Inspired by a bard

Robert Free: Published poet 1st prize winner
Robert Free: Published poet 1st prize winner
Christina Hulbe: Unpublished poet 1st prize winner
Christina Hulbe: Unpublished poet 1st prize winner
Joe Corbett: Young poet 1st prize winner
Joe Corbett: Young poet 1st prize winner

Poets have been celebrating the Scottish bard Robert Burns in the poetry competition that carries his name. Once again the judges have been impressed by their efforts, writes Tom McKinlay.

Love and laughter feature in the winning poetry of the 10th annual Robert Burns Poetry Competition, but it is not all fun and frolics. A grave Presbyterian assessment of Robert Burns' legacy also takes a prize.

Returning judges David Howard, poet and the 2013 University of Otago Robert Burns Fellow, and writer and Dunedin City Library librarian Paul Veart have settled on their top three, which win, respectively, the published poet, the unpublished poet and young poet sections.

They are published here today in print, but the judges suggest reading them aloud to experience them best.

Indeed, the judges did this themselves during their work, including in the cafe where they met to finally decide the prizes.

''The people in the cafe must have thought we were nuts,'' Howard said.

''The deciding moment is when the poem is read out loud and the ear is won over or not.''

That was particularly the case with the winner of the published poet section, Robert Free, whose poem ''Where now are ye Robbie'', demanded to be heard, Veart said.

''It was one of these poems that did not want to be confined to the page.

''It felt like a poem that wanted to be read in a pub, on maybe a stormy night.''

The ''daring nature of the content'' also caught the eye and ear of the judging pair.

It talks about transience and the way in which everything crumbles, Howard said. The temptation when entering a competition honouring Robert Burns, was to praise him, but the poem resisted that.

''This actually has quite a dark tone, it is full of shadows: `Have turned this world to shame'. It has a kind of Presbyterian voice coming through. `And day hath turned to night upon the heath'. And especially: `And all the would-be poets are writing verse in prose'. That's really sharp. But it gets even sharper at the closing two lines.''

It is a brave conception skilfully executed, Howard said.

The winner of the unpublished poet section, ''Laddie wi' the welcome smile'', written by Christina Hulbe, involves quite a different approach. It is inspired by the Burns poem ''Lassie wi the Lint-white Locks'' and, for Veart, created the possibility of a Burns poem set in rural New Zealand.

''It felt like a farmer who was writing this love story to someone who was working on his farm. There was something about that, a love story from a New Zealand farmer, it felt like quite a daring thing to do,'' he said.

''Some of the imagery they are using is quite traditional but within that context it suddenly becomes a much more contemporary piece.''

For Howard, the skill of execution was the clincher in this category.

''It justifies the reading and it justifies re-reading because of the judiciousness with which the language is chosen.''

Both judges were immediately impressed with the entry of Joseph Corbett (16), of Waikouaiti, which won the young poet section, repeating his success of last year.

''Both Paul and I felt that the use of Scots vernacular, the skill with which the idea was developed and the utterly appropriate humour that closes the poem were a wonderful legacy to Robert Burns, in that these are all devices that he used skilfully in his own work,'' Howard said.

''And yet the poem lives independent of Robert Burns, too. It doesn't require you to have a great deal of knowledge about his history or to do any great swot to enjoy it, because it is so visceral, it is so earthy, and again that marks the best of Robert Burns.''

Veart said he was a bit in awe of the young poet's use of Scots.

''It feels like someone who is very confident with Scots.''

The clever ending also indicated talent.

''It shows it is not just someone who is skilful with the language of Scots, but they also narratively and structurally know what they are doing, as well. Hopefully, they can read it out loud. I would really like to see them perform it.''

Robert Burns Poetry Competition
• The first-placed published poet picks up the Stan Kirkpatrick Medal
• The first-placed unpublished poet picks up the Allan Millar Medal and Trophy
• The first placed young poet wins the Stan Forbes Medal
• All winners are invited to a ceremony at the Dunedin City Library at 12.30pm on Saturday, Robert Burns' birthday, where they will read their poems
• The competition is a collaboration between the Dunedin Public Libraries and the Dunedin Burns Club.
• Robert Burns, born in 1759, is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, his works reflecting his strength of opinion, love of women, and fondness for drinking. Though he never visited Dunedin, there is a connection, as his nephew Dr Thomas Burns was one of the city's founding fathers.

Published Poet - 1st Prize
Robert Free

Where now are ye Robbie

Where not are ye Robbie
Where-for art thou still
No words of wisdom on thy lips
No quiver in thy quill

Thou hast returned with kudos
To soils for whence ye came
Whilst all the spoils of conquest
Have turned this world to shame

And all thy good hath come undone
As dust returns to dust
And all thy works corrupted
By those in whom we trust

And day hath turned to night upon
The heath where heather grows
And all the would-be poets
Are writing verse in prose

Oh where now are ye Robbie will
Ye nay come back again
And gi' us lines we canna read
Wi' words we did ne ken.

