In the essays collected as Essays in Poetry, Mainly Australian (1957), the poet Vincent Buckley made a unique contribution to discussions about cultural identity and Australian poetry. Writing in an independent and definitive style, he challenged popular critical opinion, judging the realist-nationalist “Australian Tradition” too descriptive and nostalgic, naming vitalism and nationalism as the main retarding forces on Australian poetry, and favoring writing which demonstrated “a deepening of sensibility to the point where the land is conceived and imagined in terms which are at once spiritual, moral, sensory and directed to the drama of human existence.” The most influential of these essays, “The Image of Man in Australian Poetry,” established what was to become a characteristic interplay of social and metaphysical, spiritual and sensual, inward and outward perspectives. This incarnational poetics informs particular essays on Kenneth Slessor, A.D. Hope, Judith Wright, and James McAuley, as well as critiques of contemporary leftwing poets and Stephen Spender’s “asocial aesthetic” (“Helicon as Jordan”). Although contested (and often simplified as “metaphysical”), Essays in Poetry, Mainly Australian, as well as “Patrick White and His Epic” (1958) and “Capricornia” (1960), were very important to the development of Australian literature as a subject worthy of detailed and extensive criticism.
Questions surrounding national identity are pursued in later essays. “Utopianism and Vitalism” (1958) rejects literary nationalism as the main “line of influence” in Australian writing, nominating instead “two chief lines of influence… a kind of utopian humanism or insistence on the soul’s radical innocence, and a kind of vitalism, or insistence on releasing the basic powers of life.” “National and International” (1978) recalls the nationalist debates of the 1950s as locked into an either/or structure, which Buckley still disputes, preferring to uncover depths of history and myth in immediate social fact. “A Later Note on ‘Identity’” (1980) remembers how, in the 1950s, it was necessary to avoid both imperialism and nationalism, finding Australian culture now “more in danger from imperialism than from nationalism.” “Ease of American Language” (1982) outlines some of Buckley’s own American influences, but his recognition of the “special naturalness” of American literary speech (especially Gary Snyder’s) serves a notion of “the idiom of sensation” which recapitulates and extends an earlier use of “holy place” into a poetics of interconnected rhythms (of place, sensation, perception, and language). At the time Buckley was trying to make his own poetry “locally mimetic,” so that it discovered and developed the intimate relation between the world outside the self and the language that the self had learned. This did not, however, degenerate into nationalism: “Imagination’s Home” (1979) identifies “Ireland as a source-country…in the sense that the psyche grows from and in it, and remains profoundly attuned to it.” Ireland becomes an active symbol for mythic imagination (not a surrogate mythology) and occupies a central place in Buckley’s late poetry and prose.
Buckley’s attention to “the spiritual and social fact of Australia” derived in part from his Christology, which saw the Incarnation as the prototype of “the union of the sacred and the secular.” Influenced by Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard and Yves Congar as well as by the Apostolate movement at the University of Melbourne, Buckley argued, in “The World Awaiting Redemption” (1957), for a Christian humanism that reconciles freedom and grace, immanence and transcendence, declaring that the Church manifests itself fully in a society when it lives at the center of the problems and values of that society. This theology was to be modified and muted as Buckley became more interested in mythic imagination and less identified with institutionalized Catholicism, but the mediatory act coded into the Incarnation metaphor remained integral to his writing. Buckley’s theopoetics is best represented by Poetry and the Sacred (1968), where individual essays on Wyatt, Donne, Blake, Yeats, and Eliot play out the suggestive opening essay, “Specifying the Sacred.” Buckley’s approach, influenced by Mircea Eliade, was as much anthropological as theological, and his central distinction, between “religion in poetry” and “poetry as a religious act,” provided new ways of discussing the relationship between religion and poetry where religion was not reduced to doctrine, nor religious poetry to piety. Another influential religious essay was “The Strange Personality of Christ” (1970), a provocative piece that took issue with two images of Christ then prevalent in popular theology—“man for others” and political agitator—and reasserted his essential mystery by applying Eliade’s concept of “hierophany.” This essay is characteristic of Buckley’s mature religious writing, standing within and against the Christian tradition, defining a shift from dogma to myth and exploring an imagination which is sacramental because deeply sensate.
