Crossing cultural boundaries

Poet Jill O’Brien uses ‘‘biting wit’’ to show a darker side to Robbie Burns. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Poet Jill O’Brien uses ‘‘biting wit’’ to show a darker side to Robbie Burns. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Dunedin fans of Robbie Burns have been celebrating the poet’s birthday since 1855 and today is no different, with the announcement of the winners of the 2017 Robbie Burns Poetry Competition.

The winning poems in the 2017 Robert Burns Poetry Competition took a current issue and addressed it with ''Burnsian'' vigour, judge and poet Elena Poletti says.

Poletti, along with Burns Fellow Craig Cliff, judged the competition, choosing winning poems that reflected Burns' less than romantic dealings with women.

For the judges, it was a chance to engage with Burns' work in a deeper way than they had previously.

''It was great to see so many other poets engaging with the life and work of Burns, and the place of his [and any] poetry in Dunedin,'' Cliff said.

Poletti said the winning poems were first and foremost good poems, with clear themes, good use of words and creating vivid pictures for the reader. In addition, there were clear links to Burns in the theme, without simply being a pastiche.

The special commendation award was for a poem that crossed cultural boundaries and brought a very different perspective to the idea of a ''response to Burns'' (including a nice little pun.

''All of the top three poems in the published category used Scots, which was somewhat of a surprise. Wading through Scottish Burns was written in everyday English, but managed to impress us greatly and we felt it fitting to acknowledge this poem.''

There was some disappointment that entries were inconsistent in their use of Scots and that writers did not dig more deeply to come up with something fresh and original, Cliff said.

''Trying to sound like Burns isn't the only way to draw inspiration from his life and works.''

The small number of entries in the youth category was also disappointing.

''It really does seem a great opportunity to get school kids engaged in thinking creatively and critically about that guy whose statue is in the Octagon.''


Jill O'Brien

Given Jill O'Brien's poem is less than complimentary to the Scots poet and his behaviour towards women, she is quite surprised she has won the competition.

She set out to shed light on Burns' relationships with women. Rather than the romantic rascal of Scottish poetry as he is often portrayed, she looked at his more ''bawdy'' letters and poems, which tell of a life filled less with romance and true love and more with the bragging rights of sexual conquests.

Of his 14 children, at least half were illegitimate and born to servant girls.

''Being an unmarried mother in the 18th century meant, of course, a life of abject poverty. Were Burns' sexual activities consensual? We don't know for sure, but given the imbalance of power between this educated wealthy man and a young servant girl, it seems unlikely.''

O'Brien, who works in the education sector, wanted to give Burns' women a voice.

''I wanted them to tell their side of the story when they were left, quite literally, holding the baby after an assignation they may not have wanted. I wanted to make the point that those who write history can't write it to suit themselves and leave out the bits that don't fit with the myth, in this case the myth of Burns as role model of Scotland.''

Uncomfortable as it may be for fans of Burns and his poetry, O'Brien believes it is important to discuss the historical evidence ''all of it, as pertaining to Burns and his poetry, and what this says about his attitude to women, and go from there''.

O'Brien began writing poetry six years ago as she liked the creative freedom of the form mixed with the ''rigour'' of making every word and rhyme count.

''I like the fact that what one person thinks is a great poem, the next person thinks is utter rubbish, which is as it should be. I like the fact that once the poem leaves the writer, it's meaning belongs no longer to the writer, but to the reader.''

She only discovered Burns when she met her future husband in the Cairngorms mountains in the eastern Highlands of Scotland, where he introduced her to the Burns Supper.

''We had many a Burns Supper when we lived in Hawea, and more recently down here on Quarantine Island. Many of Burns' most famous poems have been recited by guests at these suppers over the years, which led me to want to read more of Burns' lesser known poetry, especially his songs.''


Peter Matheson.
Peter Matheson.
Peter Matheson

Peter Matheson is a Scot by birth, so Burns is part of his childhood heritage.

''I rediscovered him in recent years. His earthiness, not to be confused with sentimentality, is a key part of his appeal, his irreverent honesty another.''

The Presbyterian minister, who is now retired but keeps busy with historical writing and lecturing, has been writing poetry on and off for years and is delighted his poem has struck a chord with others.

''Poetry is the song of the spirit. In highly compressed and metaphorical form it says what can't be said.''

The inspiration for The Birdie was the pre-dawn birdsong.

''In its affirmation it cocks a snook at the barbarism and populist stupidity of much world news.''


Colin Gibson
Colin Gibson
Colin Gibson

Colin Gibson, a retired English professor with a love of poetry, thought he would try and add one more item to Burns' ''merry'' collection of ''earthy lyrics'' with his poem.

