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Buckley, Vincent Thomas (1925–1988)

by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Vincent Thomas Buckley (1925-1988), poet, critic and professor of English, was born on 8 July 1925 at Romsey, Victoria, second son of Victorian-born parents Patrick Buckley, carter and sometime farm labourer, salesman and postman, and his wife Frances Margaret, née Condon, a librarian and schoolteacher. Vincent spent his childhood in the Romsey district, an area of hilly farmland, much of it in the hands of Irish Australians. The poet was to celebrate this environment in his memoir, Cutting Green Hay (1983). His childhood straddled the Depression and his father’s recurrent unemployment. Boarding in the city, he was educated by the Jesuits at St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne. He said later, `There’s nothing like a boy of poor family given a Jesuit education. They’re very faithful but uncomfortable colleagues’.

Buckley’s Irish forebears had come to Australia from Cork and Tipperary, victims of `the great emptying of Munster’. A century later he could still feel that `the population was divided into Catholics and others, and the others never actually seemed to do anything, except play football with us’. He was short and played as a rover before rheumatic fever and bad diagnoses put an end to sport. Illness helped to produce acute responses to physical sensation in his poetry.

After eight months as a clerk in the Commonwealth Department of Supply and Shipping, Buckley enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 13 December 1943. He trained as a recorder but was invalided from the service on 5 February 1945. His later sequence of poems, `Hospital Summer, Western Suburbs’, reviewed a period of enforced reflection during which he had been confined in a military hospital in Sydney, a city whose poets were always reluctant to respond to him. In 1946 he enrolled at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1950; MA, 1954). He married Edna Jean Forbes, a salesgirl, on 12 July 1947 at St Patrick’s Cathedral; they were to have two daughters before being divorced. From 1951 he taught in the university’s English department. His teaching experience was recorded near the beginning of his career in a poem, `Late Tutorial’, and sardonically caricatured close to the end in another, `Nightmare of a Chair Search Committee’. He always hated managerial bureaucracy.

Appearing in the same journals as the work of young avant-gardists of Angry Penguins descent, Buckley’s poetry impressed with a lofty, hieratic idiom brushed by modernism: the passion of W. B. Yeats and Dylan Thomas, mollified here and there by the dandyism of John Crowe Ransom. His first collection, The World’s Flesh (1954), did not wear well, and he came to realise its limitations as he moved into fluid idioms, a development reflected in his later essay `Ease of American Language’ (New Poetry, 1979).

In 1955-57 a Mannix travelling scholarship enabled Buckley to live in England and work at the University of Cambridge on the moral criticism of Matthew Arnold, F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot; Poetry and Morality (1959) resulted. He was in Cambridge at the same time as Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and A. S. Byatt. Over this period he began visiting the Ireland he had long imagined. Back at the University of Melbourne, he became the first Lockie fellow in creative writing and Australian literature, initiating the study of Australian writers and becoming one of the pioneers of the field.

The suasive eloquence of Buckley’s critical prose came early. The pieces gathered in Essays in Poetry: Mainly Australian (1957) contain some of the most beautiful critical writing to have appeared in this country. Thus we have, memorably, of A. D. Hope, `a heavy almost brooding mind consciously detaching itself in the act of poetry from what most exercises and torments it’, and of Kenneth Slessor, `there runs throughout his poetry a faint ground-bass of disgust with life’. These essays helped to establish a modern canon that included the works of Slessor, Hope, Judith Wright and James McAuley. Such canon-formation was essential—then; there had to be books in print that could be set for the relevant courses.