Buckley also wrote a number of reminiscences and portraits, writing in such a way that descriptive and speculative memories merged. “Remembering What You Have To” (1968) outlines the origins of his gradualist politics (Irish-Catholic working-class background, Labour sympathies, and distrust of power) and discusses his own relationship to Catholicism, communism, and the Labour Party in the 1940s and 1950s.
Such essays in memory dominated his late career. The autobiographical Cutting Green Hay (1983) might be approached as an extended sequence of essays, speculating on such topics as the Irish in Australia, Catholic social action of the 1950s, the Labour Split, and university controversies over Vietnam, and providing memorable portraits of figures such as Archbishop Mannix and James McAuley. Memory Ireland (1985) might be similarly read: the chapter “Election and Death of Bobby Sands,” discovering Sands “at the centre of the mythopoeic universe” and in a deeply realized social context, releasing a voice inflected with Ireland, is a particularly fine example of how Buckley used the essay to mediate mythic and social, deliberative and evocative, subject and style. He often employed the term “rhythm” to indicate the interpenetration of style and insight. This idea receives a final and characteristically supple treatment in “Self Portrait” (1986) in which Buckley tells a “self”: “You affirmed a rhythm in all things: the rhythm in the eye as well as the rhythm of the eye…”
Born 8 July 1915 in Romsey, Victoria. Studied at the Jesuit college in Melbourne; University of Melbourne, B.A., 1950, M.A., 1954; Cambridge University, 1955–57.
Married twice: four children. Lockie Fellow, 1958–60, reader, 1960–67, and Personal Chair in Poetry, from 1967, University of Melbourne. Editor, Prospect, 1958–64; poetry editor, Bulletin, 1961–63. Founder, Committee for Civil Rights in Ireland, 1969.
Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, 1959; Myer Award, for poetry, 1967. Vincent Buckley Prize established, 1993. Died in Melbourne, 12 November 1988.
Essays and Related Prose
Essays in Poetry, Mainly Australian, 1957
Poetry and Morality: Studies in the Criticism of Matthew Arnold,T. S.Eliot, and F.R.Leavis, 1959
Poetry and the Sacred, 1968
Cutting Green Hay: Friendships, Movements and Cultural Conflicts in Australia’s Great Decades, 1983
Memory Ireland: Insights into the Contemporary Irish Condition, 1985
Other writings: several collections of poetry.
Booth, Elizabeth, “Vincent Buckley, an Interview,” Quadrant (August 1976):27–32
Brady, Veronica, “Return to the Centre: Vincent Buckley’s Golden Builders,” Westerly 2 (1973):68–76
Buckley, Brian, “Vincent Buckley’s Melbourne,” Quadrant (August 1983):35–58
Colmer, John, “The Quest for Roots: Vincent Buckley and Sally Morgan,” in his Australian Autobiography: A Personal Quest, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1989:98–116
Davidson, Jim, “Vincent Buckley,” Meanjin 4 (1979):443–58
Kavanagh, Paul, and Peter Kuch, “Scored for the Voice: An Interview with Vincent Buckley,” Southerly 3 (1987):249–66
O’Sullivan, Vincent, “Singing Mastery: The Poetics of Vincent Buckley,” Westerly 2 (1989):50–57
Rosenbloom, Henry, “An Interview with Vincent Buckley,” Meanjin 3 (1969):317–25
Rowe, Noel, “Believing More and Less: The Later Poetry of Vincent Buckley,” Meridian (May 1991):4–18
Steele, Peter, “Vincent Buckley as Critic,” Meanjin 3 (1969):309–16
Thomson, A.K., “The Poetry of Vincent Buckley: An Essay in Interpretation,” Meanjin 3 (1969):293–308
Wallace-Crabbe, Chris, “Vincent Buckley: The Poetry of Presence,” Overland 114 (1989) 31–34
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