Vincent Buckley: Collected Poems edited by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2009, 522pp.

It is just over twenty years since Vincent Buckley died and, as some sort of memorial, we have, this year, John McLaren’s more than serviceable biography, Journey Without Arrival (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing) and this elegant Collected Poems, accompanied by a genial introduction by Peter Steele. What we don’t have are answers to questions like: What kind of poet was Buckley? How good was he? I had hoped, this month, to be able to answer these questions, at least to my own low standards of satisfaction, but I’m not sure, after a long exposure to Buckley the poet, Buckley the critic and Buckley the memoirist, that I can. Buckley is notable as a man who grew to hate his first two books of poetry (The World’s Flesh of 1954 and Masters in Israel of 1961) and, if there is a consensus of opinion about his work, it seems to be that Arcady and Other Places of 1966 is a breakthrough book (it begins with a suite of poems, “Stroke” about his father’s death, poems that have been widely appreciated and anthologised) followed by Golden Builders in 1976 as a kind of consolidation and then The Pattern in 1979, a book focussing on Buckley in Ireland – his second home (or non-home). Rereading these books, this month, I found myself full of reservations about this imaginary plateau of mature achievement. I think they still have a lot of detritus that hasn’t been cleared away and that they are equivocal about this detritus, still clinging to it as a possible source of poetry. In my reading there is really only one great Buckley book and that is the posthumous A Poetry Without Attitudes published as the major component of Last Poems in 1991. If this seems to make Buckley’s fame rest on a slim volume, it is worth pointing out that A Poetry Without Attitudes runs to more than one hundred and fifty pages – longer than the corpus of, say, Slessor’s work. Of course, preferring someone’s last book looks dangerous because it has a touch of triumphalism about it, fitting into the template of a kind of narrative climax. But Last Poems made a huge impression on me when it appeared and it has lost none of its power eighteen years later. It is a book that a major reputation might well be founded on.

First, though, we have to deal with the earlier Buckley, especially the Buckley of the first two books. Chris Wallace-Crabbe, the editor of this Collected, has yielded to Buckley’s own estimate of the worth of his earlier poems by including only a selection, and has taken as a guide the selection made by Buckley himself in his Selected Poems of 1981. Interestingly, he has reinstated two poems: “Late Tutorial” and “Impromptu for Francis Webb”. The second of these is dedicated to a poet born in the same year as Buckley and who, you feel, is a kind of alter ego to be quarrelled with, admired and feared (or at least, his fate is to be feared). The poem speaks of the world as a place which must evolve to express the divine and wants to warn Webb of the danger of poetry and language being a refuge from an insanity caused by the present corruption of the world. Poets are supposed to be cleaning up words so that they can match the divine rather than using them to build walls:

                              Words would become our home
And cosset us, till one dark day we find them
Dwindled to ash, or rigid as a tomb.

Our task is this: To keep them swept and sure,
An open courtyard where the poor may find,
Always, the walking Love, Who does not rest
In hearts which fear and hatred have defined.
. . . . .

“Impromptu for Francis Webb” is full of certainty, the very certainties which, I think, Buckley grew to see as poetically false, certainly false to his own poetic and intellectual character. When he speaks of these early poems being based on rhetoric, I think he means not so much an excessive formalism as a tendency to think that poetry operates in the world of elegant assertions. For some poets it does (one could write at length about the function of propositional assertion in something like Rilke’s Duino Elegies and the way in which they balance sureness with a kind of implied gesturing tentativeness) but for Buckley it surely doesn’t and much of his career can be mapped around the gradual playing out of this truth. The core for him lies in the body and the mind’s responses, as well as in a kind of visceral response to community: it doesn’t lie in understandings expressed as propositions.

I’m not sure why Buckley rejected “Late Tutorial”, perhaps because it is, inevitably, rather pompous, tweedy and condescending in tone – something quite intolerable in retrospect. And yet the content of the poem is full of doubt and a reasonably convincing sense of failure. The students want knowledge and assertion (the kind of stuff that “Impromptu for Francis Webb” is built on) but the pressure on the teacher with “nerves at war, the mind in dishabille” is unbearable. He wants to confess his failures (which are also the failures of his poetry and poetry in the twentieth century) to his students by speaking in oracular mode:

“O man is sick, and suffering from the world,
And I must go to him, my poetry
Lighting his image as a ring of fire,
The terrible and only means I have;

And, yet, I give too much in rhetoric
What should be moulded with a lifetime’s care . . .”