Comparable stylishness was not to be found in Buckley’s poetry until Arcady and Other Places (1966), which wedded his sense of presence with attachment to the solid world: the sturdy, or frail, objects surrounding our lives. He had now moved on and firmly grasped what the critic R. P. Blackmur described as `behaviour’. In Arcady, the trees of his childhood had become tangible. `Stroke’, the first passionate suite, traced his father’s hard passage toward death. Subsequent poems tilled two fields of behaviour: love and politics. The love poems in this volume were, no doubt, connected with the woman who would become his second wife; but they presented themselves as `Versions from Catullus’. The persona left Buckley free to write such lines as:

When I, torment, feel my whole body
Lapse out at the first sight of you.
My mouth is drained of voice, my tongue
Stopped;

The collection also included `Eleven Political Poems’. Here were angry satires against Stalinism and the shilly-shallying of `fellow travellers’. These poems had been written after the fiercely divisive disarmament conferences of the 1950s. At this stage Buckley was deeply involved in politics, especially where the religious and secular overlapped. He became a leading `public intellectual’. His schooling, membership of the Newman Society of Victoria and opposition to B. A. Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement had forged his liberal Catholicism, but had also given it a debater’s combative edge. When in the mid-1950s right-wing elements of the Australian Labor Party—strongly anti-communist and largely Catholic—hived off and eventually formed the Democratic Labor Party, he remained in the thick of the conflict, balancing his hatred of totalitarianism with support of the ALP and its social policies.

For six years from 1958 Buckley intermittently edited the journal Prospect, many of whose contributors came from the Catholic centre-left. Politics was still in his blood in 1969 when he founded the Committee for Civil Rights in Ireland. In his later years, though, he was bitterly suspicious of the ways in which politics could debauch literature. Relations with the Church became more idiosyncratic as his career burgeoned. He remained part of a distinctive, Irish-Australian Catholicism, yet he grew less satisfied with what the hierarchy had to offer. On one social occasion he was bailed up by a `literary bloke’ who asked him about the Pope’s reconfirmed ruling against contraception (1968). `Silly old bugger panicked’, was his gruff reply.

One of Buckley’s most fascinating pieces was a 1970 essay in Quadrant, `The Strange Personality of Christ’. Like Harold Bloom on the Torah, Buckley emphasised irony, absurdity and intellectual challenge. His Christ was oddly like the poet himself in making any question more difficult, any answer more paradoxical. This is a Jesus who `shocks us into a kind of stillness not by what we recognize as his rightness but by what we sense as his strangeness’. Near the end of his life, in a short prose self-portrait, Buckley was to follow an admission that he watched sport on television `as much as ever’, and similar reflections, with a comment from Henry James: `It is as impossible to avoid religion as it is to avoid morals’. He could not do so, but steadily refined it away to a subtle metaphysics.

The university had appointed Buckley to a personal chair in 1967. Like Hope, his friend and mentor, he became a distinguished example of that new figure, the poet-professor. In the title poem of Golden Builders and Other Poems (1976), Buckley paid tribute to formative meanings of Melbourne, much as Slessor had done for Sydney. He entered that city by way of William Blake’s visionary London, his epigraph coming from `Jerusalem’ and including the vast question, `What are those Golden Builders doing?’.

Buckley’s third volume of criticism was Poetry and the Sacred (1968). In the essays which flock together there, the poet-critic addressed writers in whom the romantic impulse drives language toward mystery or transcendence. Of the critics in Australia whom John Docker characterised (negatively) as `metaphysical’, Buckley was perhaps the most romantic. Indeed, as Australian Leavisism split, many of its company veering into Marxism, he emerged as leader of the other party, standing out in his final decade as scorning `theory’. He sought to retain `the sacred’ as a living concept, even as his relation to formal religion diffused.

Ancestral landscapes were always tugging at Buckley’s poetry. His first, baroque response to that fabled country was the poem `Walking in Ireland’, his most profound the posthumously collected `Hunger-Strike’, which has been described in conversation by John Montague as the finest of all poetic accounts of the dark time in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many lyrics in Buckley’s Last Poems (1991) were to be Ireland-based. An earlier, complete collection dealing with the Republic, its landscapes and its ways of life, was The Pattern (1979).

