Kirsty Gunn on Vincent O’Sullivan:
Reticence, modesty, courteousness… Generosity… These are not qualities generally attributed to writers who, on the whole, can be be a self-serving lot. Even those who are top of their game, reflecting in their work a searing intellect and deep, deep reservoirs of thought, can all too easily become carried away by themselves, making the kinds of proclamations about literature that are actually proclamations in disguise about their own activities. The sort, those who take their place amongst the most established ranks of literary society, who tend to be, when they’ve a book out, the only person in the room.
Vincent O Sullivan, one of New Zealand’s greatest writers, is not one of these. He’s in the room surrounded by other poets and novelists and short story writers and critics, listening to their opinions, mingling in amongst them, introducing them to each other and making sure everyone has a chance to have their say. The individual artist who’s very much part of the crowd while being head and shoulders above it, a writer in possession of a particular range of qualities others would be hard pressed to bring together – a combination of empathy, wit, sophistication and great worldliness, along with humility and self deprecation and good sense – yet for whom the very notion of possession, of wanting to own for himself any one special characteristic or that, is not something he would know or care much about, I would wager. There hangs around the work and the man a manifestly old world sense of custom and social grace that would forbid such attention seeking, and that, along with his New Zealander’s sensible articulation of community and classlessness, of a young country’s enthusiasm which we all love – for whatever’s round the corner, for whoever might be found there, for what we might learn together – adds up to a literary lifetime that has courteousness and and generosity written into it right from the outset.
Born in 1937 in Auckland, and educated at school and university there and at Oxford, his experience and understanding of literature is, as Professor of Comparative Literature at Warwick University Michael Hulse points out in a close examination of his poetry, “rich”; with “a strong vein of the religious and moral enquiry that serves as the hard wiring of all of O’Sullivan’s writing”. His depth of thought has always been tempered by the everyday, a “preference for matching plain speaking to big subjects” as Hulse puts it, and so – with that being something of a gift to the Academy, I would say, a kind of intelligence too often in short supply – he went on to lecture and teach widely across New Zealand and Australia including becoming Professor of Literature at Victoria University from where he retired Emeritus in 2004. He is the recipient of a great number of distinctions and awards, including fellowships at Yale, at Menton, in recognition of Katherine Mansfield, as well as the Michael King Writers Fellowship in Auckland, winning, over the years, prizes for short stories, “The Boy, the Bridge, the River” and a novel, “Let the river stand”, as well as poetry and non fiction, for his Oxford Edition of The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield and his biography of the New Zealand soldier and writer, John Mulgan. In 2000 he was made Distinguished Companion Order of Merit for his Services to Literature and in 2006 received The Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Auckland in 2008, after which he recorded poems for the Poetry Archive in London that were selected from his past ten years’ work brought together in the collection, “Further Convictions Pending.” He was New Zealand’s Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015 and continues to have a prominent ongoing role in the public literary life of this country, helping us to press at our boundaries, see the close at hand as well as further horizons.
Across all his activities, in addition to his work in prose and verse, from arts journalist to literary editor to playwright and librettist, we see the fineness of his craftsmanship, a technique and expertise that means he can bring the most sophisticated idea into simple language, and, in his fiction and poetry, make of the human condition with all its ambiguities and bathos something to be both treasured and never taken too seriously. It’s this skill, that has been fashioned through a serious education and commitment to a wide reaching literary and cultural life, honed through scholarship and criticism and in the actual writing of poems and short stories and novels – both about and because of his New Zealand but also drawing on the canonical history of Western culture – that means he can redraw the lines of a well wrought urn as well as fill in exactly the colour of a pohutukawa blossom. Both are in his line of vision and there is no one like him for it. “O’Sullivan s poetry can be called both learned in its references to diverse Western cultural items…and as thoroughly familiar with and sharply observant of the particularities of his homeland” states the UK Poetry Archive, echoing the Oxford Companion’s, “O’Sullivan quarries his changing locations for specific reference, while remaining conscious of a contrasting homeland.” His is a world that is both international and local, rooted in T S Eliot’s “Tradition” while being vividly located in the present tense. An individual talent, then. I should say so.
His publications list altogether is too numerous and diverse to be mentioned here, but includes the poetry collections ,“Seeing you asked” “Blame Vermeer”, and “Us,Then” – all of which have won the now named Okham New Zealand Book of the Year – as well as the recently published Selected Poems, “Being Here”, that collects work written from as early as 1973 to the present and was chosen by The Listener as one of Books of the Year. His groundbreaking edition of Katherine Mansfield’ letters, with Margaret Scott, is respected and referred to by scholars and general readers alike around the world, and has provided the basis for a vigorous ongoing research community.
To his fiction writing – long and short form – he brings his sense of poetic risk and lyricism, in a voice that allows for sadness and humour in one breath. In the short story collection, “The Families” we read of a woman’s realisation that her looks have gone and that she is suddenly old. “Like anyone who finds herself in another country, “O’Sullivan writes, “she would have to behave a little differently That was what it came down to. There was even something nice about that, about having to learn something new.” The tone that sounds there sounds throughout, strikes in both a minor and major key, a sort of tentative melancholy shot through with a very New Zealand kind of dead pan humour and flat no-nonsense acceptance of whatever happens – happens. No doubt, his work quietly reminds us, it will all come right in the end.
