Seductive melancholy of a poet's last works

Chris Wallace-Crabbe (ed.): Vincent Buckley. Collected Poems. Elwood, John Leonard Press, 2009.

John McLaren: Journey Without Arrival: The Life and Writing of Vincent Buckley. North Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009. ISBN 9781921509292

Vincent Buckley: Collected Poems, ISBN 9780980526929When Vincent Buckley died in 1988, he was only one year into his early retirement — time he had hoped would provide him expanded opportunity to write. Leaving notes toward a third autobiographical volume, many poems in manuscript form or unfinished, it is clear he was prevented from accomplishing much of what he had planned.

Little of that is apparent in the volume or quality of poems in Collected Poems. Indeed, what first impresses about this pleasingly solid volume is the sheer richness of the oeuvre, now that we can consider it more or less in its entirety.

I say 'more or less' because the early volumes, Masters in Israel and The World's Flesh, are represented only by selections, and because there are unfinished and less successful poems, fragments and variants whose proper place is not here.

Some of the editorial difficulties surrounding the 1992 posthumous collection Last Poems were discussed by Penelope Buckley, who edited that volume. Chris Wallace-Crabbe, editor of the present collection, reaffirms that selection while pointing us toward two new groups of poems. Coming so many years after the poet's death, being presented with this new batch of poems is like receiving an unexpected gift.

Readers will find common threads as well as evidence of fresh ideas and even the development of new skills. There is an insistence on the incontrovertibility of individual perception, which is coupled with an extraordinary sensitivity to the world, especially its sounds and colours. There is a deep and pervasive and rhythmically seductive melancholy. There is the leaven of humorous folk poems and riddles.

Buckley's poetic career seems to trace a trajectory from the treatment of explicitly religious topics with religious language, to the exploration of experience in language that is not explicitly religious. But when individual and common experience — of love, or suffering, or conflict — is treated with the depth of seriousness that they can warrant, the result is pretty much the same.

Arguably, the later poems invite a wider range of readers, but it is doubtful whether that is a virtue in itself. One of the last poems seems to articulate a new aesthetic that the poet hoped to be able to implement. Its first line, 'A poetry without attitudes', gave its name to one section of Last Poems. The poem pokes fun at seminars, critics and publishers, but it is a different thing for the poet:

while actually you are learning
to walk with it, to lie against it,
our earth-tremor, your vibrato
turning you slowly into song.

Many of the newly published final poems seem to bear out this aesthetic; relaxed and deeply rhythmical, they seem at once natural and precise.

These questions of persistence and development are touched upon by Peter Steele in his introductory essay, which invites the reader to consider a variety of preoccupations in, and approaches to, the poetry. Buckley ended his memoir Cutting Green Hay with Yeats' lovely line, 'And say my glory was I had such friends'. That his own friends' sense of relation has persisted is clearly evinced by their service to his poetry.

John McLaren: Journey Without Arrival: The Life and Writing of Vincent Buckley. North Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009. ISBN 9781921509292

One can only surmise that, had he imagined a biographer, Buckley would have been grateful for one who would direct the reader's attention firmly to his own writings. John McLaren has done just that; he has subordinated himself in order to focus on the work before him, his task being to understand that work, whether it pertain to the intellectual apostolate at the University of Melbourne, or to autobiographical writing, or to poetry.

He had unprecedented access to a large body of material, and treats his sources with great thoughtfulness and discrimination. It is clear he knows Buckley's work thoroughly, because of the apparent ease with which he makes connections between different events and kinds of writing.

His observations are painstaking, serious and wide-ranging. Occasionally, his descriptions seem to reduce what might be better left complex ('The speaker in the sequence of poems wanders about the streets of Carlton, encountering the desperate as he seeks a God to redeem them') but even the more ordinary descriptions may serve as introductions to Buckley's work.

Sometimes, wanting to follow an aspect of the poet's life right through, one feels frustration when McLaren insists on shepherding us back to an earlier decade. But he has a sure feel for the largest structures, as instanced by his inclusion of Buckley's account of his vocation close to the beginning of the book, where it introduces the nexus of language, perception and the meaning of the world that would inform his whole life.


Carolyn MaselDr Carolyn Masel is Lecturer in Literature and BA Coordinator in the School of Arts and Sciences at the Australian Catholic University.

Topic tags: John McLaren, Vincent Buckley, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, ISBN 978 1 921509 29 2, ISBN 9780980526929

 

 

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