''The knowledge that Burns, although he is famous for his romantic lyrics, his sharp satirical writing and his comical narrative verse, also wrote a body of frankly erotic and bawdy poetry and apparently collected similar poems by other Scottish authors.''

Having written occasional poetry and hymns for at least 50 years, Gibson decided to enter the competition since it supports modern New Zealand poets and the appreciation of a great national poet.

Gibson feels like he has known Burns ''forever''.

''Probably from the first haggis ceremony I attended, and then through acquiring his collected poems and coming to realise his extraordinary range as a poet.''


Beverly Martens
Beverly Martens
Beverly Martens

Beverly Martens is the owner of Dunedin Literary Walking Tours, which she created a year ago to help spread the word about how Dunedin is a Unesco City of Literature.

''The irony is that I rave about this competition on my tours ... And yet I didn't think to actually enter it myself until the last minute.''

She has been writing sporadically all her adult life, but more so since moving to Dunedin 10 years ago.

The poem is based on a family story about her late Dutch immigrant father having done his army training in Scotland.

''The absurdness of that was my starting point for what became a narrative poem about my father's life.''

Peter Sutton
Peter Sutton
Peter Sutton

Peter Sutton is ''gobsmacked'' at his win in the unpublished section especially given he wrote

the poem the night before entries closed.

He has been writing poetry for 35 years, but only for his own satisfaction, although he occasionally wrote pieces for people's birthdays.

When a friend dropped off the leaflet about the Burns Poetry Competition he was intrigued enough by the idea to sit down and write a sonnet.

''The following morning I checked it, changed a few minor things and emailed it off.''

An Englishman from the home of Shakespeare, he has always been interested in his sonnets and liked the idea of having to conform to a metre and rhyme pattern.

''It's a way to keep my brain active.''

He had always admired certain Burns poems, enjoying his wicked sense of humour, and checked out his collection before deciding what to write. Burns' poems about the devil appealed.

''I liked the idea and decided to write about a more modern devil. Back in his day the devil was blamed for evil things, the way most people regard the government I think.''


Ella Robinson
Ella Robinson
Ella Robinson

Ella Robinson was inspired to write her work by poems written to or about the women in Burns' life.

The PhD candidate at the University of Otago has been writing poetry since she was a child, finding satisfaction in discovering the right words to fit, especially when it is humorous.

''The love for rhyme continues.''

The inspiration came after reading The Love Songs and Heroines of Robert Burns, by John C. Hill, which collated poems written to or about the women in Burns' life.

''It started from one line of a poem I had written for a friend of mine and the rest just seemed to flow out of nowhere.

''It's not about anyone in particular, but was inspired by that feeling you get when you're first getting to know someone, and can't stop smiling and raving about how wonderful they are to all your friends.''


Victoria Stewart
Victoria Stewart
Victoria Stewart

A pet portrait artist and social media writer who grew up in Scotland, Victoria Stewart had not written a poem in years before writing Ode to Facebook.

The poem was inspired by Burns' To a Mouse, and by the humour that she imagined he would use if he were to look upon people using Facebook today and the danger of measuring the success of our lives against the posted achievements of people we know.

''I feel really proud to have been selected. Isn't it ironic that I can't wait to tell my friends on Facebook?''

To see
The prizegiving for the winners of the annual Dunedin Unesco City of Literature Robert Burns Poetry Competition will be held tonight at 5 o’clock in the Dunningham Suite, fourth floor, Dunedin City Library. There will be readings of the winning poems.

Then join Toitu Otago Settlers Museum and the Dunedin Burns Club to hear more about  the man and his times, and try traditional Scottish food, drink and music at Toitu Otago  Settlers Museum, 7pm.


Published category 

First place: Jill O’Brien (Dunedin), Reply from the Lassies.
Judges comment: ‘‘From an empowered, feminine perspective befitting the #metoo movement. This is a poem that does not shirk from any challenge, from the use of Scots to the handling of historical and contemporary material, but we are in capable hands and are rewarded with biting wit, some great turns of phrase and plenty to chew on.’’
— Burns Fellow Craig Cliff

Second place: Peter Matheson (Dunedin), The Birdie.

Third place: Colin Gibson (Dunedin), A New Ballad in the Manner of Robbie Burns.

Special commendation: Beverly Martens (Dunedin), Wading Through Scottish Burns.


Unpublished category 

First place: Peter Sutton (Nelson), Address to the New Deil.
Judges comment: ‘‘Similarly deals with contemporary world (the new Labour-led coalition government) and links back to Burns own political poems and commentary. The poem here maintains a kind of amused ambivalence befitting any new government, but especially one produced by MMP.’’ 