That quietness, that sense of reserve…. The reticence mentioned earlier…. These are large, large qualities in Vincent O’Sullivan’s writing, and mark its significance in our literary canon. His stories and novels are both fulsome, crammed with life and love and event, but also there’s a holding back – so rare in fiction where everything, normally, it seems, must be explained and shown. All those themes writ large! All those meanings conveyed! By contrast, in O’Sullivan’s narrative world, nothing is ever laid down as a great lump of depiction, of explanation… of summary. Always there is present in his short stories and novels his poetry’s slanting light of illumination, its subtleties and allusions and quiet, sly hints at other readings beyond the sentence in hand. His novels, moving easily between spacious international themes and the small, everyday moments within the space of a few paragraphs, taking in past and present, looming moral subjects and miniscule griefs and triumphs, are more experiences than stories – though the pleasure of a story is certainly also delivered. And his short stories – a recent collection is forthcoming from Victoria University Press – jump with humour and the human; they, too, will not sit still on the page but continue to affect us and rumble on in our minds and hearts long after the tale is told.
In the end, more than anything else, the fiction brings us right inside it, to live within its sensibility, adjusting the way and how we perceive the story as we read it line by line. Not many novelists and short story writers can pull off that trick, can they? To retreat from the field of action and resist manipulating reader responses through telling us how it is? To write with such a light pen while all the time involving us completely in what’s going on? Vincent O Sullivan does it effortlessly – for him it’s as natural as a signature. It’s because he’s the poet writing the world, his poet’s sensibility encased within and cast across the pages of all his work, increasing and sharpening our field of vision, opening us up to further possibilities of thinking. He is surely our best ever writer to show us both who we are and who we might be.
Certainly, the New Zealand he presents in his life’s work is a country always on the verge – just as his poem is on the point of being a story, and the story a poem – of becoming itself, of growing into its identity, even while it is embedded in and draws from older traditions. As described by the UK translator and editor Chris Miller in the literary journal “The Warwick Review”, Vincent O’Sullivan has “ perhaps brought closer the figures of novelist and poet in a way that has facilitated the informal fluency” that is present in all his work, a melding of form and voice in such way that the reader is “unlikely to be ambushed by a sonnet sequence or elaborate Metaphysical verse form or a five page poem…” So he is a writer whose words take their place within the great history of Poesie and it defendants as they do amongst his New Zealander’s “demotic, “Language of your fairly everyday kind”, which ranges from a rich and slangy bloke-ish voice of the “Butcher and Co” poems to his own Antipodean form of a kind of Larkin-ish’ness, according to Miller, for, as is the case with that poet, Miller writes, “the appearance of ordinariness is overwhelming”.
That ordinariness, however, O”Sullivan makes – most meticulously – his own. There sounds, in all his writing, his particular music, rhythm and pace. Listen to the sheer gorgeous texture and crying out of love in this, his “Convent Girl in the Wairarapa”. Let us draw to a close with it now:
She knew about saints and he didn’t.
She put her heels on the dashboard
and they worked at having a good time
and the gear–lever was an awkward joke
before they settled neatly to it,
then it was fine, the past generations
one with them in spirit, the moral
imperative, shall we say, on hold,
and excuses, between themselves,
the future’s happy to accept. They
work themselves to a lather, Wednesdays
after squash. And after the white wind’s
catching at her veil at St Antony’s
on a winter afternoon she says, ‘Patron
of lepers and farmers, know that, do you?’
God, her adored her! Saturday’s bride.
How delight comes to be reckoned in the past and present tense here, in human love and tenderness and intimacy and fun. All the voice and movement and imagery and…airiness, of the poem’s feeling, conveyed in a Southerly rush along with the wind’s tug and pull of that white veil. Two worlds come together again, and again; this poem with an ancient Church at its back and a brave North Island future before it all brought together in 16 short lines. How there’s that kind of dual nationality written into the very thinking of the writing, the New Zealander with the Irish sensibility who uses that as a resource to write from and about, a split-self at home both in the New and Old worlds who is a self New Zealand needs and has learned from.
So we celebrate then, one of our most important writers, grave and single minded in his pursuit of the very best in literature while also understanding the parts comedy and irony and self deprecation play in the pleasure we take in the formation of texts and understanding of writing. So we applaud a poet, fiction writer, playwright, librettist, critic and scholar who is surely the embodiment of what the Irish essayist Frank O’Conner described as a “natural” writer – someone for whom writing is the atmosphere in which he breathes – a craftsman who works freely and easily, with understanding and intelligence that is as though instinctively held, who draws upon a reservoir of empathy, sense of enquiry and engagement with the human condition that is at times both mysteriously and frankly made obvious to him. It’s that word generosity again – here pertaining to the open hearted way Vincent O’Sullivan allows his work to be available to take in the unexpected, the next, the new, the difficult or the rare. For here is the artist, finally, who, through the wide play and finish of his art, lit as it is by the bright loveliness of the world and its humours and warmth, its pleasures of the body and the mind, and by compassion and grace, can only give – of his wisdom, erudition, sensibility – in the utter, utter precision and delicacy of every sentence. “I hold out/my palms like the opened pages of a book” he writes. Reminding us from his writing’s first word to its last phrase: That it’s the out there, not the I am, that counts.
Honoured New Zealand Writer (2016)
Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement (2006)
Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry (2005)
Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (2000)
Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry (1999)
Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship (1994)
NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry (1966)
New Zealand Book Council profile page
New Zealand Poet Laureate bio page
Victoria University Press author page
Penguin Books NZ author page
Steele Roberts author page
Bridget Williams Books (BWB) author page
Booksellers NZ review of And so it is (May, 2016)
Radio New Zealand interview on poets, poetry and Being Here: Selected Poems (June, 2015)
Radio New Zealand interview discussing Vincent’s work and life (Feb, 2014)
NZ Listener review of Us, then (Aug, 2013)