But knows that anything like that would produce only “loud embarrassment, / . . . and the noses blown / In frenzy of amazement at this short / Still youthful puppet in academic gown.”

One is always leery of generalisations about local cultures but one can hear, in this poem, echoes of what is often said of nineteenth century English poetry: that after the over-the-top romantics, poets had to accommodate themselves to a progressive loss of intellectual leadership. Bards were replaced by scientists, and poets had to look elsewhere for the ground of their value to the community. The poets of Sydney never possessed or aspired to intellectual leadership but the poets of Melbourne (perhaps because of that capital’s stronger or more defensive sense of community) did and their inability to be intellectual leaders was a state that was difficult to adjust to.

The other poems from the first two books are impressive, though. Especially “Autumn Landscape” which seems (at least in my reading) to take us straight into the heart of Buckley’s early ideas about the world and the spirit, about a religious humanism superior to mere doctrine.

See the flame balancing in the leaves
The old man piles, until they cloud and choke
Under the musty top, where the green crisps
To blackness. There, the air-channels stop
Their running light. Above, is sweetness lodged
In dens of smoke more sweet than honey-cells.

And from all distant quarters how the bird
Gathers its song! And how the rake
Leans crazily to the wall, and passing wheels
Clamp sound to fire – the sparks that wince from stone
As though my hands had ambushed their flame:
Dark cells I touch, beyond the bounds of breath.

A flame, flames, balancing in dark leaves,
Like water that goes straitly on stone.
No more. No hero in the striding mist
Of smoke, or sweetness; but the stony land
Is burning, burning, in this chestnut tree
You gaze on. Breast of stone. A destined land.

Yes you can hear the McAuley (another problematic poet of the period) of “Terra Australis” and “Envoi” here, as well, perhaps, as Brennan. But it’s still a good, formal, rather stately poem, using a symbolic scene, rather than propositions, to make a statement about how, basically, death and decay can be transformed into sweetness by fire. As this is happening in the ancient, dried-out country of Australia, there will be nothing theatrical (“no hero in the striding mist”); it will be a natural process but it will still occur. It is hard to call “Autumn Landscape” a major poem but it is a genuine one and it benefits, perhaps, in this Collected, by being followed by “Winter Gales”, a poem that counterbalances any bleak optimism by a very negative vision. Surprisingly, Wallace-Crabbe has chosen not to reinstate “Walking in Ireland”, a poem many would find important for Buckley at a number of levels. Firstly it introduces the theme of Ireland as a place of family origin, a subject which occupies Buckley for all his writing life and secondly it introduces the larger theme of Buckley’s inability to be utterly at home in any place or institution or even genetic pattern. True, the poem seems to attempt an assertive conclusion (“Can anything, in the gathering light, be foreign?”) but we remember the carefully described awkwardnesses of the earlier part of the poem (“Everything here, strange in its very nearness, / Perplexes me like the shape of a foreign room.”) to the point where we (well, “I”) want to read the conclusion as proposing a new and more inclusive sense of what is meant by belonging.

Arcady and Other Places (a title we know so well that we can’t see how wonderful it is – though the book itself doesn’t contain much that explicitly reminds us of the arcadian face of the world) probably owes its popularity to the two sequences, “Stroke” and “Eleven Political Poems”. What is really happening, though, is a poet moving from a tendency to be hieratic (or dense, or stately) towards a sense of being more open to life and its vulgarities. It is a long journey from “And the light grows tall / In the flame without smoke, and the day without number” to “In the faint blue light / We are both strangers” and it is a journey that we are happy for poets to make: it’s why we prize Yeats’s Responsibilities and Lowell’s Life Studies. The problem is that we can’t help judging them contextually: they are “breakthrough” sequences in the dramatic narrative of a poet’s growth, and it is difficult to go through the exercise (though it remains a valuable exercise) of imagining them shorn of all context as though they were poems come across in an historical anthology, or poems preserved on scraps of paper after the Mongols have been through. I think they are actually good sequences viewed in that light. “Stroke” is full of conceptual sophistication: the death of a father is, after all, symbolic of the death of God, and dying focuses on the physical and resists the impulse to casual transcendence (“Now, in the burnt cold year, / He drains off piss and blood . . .”). The opening lines establishes Buckley’s existential position – always a stranger when he should be among kin – and the way they segue into poetic description suggests that alienation might be the correct stance for producing poetry. Perhaps that is one of the many possible reasons for the two panels of memory in the sequence. The first is a memory of childhood, of reading outside at night when the air is as cold as the father and the warmth is provided by words:

. . . . . 
And if I think back, there’s nothing mythical:
A cross-legged kid with a brooding nose
His hands were too chilled to wipe,
A book whose pages he could hardly turn,
A silent father he had hardly learned
To touch; cold he could bear,
Though chill-blooded; the dark heat of words.
A life neither calm nor animal. 
. . . . .

The punctuation in this passage has a lot of work to do. At the end of this poem, Buckley is returned to himself, to the world of academic life (“Manuscripts, memories; too many tasks”) and it concludes with a pregnant but slippery proposition, “We suit our memories to our sufferings”. The second memory poem (the fourth of the sequence) is a kind of induced race-memory, focussing on the generations before his father. From the poet’s perspective it is a movement farther back: from the father’s perspective, though, it is quite different. The first memory poem is a move forward in time to the generation of his son while this second is a move back to the generation of his father. The entire sequence finishes, on the surface at least, affirmatively:

Dying, he grows more tender, learns to teach
Himself the mysteries I am left to trace.
As I bend to say “Till next time”, I search
For signs of resurrection in his face.

One of the things that makes “Stroke” stay with us is that by this time in Buckley’s career, we have experienced his lack of belonging so much that a relatively straightforward affirmation of faith is problematic. I want to read it as almost a desperate gesture, a way the poem wants to conclude but one which is compromised by doubts and discomforts so deep that we can sense them in the awkwardness of all the human interactions in the sequence. The father is not a man who, in the last run-in is dedicated to God (whether he knows it or not) and has thus moved out of the ambit of the son’s life, the world in which he feels comfortable. This is a son who is always estranged from his fathers.

Some of these themes are taken up in other poems in the book, especially “Places” and “Shining Earth: A Summer Without Evil”. Both are embodiments of a vision of a transformed world: in the first, a sacred place stands for what the world might be like and in the second this is achieved by a brief moment in time. Again, taken as poems without context, they have an irritating triumphalist certainty about them and I prefer to read them in the contexts of doubt and awkwardness which make them ecstatic fantasies, all the more poignant for containing the seeds of their own uncertainty. The sequence “Eleven Political Poems” works by creating a bathetic language to suit the world of politicians, the power-hungry and the servants of totalitarianism. There are no gestures towards transcendence and the poetic voice is never put in a superior position to pass judgement. All in all, the achievement is really dramatic rather than intellectual. It is interesting to contrast the poems of this sequence with another political poem from Buckley’s next book, Golden Builders. “Willing Servants” follows the successive resignations of officials of the Nixon presidency, each a little more senior than the last and each implicating the person on the next rung of the ladder. It has a Bruce Dawe-like quality, especially in its long sentences and its continuously-held, slightly grotesque (or at least un-obvious) image of the functionaries as shepherds in the fog. But it is not a technique or a subject that is anywhere near the heart of Buckley’s poetry.