His Ireland was far more than a `Celtic’ dream. He visited or lived in that country on many occasions between the mid-1950s and 1986, haunted and often disappointed by its assortment of suggestions. He was pleased that the University of Melbourne awarded him the Dublin prize for 1977; it attached him to Ireland verbally. Observing its people years before the economic surge of the `Celtic Tiger’, he was seriously disturbed by what he saw as the country’s `virtual avoidance of play’, its urban drug culture and its general aimlessness. For him, Ireland was a nation that had lost its memory, a loss that he was to struggle with in his late prose work Memory Ireland (1985), a discursive treatment of his relations with the Old World. The actual Republic distorts or effaces an Australian dream of Gaeltacht and benign ancestral voices. Much as William Wordsworth had borne witness to an England of beggars and crippled ex-servicemen, so Buckley would write of a mundane Ireland. As he put it in a later poem:

At dusk the sluttish children
Wandered down the Grand Canal
Where the soft lights lean over dark.
Who’ll catch them when they fall?

Published simultaneously with The Pattern, his collection Late-Winter Child was a work that represented inner and outer, in a sense. Both books were made up of medium-short lyrics, or suites of the same. Late-Winter Child was remarkable for its capacity to celebrate, respondingly, a woman’s body. At a time of pregnancy, he saw and felt the body of the mother-to-be as intimately as he so often did his own, in that poetry of vulnerability. On 18 September 1976 in a civil ceremony at Middle Brighton he had married Penelope Jane Curtis Buckley, a 33-year-old research student who had taken his name.

Buckley’s last years as a professor were marked by continual illness, disillusion with universities (`The new broom may sweep cleanest, but what will clean the broom?’), and further visits to Ireland. He looked forward to a published entity entitled `Poetry Without Attitudes’, yet anxiety and dread trod close on his heels now. In 1985 he won the inaugural Red Earth poetry award, and he hoped that his retirement at the end of 1987 would bring him new imaginative freedom. As Peter Steele wrote of him, `He regarded poetry as the great mediator or interpreter between the solitudes of the self and the bulking realities of the world’.

When he retired, Buckley had less than a year to live. Mortality lay all about him and in his third-last year he had lamented, thinking about a billabong near his suburban home, `Who cares if I am dying if the banks are green’. He was working still at rhetorical freedoms, recalling the easy voices of William Carlos Williams and Galway Kinnell, away across the Pacific. His new anthology, The Faber Book of Modern Australian Verse (1991), developed in the teeth of his rapidly failing health. The introduction was never completed. Assembled by his widow from a manila palimpsest, it contained his characteristic plaint: `All Australian poets are disadvantaged by the same comparative neglect … They read poets who will never get the chance to read them’.

Buckley died of myocardial infarction on 12 November 1988 at Kew and was buried in Melton cemetery. His wife and their two daughters and the daughters of his first marriage survived him. Curiously, he had found questions about the relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians too hard to contemplate in his limited lifetime; perhaps Ireland occluded them, with its many centuries of colonial subjugation. His wonderful Last Poems, a book that crowned his achievement, was winnowed out from sheaves of remaining verse. The Vincent Buckley prize for poetry, which alternates between Irish and Australian poets, was first awarded in 1994. Much of his prose writing, especially, awaits collection and publication. But nothing, apart from scattered audiotapes, can recapture the remarkable soft authority with which he spoke and, above all, with which he rendered his poems to his willing listeners.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Davidson, Sideways from the Page (1983)
  • C. Wallace-Crabbe, Falling into Language (1990)
  • I. Hamilton (ed), The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English (1994)
  • Meanjin, vol 28, no 118, 1969, p 317
  • Quadrant, Aug 1976, p 26
  • Buckley papers (Australian Defence Force Academy)
  • Buckley papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Chris Wallace-Crabbe, 'Buckley, Vincent Thomas (1925–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/buckley-vincent-thomas-12261/text22003, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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