Being Here: Selected poems, by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press), 231 pp., $40.00
When O’Sullivan’s previous Selected Poems was published by Oxford in 1992 he was already a considerable poet. Twenty-three years later there least eight more collections to draw on. Over that time O’Sullivan’s reputation as a ‘formidable man of letters’ has continued to grow. The term might sound old-fashioned but for O’Sullivan it seems to fit, as he has achieved distinction in every literary field he has engaged in: poetry, fiction, drama and biography. He is a formidable scholar and an astute editor. During interviews for this new selection O’Sullivan expressed regret that the other calls on his time, especially while he was also teaching and marking, limited the amount of energy he could devote exclusively to poetry. The exchange for concentration, though, is the breadth of vision this book articulates. The poetry has the wry wisdom and expansiveness of someone who has lived several lives, here vividly recreating the locations of that life: the Waikato, Wellington and Dunedin.
Victoria University Press has dealt with that breadth handsomely. The book is one third longer than the 1992 Selected. Here you get well over two hundred poems. For a $40.00 hardback, complete with the image of a Karl Maughan painting on the cover, this seems amazing value to me. I am aware that counting things so materially might tempt O’Sullivan into revisiting his celebrated Butcher persona, cutting a reviewer down to size for the effrontery of assessing poetry from its surface packaging. It’s enough then to say that the book deserves to move well in bookstores.
O’Sullivan published two books of poetry in the 1960s but now considers those too jejune to be worth bothering with. At one point he paid a bounty to students who found copies of these in second-hand stores, so he could terminate them. Both the 1992 and the 2015 selections begin with his 1973 volume Bearings. One of the advantages of choosing your own selected is that you get to shape the perception of your poetry while you can. O’Sullivan has heroically edited the collected Mansfield letters and is now co-editing the new Edinburgh Mansfield edition. He will be mindful of how muddled Mansfield’s instructions were to Middleton Murry – how it was unclear just what of her writing he should keep and what he should throw away. He will surely have learnt also from his brilliant study of John Mulgan, another writer who famously died young. So it seems reasonable to assume that O’Sullivan, while he can, will be preparing to control his reputation, ensuring only those documents and works survive that he sees as being pertinent.
Yet is not just that there are two collections from the 1960s O’Sullivan considers juvenile. For 1973 was the year after James K. Baxter died. Incuded in this selection is a poem from 2011: ‘On the same road you can’t help thinking’. This recalls …
how Jim went up into the hills
to talk with God and luckily
didn’t meet him, or the poems
would have chaffed away in the big
wind of their conversation.
Here O’Sullivan voices the consensus of the writers who followed Baxter – that he was something of a ‘blow-hard’, that Baxter could write eloquent noise whenever he wanted and that at times his rhetoric outran its occasion. This pattern will be clearer when a truly comprehensive collection of Baxter’s poetry is made available. The implication is that, if at all possible, O’Sullivan would prefer not to be that kind of poet.
At the same time, as I am sure O’Sullivan knows, the late Baxter collections Jerusalem Sonnets and Autumn Testament are not only Baxter’s greatest poems but two of the best collections ever published in New Zealand. In those books Baxter’s impulse towards the bow wow strain, the big gesture, is muted in poems of heart-catching simplicity and remarkable freedom in cadence and verse lines. The poet is at one with his world and thus able to write about it and his place in it freely. So when O’Sullivan so carefully places the ‘beginning’ of his career as a poet a year after Baxter dies, I think he is claiming a kind of allegiance.
This collection begins with ‘Morning’, which proves the point (as well as being the right time of day to wake readers up, of course):
This is all my morning comes to,
April morning, autumn –
on a lush bank, three cats
indulged, wet lawn
Here there is much to admire: the nerve of bringing the ordinary so fully in to the poem, along with the well-turned accomplishment by which the poet moves from line to line and topic to topic. The voice is truly having a conversation, having exorcised any impulse to declaim.
It is that commitment to the material here and now, the stuff of daily life, that rings through poem after poem in this collection. Here, for a citified example, is O’Sullivan in Wellington, in ‘July, July’:
Yet a day when you don’t expect it,
sheer glitter ringing about
as if all the cutlery drawers of Kelburn
had been ripped out …
This captures nicely the sea light that bounces off the Wellington hills, together with the awareness that, home to many professors and civil servants, Kelburn’s knife drawers would be a good deal more impressive than, say, those down in Newtown.
How many readers (other than reviewers) would read this kind of selection as a whole? Impossible to know for sure. On several rereads the consistency of tone and achievement is very striking. There are good sections from noted early collections where a clear persona was invented as a mask for poetic truths. So we have the colloquial vigour and ruthlessness of Butcher, the latinate malaise of Pilate, and the desire to crumble religious rhetoric from the preacher Jonathan Edwards. Inevitably a selection has to truncate the full sequence where those voices are used, and for the full effect you would need to refer back to the original books (these are clearly listed in the back for ease of reference). But what the collection as a whole shows is that O’Sullivan has now swallowed back those voices and can move freely through the registers he needs, without having to attribute a comment to a specific mask. That voice speaks, like the Roman poet Horace O’Sullivan so admires, urbanely, felicitously, even when writing country pastoral. It’s a voice that knows how the world works. It is not the voice of a saint: there are glances of cruelty and spite. Usually these don’t make the best poems, but they are amusing to read. The voice gets itself out and speaks as it pleases. From the evidence of O’Sullivan’s recent output of poems, which has been prodigious, the voice seems set to engage for quite a while yet.
MARK HOULAHAN is senior lecturer in the English programme at the University of Waikato, where he teaches Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and literary theory.