— Burns Fellow Craig Cliff

Second place: Ella Robinson (Dunedin), She Kens.

Third place: Victoria Stewart (Gisborne), Ode to Facebook.


Youth section 

First place: Belle Williams (Dunedin), No More.a

Second-equal place: Fletcher Kopua (Blenheim), Weka, and Angus Kopua (Blenheim), Falcon.

Third place: Serena Cheng (Sydney), When there was a Bird..


The poems


(A song to the tune of The Caledonian Hunt by James Miller - the same tune used for Ye Banks and Braes)

O, luve is deep as the Lochs o' the Hielands Yet shaul 'tis yer heart as
yon mou' o the Doon Fou or sober, a meare to ride hame on
Ye wax and ye wane likes o' Lammas moon To Elisa and Jenny, Nancy and Anna
Nell and Peggy, Jeanie and May
Ye argie tha lassies an luve gae wi poesy But Ah argie lassies an luve
gae wi weans!
Ye blaw yer ain dochter is bonie an' sweet Sa' ye'll dote like a Daddie
shuid dae
Yet houghmagandie is yours fae the takin' An suin your dochter becomes
twa three Ye rew ye luve them, O flichtering burdies Scrieve your queel
sae tendirly
But wha is liltin' ilka balilliloo
An kittlin' thaim gently frae their first skreigh?
Ye claver o luve and simmer morn Ye haiver o dewy kisses stole
An sa' she's braw as the wildflow'r meadows Yer bonie, blythe lassie,
luve of a'
But efter threapin wi ye she's sleepin' An whan her tears leave seas o'
saut' When nae means nae, but naebody's listenin' Ye bled her heart when
awa' ye walk'd

English translation
Reply From the Lasses #MeToo

Oh, love is as deep as the Lochs of the Highlands Yet your heart is
shallow like the mouth of the Doon Drunken or sober, a mare to ride home on
You wax and you wane like the Harvest moon To Elisa and Jenny, Nancy and
Nell and Peggy, Jeanie and May
You argue that women and love go with poetry But I argue women and love
go with bairns!
You boast your own daughter is pretty and sweet You say that you'll dote
like a father should do Yet hanky panky is yours for the taking
and soon your one daughter becomes quite a few You smile you love them,
O fluttering fledglings You write about them so tenderly
Yet who is singing each lullaby
and cuddling them gently from their first cry?
You chatter of love and summer morn You patter of dewy kisses stole
you say she's as pretty as wildflower meadows your bonnie, blithe
lassie, love of all
But after insisting with you she must sleep And when her tears leave
seas of salt When no means no but nobody's listening
You broke her heart when away you walked


At utmaist streek o' day
Afore the dawn, afore the sun
Wid drench the warld
Wi' lichtsome warmth,
Yon birdie's wide awake,
Fillin' the lift wi' sang.
In this quate neuk o' toun
Hir wee hert's fit  tae birst
Wi' a' the joys o' Spring.
Each bright-eyed dawnin' day
She brings guid cheer tae honest fowk;
Warrands the waefu' dark is gone,
God's licht is streaming in,
We're nae mair hodden doun.
Tho' wickit ruffyans
Wad mak us all afleyd,
Slairg hettred, fear an' hurt,
Haiver o' doom an' ugsome muck
Plant bombs, kill friendlyk fowk,
Turn life tae deith, an' licht tae mirk;
Gie ower that ghaist,
We willnae be affeird!
Yon birdie's braw, bricht sang reverberates:
Her glitterin' ee an' jaunty walk
Derides Auld Nick's dreid pact with deith;
They wilnae win, nae niver, niver, nae!
My bonny bird, we'll heed yir sang
O' life and luve an' carefree days.



(from The Merrie Muses of Caledonia)

What ails ye, Wullie, pur wee mann?
Ye hang sae far a-doune,
And ye ha' shrivelled so awa,
We scarce can see your croune.
   My luve is in a far countree,
   And I hae cause to pine,
   For thogh I crave her kisses sweet
   I canna mak her mine.
What lifts ye, Wullie, to such heights,
As ye wuld pierce the skies,
Stiff-standin there, in sic gude cheer,
Ane sight for greedy eyes.
   Though she may be sae far fro me,
   Nae langer need I pine:
   Last nicht, beneath the am'rous mune,
   I dreamt that she was mine.
What swells ye, Wullie, to such size?
Ye hang a-doun nae more,
But red and stoot ye stand right oot,
As onie granite tor.
   My luve's a-bed wi' me, wi' me!
   Let all the wurld be thine;
   I hold her in my luving arms,
   And she's for ever mine.
What wull ye an' your Rose sae fair,
Wi' all your main and might?
Pray lat us in, and we'll begin
Ta keek at your delight.
   The play betwixt we twa, my friends,
   Is noght for uthers' sicht;
   I draw the curtains, neighbours al,
   An' wish ye so gude nicht!



