Walt Whitman, women, himself, and the world

I’m doing this free, online, short course on Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass, led by Professor Elisa New of Harvard University. (https://courses.edx.org/courses/HarvardX/AI12.2x/2013)

 Walt Whitman (1819-1892), age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

Leaves of Grass, for those not familiar with it, is a long poem, or collection of poems, that Whitman worked on over many decades during the second half of the nineteenth century. It’s an exuberant epic of a growing America, its body of people, the body of the writer and the places, urban and rural, that all inhabit.

A surprise, when I began reading in preparation for the beginning of the course, was the way he specifically includes women, as in, “And I will show of male and female that either is but the equal of the other.” This seems remarkable to me from a book that was first published in 1855. One other example:

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man.
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,

Although it goes on to refer to “the mother of men” women in these two lines are neither subsumed nor lesser.

The title page of the second-hand copy of Leaves of Grass I bought.

The title page of the second-hand copy of Leaves of Grass I bought.

Another surprise is the vehement enthusiasm he has for the physical world, the present and the future, humanity and his own body. (Wikepedia says, somewhat coyly, that “there is disagreement among biographers as to whether Whitman had actual sexual experiences with men.”) This is a poet who throws himself at and into the world and revels in his own body in ways that seem home-erotic to me.

In the fifty-second and final part of the poem “Song of Myself” is the line, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the the roofs of the world.” And nobody will, or does, stop and tame him, not in the lines of the poems, anyway.

I have not before come across a poet anything like Walt Whitman. I may have more to say about him.


Reading poetry on the radio

Last night I read some of my poems on the radio. The local Paekakariki community radio, that is. (NZ 88.2 FM, or Paekakariki.org on the internet.) I was nervous. I haven’t read my poems to an audience very often. I practised reading them out loud at home, which led to some line break changes.

I call myself a a writer rather than a poet; most of my writing is prose, but from time to time something feels like a poem so I write it like that. Then I revise and revise and delete some words, replace others, think long and hard about a comma. Someone said you never finish a poem, just just stop writing it.

A few of my poems could almost be short stories, but something about them insists they are poems. (I’m not going anywhere near what’s the difference between poetry and prose.) Here’s a poem that began in 2001 and has had many iterations, but retains the core of the original piece. It could never have been anything but a poem.

At Paekakariki beach

Between the rumble of the train
and the waves’ reiterating roar
two oyster-catchers
were feeding
at the mussel-rocks this afternoon.

Neither birds nor mussels
care that the afternoon
is looming grey
with rain in the wind
and a hidden
sun sheeting
arrows of light through gaps
in the cloud onto white-tops that disrupt
the horizon.

A fisher fishes
Walkers walk
A poet scribbles
A child climbs the skeleton
of a tree dropped on the beach
by the waves of a storm and sunk;
stable now in the sand like a climbing
frame in concrete. Last week that dead tree
was way down there.

Oyster catchers fly off
at the skittering approach of a small black dog.
The pied shag drying its wings on a rock
scares into flight
as a man approaches,
running behind a push-chaired baby.

Paekakariki Beach

Paekakariki Beach

Poetry Competition or lottery?

As well as working on a new novel I’m working on the occasional poem. Here’s a not very good found poem. (For non-poets a found poem is one created using ‘found’ words and phrases.)

Life Story
Buses replace trains from
Please check your balance

The next train for
All services are running on time
Bus stop moved to
Please check your balance

The next station is
will depart from platform 8 at
Follow the instructions of
Scheduled departure
Please check your balance

We apologise for the delay
Stopping at all stations from
This is an express service to
Please check your balance

Clickety clack down the track
red light
green light
Last stop
Please check your balance.

There’s a dilemma around posting poems here; if a poem has been ‘published’—anywhere, in any format—it’s not eligible for most poetry competitions. That’s fair enough. And possibly irrelevant, as I think about entering poems in competitions much more often than I actually do it.

I’m a tad cynical about competitions. There’s almost always a fee, something from $5 to $20 in the currency of the country involved, which I guess creates the prize pool, and allows for a payment to the judge/s. I’m all for judges being paid and prizes being money, but: a) who hasn’t entered because they can’t afford the fee, and, b) how often do the organisers pocket the money and choose a random winner?

I know, that’s not fair to poetry journals and societies and so on whose judges genuinely read all the entries and ponder and even argue about the winners. And I can’t suggest a better alternative and those of us who write stuff can be pretty desperate for any kind of acknowledgement that we’re not just, um, pissing into the wind.


I won a competition once, in 2007. It was run online by a woman in Australia who I suspect made a small living from it. The website’s gone now. I paid $5 to enter three poems and won $100 and had the poem ‘published’ on the website. I’ve subsequently published it myself in my ebook prose and poetry collection, Stones Gathered Together http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/stones-gathered-together It’s also on Kindle.

Here’s the poem:

Paint me in dull flat colours today

Grey, like the pre-rain sky.

Use a wide brush, and work
with long, torpid strokes.

Have the light fall from outside
the frame, casting long shadows.

Hang me in a dark corner, and go
quietly, leaving the door ajar.

Now for an example, that just happened, of how so much of my reading occurs. I was looking for a book of Mary Oliver’s poetry to send to a friend and her (Mary Oliver’s) book Rules for the Dance, which I bought in 1998 , leapt out at me. It’s subtitle is, “A handbook for writing and reading metrical verse.” It’s succinct, full of examples, and just what I need to re-read right now. I recommend it for a reminder of some technicalities and how form carries meaning.

Mary Oliver


I last wrote a blog entry on 2 June.

It wasn’t working, this blogging business, it had got tedious, a chore. So I stopped, to think about what I wanted to do with it, if anything.

This is the restart. I moved the blog from blogspot to wordpress because it seemed to offer more options within my technical capacity. I’ve kept the name, “out there” because I like the way it can mean a number of things, including the idea of being out—visible in the world—as a lesbian.

I still read a lot and will talk about some of the books I read. I’m writing a new novel, so far without a title, that is hard and fun all at the same time. An urge to write more poetry is bubbling away, and the idea that this can happen in parallel to the novel. From time to time, therefore, I’ll post some pieces.


This is where I write.

Something every week, that’s my idea. On Mondays. Regular; a new challenge.

Today is Monday, I’m closing the gap.