Unpublished Poet - 1st Prize
Christina Hulbe

Laddie wi' the welcome smile
(inspired by Lassie wi' the Lint-white Locks)

Laddie wi' the welcome smile
Bonnie laddie, wayward laddie
Promise me to stay a while
Though I know you'll leave me.

When spring breaks green you can't resist,
the lassie whom you've not yet kissed,
but 'fore you go I do insist
the ewes need help wi' lambing.


When winter's past and spring is new,
before the sun drives off the dew,
lemonwood binds me to you,
its perfumed spell enchanting.


The kowhai tree, the phalarope,
don't cast their fate to chance or hope,
now come wi' me and plow the slope,
my barley yet needs planting.


The sun climbs high to mind the grain,
cicadas roar like winter rain,
now come wi' me, the leafy lane
will shade late summer's pleasure.


And when the bellbird rings its song,
the hay is stack'd, the shadows long,
could winter's promise yet prove wrong,
could harvest time have cured thee?

Laddie wi' the welcome smile
Bonnie laddie, wayward laddie
Promise me to stay a while
Though I know you'll leave me.

Young Poet - 1st Prize
Joe Corbett (age 16)

Me Mate Rabbie

I hae guid mem'ries of him an' me
Ganna back yeirs hundredd thrie
So heid all rownd tae hee
Tale of me mate Rabbie

Since he came furth in Alloway
He waes a gallus smirt bairn
His kinny alwayis rynn away
Frae hall-housie tae farm

But nae Scot'd cair ane scrap o' that
Bauldly stout tae any chalange fyrm
Though ne'er frie, the shoogly wee brat
O' e'er-present Scotch germ

Quill-pen was his friend frae start
Fer his fathir swot 'im fast
An' skyll of he spaun frae yoong hart
At fyfteen he loved a bonnie lass.

Aye, he couldn't stay frae paper
An' we joked abute his posin'
He was 'ritin' awl the time
That's, when he winnae dosin'

Mayny times I tauld him too
''Putt doon that pen an' grab a keg!''
Nawt impartial was Rabbie, t's trew
Tae ane beer or lassie's leg

T's an understatement, aye. Oh Rob
Howe many sheilas home di' ye bring?
On tap o' mustresses heir in Scot
What else di' ye hae in Land of Spryng?

Yer lukkie thy wyf ne'er rummied ye in
An' ye friends dinnae boot up thy hind
But I ne'er passe judgement o'er nae o' thy fawlts
As ye ne'er judged any o' myne.

I gotta credeit my mate's wirkings too
Frae Red Rose and' A Man t'To A mouse
Ay, his pen could be stuc to his hand wi' glu
An' his influence dinnae ken nae bounds

I sat through his taukin's o' the globe
Abut how the bourders between classes shuld crush
I tauld him he weir gallus, little culd I know
He'd inspeir whule countries, syc as Russia!

But Rabbie, ye peelie-wallie
Unco wabbit at syc yowthheid
Ye shoogly mahn, though ever so bonnie
Dinnae healpe nae, an' at 37 ye dyed.

But Rabbie's legacy lives on braife an' faire
An' his poetries are maykin' a killing
Onely things fur which I harbor a cair
Is that the barsterd still owes me a shilling!


I have good memories of him and me
Going back years hundred and three
So gather all around to hear
Tale of my friend Robbie

Since he was born in Alloway
He was a cheeky little smart child
His family always ran away
From farm to farm

But no Scot would care a scrap of that
Boldly stout to any firm challenge
Though never free, the sickly little brat
Of ever-present Scottish germ

The quill was his friend from the start
For his father taught him fast
And skill of his spawned from a young heart
At fifteen he loved a pretty lady

Yes, he couldn't stay from paper
And we joked about his pretentiousness
He was writing all the time
That is, when he wasn't sleeping.

Many times I told him to
''Put down that pen and grab a beer!''
Not impartial was Robbie, it's true
To a beer or lady's leg

It's an understatement, yes. Oh Rob
How many women did you bring home?
Along with mistresses here in Scotland
What else did you have in Jamaica?

You're lucky your wife never roughed you in
And your friends didn't kick you up the backside
But I never pass judgement over any of your faults
And you never judged any of mine

I've got to credit my friends' workings too
From ''Red Rose'' and ''A Man'' to ''To A Mouse''
Yes, his pen could be stuck to his hand with glue
And his influence doesn't know any bounds

I sat through his discussions about the world
About how the borders between classes should be crushed
I told him he was full of rubbish, little could I know
He'd inspire whole countries, such as Russia!

But Robbie, you wimp
So tired at so young
You sickly man, though ever so handsome
That didn't help a bit, and at 37 you died.

But Robbie's legacy lives on brave and fair
And his poetry is making a killing
Only thing for which I still harbour a care
Is that the scoundrel still owes me a shilling!





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