Clamouring slippery burns
enduring stinging rain
My father, a Dutch Lowlander
cursed whoever decided
harsh basic training
in the Scottish Highlands
would serve in protecting
Dutch East Indies' interests
It made no sense
War seldom does.
Then five hard years later
Fighting harder for housing
with those very same
shamed Colonials pouring
defeated back into Holland.
A much grown man
Restless in a cramped attic
Furious his sent-home savings
hung prettily in his sister's wardrobe.
Back across the seas
Nieuw Zeeland beckoned.

Arriving in the sleety winter of Fifty-Two
to a cramped cabin at the St Kilda camp
Strict rules overlaid with pursed Presbyterianism
Feeling as though he was back in the army
but grinning still from  six-weeks' romancing
aboard the SS Sibajak
that cosy cabin to themselves
two afternoons a week.
And now watching out for her
beside the big bronze Bard:
Too pragmatic for poetry
Too poor for a red, red rose
but taking my mother's arm
None the less.




Oh Thou! whatever title doth suit thee,
Labour, New Zealand First or even Green,
You still have the power o'er folk like me
For good or ill which is as yet unseen.
For nine long years, when National was thy name
We seemed powerless to change thy course,
Thy policies oft led us to complain
But now thy chariot has another horse
And another rider, or two, or three,
With fulsome promises of great change,
The results of which we have yet to see
Though we must doubt they lie within thy range.
I've often heard my reverend Grannie say
In lonely lanes like these thou likes to stray..

Far frae the reek o' honest toil,
High heid yins are in a dwahm,
Brows creas'd sair a' roun' the warld,
Lest muckle hate defile oor homes,
Wan bludie deed beget anither.
If onlie oor twa legg'd fowk
Wid larn tae stott alang the roofs,
Fluff oot thir claes, an' clear thir throat;
As guid men an' wimin doun the years,
Swore solemnly they'd niver be affeird,
Seein' yon bird, an' minding the soul
That flies sae blithe an' free.
Let's mock sic loons wi' spirlin' sang
An' dang doun deith.



Ye ken th' lassie ah speak o',
her wi' th' winsome smile,
th' dancer kind, wha reels yer mind an' holts yer hert awhile.
Ye ken th' circle-gatherer,
th' yin wi' warldly weys,
th' sangster kind, wha fills yer mind wi' wurds o' warmer days.
Her een thay haud me saft, sae saft, her, wi' ready laughter,
she kens fou weel she's catcht ma quill, an' ma love close efter.


Ode to Facebook

You sneaky bugger, you're in my head. I even check you from my bed.
With wondrous posting overnight, Or through the day.
No flummox then my sleep is light, And hair's gone grey.
There's much updating; selfy-making; How oft it seems my friends are
mating! But oh! I wonder if they sleep,
So much they're doing!
As often as they seem to eat; They'll ne'er stop chewing.
A fool: for days my life I've shirked, Too long indeed since I have
worked. For here is love and I can heart it!
Sweet sating Feed.
Emojis, hashtags, grand emotions: Heed, Share and seed.
But now I'm scared I've missed the boat. While I just lived - I didn't
I never told it to yourself, These things I feel.
So now I'm lacking Likes and wealth From living reel.
Won't status updates improve my mettle? Let Folks believe I'm in fine
And not just sitting on my lonesome, With eyes on theirs.
Just wishing for a life more wholesome: That ne'er compares.
Here's to dating, dining, trips abroad, The winning of the odd award.
They post it all - it seems divine: In all its glories.
Oh Facebook, would that it were mine, This stuf of stories.




When the pain goes in the blood seeps out
my mind is drunk but my body is sober
the air is clear yet i choke on everything
my eyesight is perfect yet my life is a blur
i know i'll grow old yet death is at my door
happiness comes naturally  yet it feels like a drug
my wounds have healed and half my heart
my mind has stated working but not too fast
i've started to breath now the glassiest of air
my eyes like fogged windows now starting to clear
my knowledge of growing has cleared my doors
i learnt how to smile no drugs anymore
my pain is no longer no blood shed to clear
my mind is sharp without a care
the air i breath now is the purest of all
the windows my eyes have brightened to full
my doors have now opened to the thought of age
i no longer need medicaion to be in gauged

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