Poetry for Men—Just Kidding, All Poetry Is for Men: Ron Swanson Cries over Robert Burns

Parks & Rec's Resident Tough Guy Gets Emotional in Scotland

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Ron Swanson, no-bullshit king of NBC’s beloved Parks & Recreation, is a man’s man. Or rather, a caricature of a man’s man. Or rather still, a caricature of what a man’s man could be: someone who knows his own mind, lives simply, distrusts the new and shiny, and has a heart as big as a sailing ship.

Much is made of Ron’s manliness, and at several points during the show, he embodies what seems to be a belief that art is not for “real men.” In one scene, Ron describes the uses of canvas to a group of apprehensive young Pawnee Rangers: “That is a canvas sheet, the most versatile object known to man. It can be used to make tents, backpacks, shoes, stretchers, sails, tarpaulins, and I suppose, in the most dire of circumstances, it can be a surface on which to make art.”

One of the most charming moments on the show involves a very genuine confrontation that Ron has with a poem written by Robert Burns, favorite son of Scotland. Burns’ lines reach through the ether of 220 years and bring a tear to the eye of one of TV’s toughest dudes.

Ron’s white hypermasculinity, however, got me thinking about representation in my own writing.

Poetry & Patriarchy

Poetry, of course, is for men because it’s for everybody. But like other art forms and, you know, the world, poetry historically has been dominated by men. And that imbalance isn’t a thing of the past. Organizations like VIDA continue to track this imbalance in contemporary literary journals, and only three of the publications they surveyed in 2019, for example, published at least 50% women and nonbinary writers.

Many of the posts I’ve written on PopPoetry to date center on the poems of male writers, and particularly white, male writers. This is because the poetry I often find in popular culture—the poems and poets that TV, film, and songwriters tend to reference in their own works—are largely written by white men. Wordsworth. Blake. Cummings. Shakespeare. I aim to include the works of women, people of color, and queer folks as often as I can to counterbalance our cultural reliance on the work of dead white men in our popular culture.

When I’m dealing exclusively with the work of a white, male author in a post, I aim to include pop palate cleansers that will redirect our attention onto a living poet, woman poet, queer poet, and/or poet of color in order to multiply our understanding of what poetry has always been and can be moving forward. I’d love to hear your feedback about this new feature. The first installment appears at the end of this post!

Swanson on Art

Played by the incredible Nick Offerman, Ron Swanson is not at all interested in art, and his opinions on the subject are legendary. Though he does have a top-secret soft spot for jazz, Ron is particularly hostile to visual art, which he sees as a waste of time that could be better spent in nature.

I often repeat Ron’s absurd and kind of accurate (whoops) “anything is anything” when I’m worrying about art that I’m making, and it makes me feel a little better and a little worse. It’s comforting. It evens me out.

Big displays of emotion are not Ron’s thing. And as for any beauty that can be gleaned from art, for Ron, it can’t compare to the beauty of a wooden canoe or a huge plate of bacon and eggs.

And so, Ron is a man supremely unprepared to feel a feeling when reading a poem, which is exactly what happens in the Season 6 episode “London, Part 2.”

Swanson in Scotland

Ron is a very amiable party guest, but he generally detests being fêted. Leslie has threatened to throw him more than one birthday party, but typically she ends up creating an experience that suits him better, like a steak dinner eaten alone while watching The Bridge on the River Kwai.

After his ultra-quick wedding to Diane (Lucy Lawless) in Season 6, Leslie gives Ron the most amazing wedding present: a solo treasure-hunt trip to Scotland that culminates in a visit to the Lagavulin Whiskey Distillery.

Offerman’s love of Lagavulin both in his own life and as Ron Swanson has spawned a real-life partnership. A longtime fan of the brand, Offerman notes that his character’s love for the whisky was a bit of kismet between him and Parks & Rec co-creator Mike Schur. The My Tales of Whisky series on YouTube is another outgrowth of Offerman’s on-camera experience and love of Lagavulin, well worth checking out even for an ad.

Inside her treasure-hunt guidebook, Leslie has included a poem for Ron to read aloud to himself once he has reached the scenic cliffsides of Islay, the island known as the “Queen of the Hebrides” in southern Scotland.

The poem she includes is “O were my love yon Lilac fair” by Robert Burns, which was written way back in 1793.

