© Image by Reg Graham

Vincent O'Sullivan

(b. 1937)

"Inside every madeleine, you could say, there is a lamington waiting to come out" - Vincent O'Sullivan, from On Longing

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These poems come from a special recording for the Poetry Archive:

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Select bibliography

  • Revenants, Prometheus Press 1969
  • From the Indian Funeral, McIndoe 1976
  • Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka, McIndoe 1979
  • The Rose Ballroom and Other Poems, McIndoe 1982
  • The Butcher Papers, Oxford University Press 1982
  • Collected Poems, Oxford University Press 1985
  • The Pilate Tapes, Oxford University Press 1986
  • Selected Poems, Oxford University Press 1992
  • Seeing You Asked, Victoria University Press 1998
  • I'll Tell You This Much, Pemmican Press 2000
  • Lucky Table, Victoria University Press 2001
  • On Longing, Four Winds Press 2002
  • Long Journey to the Border: A Life of John Mulgan, Penguin 2003
  • Nice Morning for it, Adam, Victoria University Press 2004
  • Further Convictions Pending: Poems 1998-2008, Victoria University Press 2009
  • Vincent O'Sullivan Reading from his Poems, The Poetry Archive 2009
  • Blame Vermeer, Victoria University Press 2007
Vincent O'Sullivan (b.1937, Auckland, New Zealand) lectured at Victoria University, Wellington (1963-1966) and Waikato University, Hamilton (1968-1978). In the following years he was the literary editor of the New Zealand Listener (1979-1980) and Writer in Residence (1981-1987) at several Australian universities and at Victoria University where he taught as Professor of English Literature from 1988 till his retirement in 2004. He also served as Director of Victoria's Stout Research Centre from 1997-2004. O'Sullivan's literary career spans half a century and his oeuvre comprises more than a dozen collections of poetry, several novels and plays and five short story collections. He has also written on New Zealand authors, edited Oxford anthologies of the country's poetry and short stories and, with Margaret Scott, Katherine Mansfield's letters in five volumes (1984-2008). Recipient of many literary awards and the 'Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship' in Menton, France, in 1994, he was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000, received the Prime Minister's Award for Literature in 2005 and received an honorary Ph.D. from Auckland University in 2008.

O'Sullivan's poetry can be called both learned in its references to diverse Western cultural items or traditions, as is noticeable in 'Blame Vermeer', 'In times of thanks and praise', 'Talking of stone' or '1919', and as thoroughly familiar with and sharply observant of the particularities of his homeland, as demonstrated in 'July, July', 'River road, due south' or 'Late praise for Nurse Smythe'. Though at times handling the connotative power of a theme, of language or a word in a playful mood, as in 'Check-up', 'Saying begins it' or 'The monastic life', his poems never become flippant or assume the arbitrariness of postmodernism because they derive from an essentially philosophical and sceptical mind, which becomes manifest when a poem addresses fundamental questions like life and death ('Right on'), love and time ('Seeing you asked', 'Simply') or religious belief ('Dark night on the lake'). Structured in the characteristic O'Sullivan manner, realistic and descriptive openings are very often followed by an interjection, a speculation or a reflection lending them depth, and in turn leading to a summarizing conclusion, as in 'Small talk' or 'Blond ink'. No preference is given to a particular form as four-line stanzas, often rhymed, or two line-stanzas with an even rhythm stand next to free line examples. Such mentally unfolded and formally organized images and thought processes often underpinned by employing opposites convey the poet's moral stance, yet this at the most ends on a warning note such as: "It will happen next", in 'Blame Vermeer', or: "The moon is gone and the axe grows bigger and bigger", in 'No time for portents'. However, one would miss a central aspect of O'Sullivan's poetry if one does not note their cleverness, their wit, as is found in the allegorical bathos of 'The monastic life' or the employment of kiwi-phrases, epithets and similes in 'Check-up' or 'The grieving process', the latter two being of a more personal nature. In the poet's reading a strong male voice comes across that hardly varies in sound, tone, speed, emphasis or musicality, inviting the reader to attentively follow the narrative lines and their structures, a poem's conceits and spontaneously evoked images as well as sudden shifts of phrase or tone. The poet holds his own personality as much back here as in his work and still speaks in a unique and unmistakable voice.

His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 9 September 2008 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.


1999 Best Book of Poetry, Montana New Zealand Book Awards, Seeing you Asked

2005 Best Book of Poetry, Montana New Zealand Book Awards, Nice Morning for it, Adam

2006 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement

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