tenure as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) was mentioned and while we didn’t spend too much time analyzing it, we both agreed that the song is excellent
After the conversation, I wound up listening to “Photograph” again, and while there are a lot of times when R.E.M.’s lyrics border on the indecipherable, the lyrics here are actually more clear even if they are pretty complex. My first thought, upon first hearing it, was to compare it to the Jackson Browne song “Fountain of Sorrow,” but giving it another listen, I realized that the beauty in this particular song is that neither Merchant nor Michael Stipe know who the person in the photograph is.
It all reminds me of the early 2000s when I would waste time at work by looking at things posted to Found Magazine, which was devoted to trying to tell the story of objects that users had found. Many times, they related the circumstances that led to finding and keeping the object; other times, they were more about trying to tell that object’s story, in the same way that the lyrics are doing here.
The English teacher side of me loves this song, as does the writer side, because it lends itself to such a great multifaceted writing exercise. Of course, there’s the idea that I could take the time to tell the story of the photograph and answer the questions that they’re asking, similar to how I have often used Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” as a springboard for a writing assignment. There’s also the possibility of describing the photograph based on the questions–as in, what about that photograph would lead someone to ask those questions?
And then there’s the objects that we own or don’t own that have stories behind them. Granted, you don’t need to study this song in order to create that assignment, but this would serve as a great model for any student looking to write the story of an object. If it’s something a student already owns, there is description and there is reflection; if it’s something the student doesn’t own (i.e., I gave them a photograph of people they didn’t know without any context), there is indulgence of curiosity and creativity, and also perhaps some self-reflection of the way that we judge people based on what we see.
I think poetry as a genre works really well, especially in this case, because it forces a person to stretch themselves. I could provide a prompt with a journal response, but that’s too simple and might result in some sort of bland description. This song, “Photograph,” and other poetry about the objects in our lives, goes deeper than that, asking questions that may not have answers and providing answers because it’s in our nature to want to do that.