Here’s the full text of the poem Ron reads from:

[O were my love yon Lilac fair]

O were my love yon Lilac fair,
Wi’ purple blossoms to the Spring,
And I, a bird to shelter there,
When wearied on my little wing!
How I wad mourn when it was torn
By Autumn wild, and Winter rude!
But I wad sing on wanton wing,
When youthfu’ May its bloom renew'd.

O gin my love were yon red rose,
That grows upon the castle wa’;
And I myself a drap o’ dew,
Into her bonie breast to fa’!
O there, beyond expression blest,
I’d feast on beauty a’ the night;
Seal’d on her silk-saft faulds to rest,
Till fley’d awa by Phoebus’ light!

If the Scots dialect is tripping you up, here’s an English “translation” from the Robert Burns Federation. This is the version that most closely matches Ron’s reading:

O, were my love yon lilac fair
With purple blossoms to the spring,
And I a bird to shelter there,
When wearied on my little wing,
How I would mourn when it was torn
By Autumn wild and Winter rude!
But I would sing on wanton wing,
When youthful May its bloom renewed.

O, if my love were yonder red rose,
That grows upon the castle wall,
And I myself a drop of dew
Into her lovely breast to fall,
O, there, beyond expression blessed,
I would feast on beauty all the night,
Sealed on her silk-soft folds to rest,
Till scared away by Phoebus’ light!

Ron reads the first stanza of the poem, pauses, and says “I don’t know what she thought I’d get out of that,” holding back tears as the corners of his mustachioed mouth turn down.

What does the poem mean? What’s the point?

Because of its Scots dialect, some English readers may have a slightly more difficult time with Burns’ work, though it remains highly accessible.

Overall, the poem has to do with love, the natural world, and the cyclical nature of the seasons. Burns is typically considered to be a proto- or pre-Romantic poet, in that he privileges the power of emotion, looks to the natural world for deep inspiration, and makes use of older works and legends in his writing.

Essentially, the first stanza of the poem says, If I were a bird and my love were a flower bush, I would take great comfort in her. If my love were torn away from me, I would be sad but would look forward to a renewal of that love or to a new love.

Since this is a kind of solo honeymoon-slash-wedding gift trip, it would make sense that Leslie would give Ron a love poem to read as he contemplated his surroundings and perhaps even his life.

Why does the poem get Ron all choked up?

As was the case with Wordsworth’s Lake District, the gorgeous natural setting of Scotland’s cliffside may have contributed to Ron’s minuscule but remarkable emotional response to the poem. Just look at that view!

Though Ron only reads half the poem on screen, the half he does read is a bit sad. The speaker imagines the lilac “torn” by storms and the cycles of the seasons. I get choked up thinking about the literal image: a little bird made sad because the flowering plant he was nesting in has been destroyed.

If the bird is the speaker and the lilac is his beloved, then what I see here is a declaration that the speaker’s love is constant: he will love the object of his affection even if there are obstacles, problems, or interruptions. If there are tough times, he’ll cry; in good times, he’ll rejoice. It’s a poem of strong emotions that has a surprisingly balanced psychological profile.

The little bird sounds like a hell of a guy: kind of like Ron.

Though I wouldn’t expect Ron to hit up his local library for more Rabbie Burns upon returning from Scotland, he surprised himself for at least one beautiful moment while reading “O were my love…” on a Scottish cliffside. I would think that a man who respects craftsmanship in all its forms to have some respect for the high level of skill required to write such easy-seeming verse.

Pop Palate Cleanser

Queer poet Jackie Kay is the National Poet Laureate of Scotland, a title she’s held since 2016. Born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, Kay was later adopted by a white Scottish family with an adopted son. Kay had a 15-year relationship with Carol Ann Duffy, the first-known queer, Scottish-born woman poet to hold the title of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom (talk about a power couple).

In a video released in the early days of the pandemic in 2020, Kay reads her cleverly titled poem, “New Era,” while wearing her son’s hat. The warmth, humor, and tenderness of her work comes through.

But much of her work also discusses her sense of displacement in her home country as a Black Scottish woman. Her work is deeply felt, skillful, and redolent with the sights and sounds of her native country. This is a poet you’ll be so glad to know.

P. S.

  • Poets are powerful on and off the page. The evidence? Myanmar is detaining, and in some cases, killing them.

  • Rosie Stockton’s new book takes on love under capitalism, a confrontation with “the popular” if there ever was one.

  • It’s no Lagavulin, but another beverage company is attempting to engage what it’s calling “poetry” this summer. What do you make of this?

  • Meghan Markle is writing a children’s book based on a poem she wrote for her husband, Harry.

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