Golden Builders begins with a sequence and ends with one: in this way it approximates the structure of both the previous and the succeeding books. The opening sequence, “Northern Circle”, is, superficially, about a trip to Canada. But its real subject is place and belonging; its method is to approach the familiar by beginning with the utterly unfamiliar. There is a touch of Descartes’ “Meditations” about this. We can arrive at the truth of a subject by immersing ourselves in it but we can also do it by stripping away all our assumptions and tentative conclusions and then looking at the subject afresh. As I have been suggesting, Buckley’s poetry is, in a way, bedevilled by its own openness to different forms and here a rather American poetic approach to place is allowed to have a go at the material. There are indents and tabs that would have been unthinkable in the poems of Arcady and Other Places, let alone those of the first two books. And the result is, like almost all of this book, an admirable, interesting failure. The un-Australian cold of Canada drives the poet back into sensation, back into the body and its responses (“here you sweat differently”) and to a sudden awareness of surprising differences: the fact that cold precludes scent makes the poet realise how full of smells Australia is. There are also two fascinating prose poems (another form you wouldn’t expect in earlier Buckley) in Golden Builders, “Brought Up to be Timid” and “Closed House”. I suspect that Buckley undertook this formal experiment (very rarely repeated in later published work) for its narrative/associative possibilities. “Brought Up to be Timid” seems, in its central part, to be almost more intimately connected with the central theme of not-being-utterly-at-home than any other work. It imagines (having begun by blaming it on a socialised timidity) the awkwardness of a strange place (even if it is a pub) and the paranoid sense that others, in contrast, do completely belong:

. . . Better not move too freely here; the whole place is theirs, it’s here they have their vivid and opaque lives; they know its secrets, their coffins will stand at last in the smell of this cathedral, this cul-de-sac rings for them like a lovers’ lane. Even the restaurateur, who lives elsewhere, on some neat slope at the end of a tram-ride, has the run of it. Every opening of the door brings him in company, clients, lights, a living. He is a native, and the foreign place delivers him cargo . . .

The poem finishes with a fantasy of radically, violently new experience imagined as a traveller crying “The Sea! The Sea!” It is possible that we could read the inn as the body and that, in dream fashion, the identity of the poet moves from the awkward guest to that of the innkeeper who hopes to receive, through his senses (and “doors” in this book inevitably alludes to Blake’s “doors of perception”) some experiences of a radically different order. This may be the better interpretation, but it is hard not to remember (as I had done since I first read the poem when Golden Builders appeared,) the guests who feel never “at home” and feel themselves surrounded by people who are completely “native”.

The title sequence of this book is an extended (twenty-seven poem) work. It is one of those poems that is probably better read-about than actually read. I’ve always found that it looks better from a distance, seen through the eyes of a sympathetic interpreter (there is a comparatively full treatment of it in McLaren’s biography). There are a lot of good things that can be said about its sophistication and ambitiousness but the painful fact is that it doesn’t work as a sequence. Its virtues, if it has any, lie in how open its author is prepared to be about how desperate his search for a form for his material is. The figure who lies behind the poem in various shapes is Bruce Beaver. Letters to Live Poets is there on the surface in the Roman numerals, in the second poem beginning “God knows what it is about Town Halls. / I’ve lived next door to three of them” which almost mimics the opening of the first “Letter” before going on to look like “Letter V”, in the ageing male prostitute who recalls the paper seller of “Letter XIII”, in the experimental dogs which live in cages above the offices of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and thus provide the same kind of nightmarish, over-riding symbol as the sharks in the aquarium of “Letter I” and so on. These are so open as to be allusions and I read them as one poet’s acknowledgement of another. But it is also there at deeper levels. Beaver’s foregrounding of his psychological malaise frees Buckley up to do the same. The time of the writing of these poems was, as McLaren makes clear, a time of serious physical and mental stress for Buckley, and this is allowed into the poems, especially numbers VII and XV, as admissions that “my mind’s not right”. Beaver’s influence (or model) is also there in its emphasis on life as a process occurring within a city: to document the city you need only recount the details of your living.

The second figure who looms over “Golden Builders” is Blake. His contribution comes from his continuous sense that Jerusalem and London (or Israel and England) are co-terminous. In Blake this seems to have been reasonably literal, the expression of a weird extreme English Protestant position deriving presumably from the idea that the English are one of the lost tribes and that those feet really may have, in ancient time, walked on England’s mountains green. If the literal basis is ludicrous the spiritual implications and possibilities are enormous because it provides a symbol whereby the quotidian and the sacred are inside each other. Melbourne is the sacred city, or at least the sacred city can be found within Melbourne. It is all very alchemical in that alchemy was not about changing base material into gold, but in releasing the divine which is present within all material, base or otherwise. This conceptual framework might suggest that “Golden Builders” is rather static: a poem about momentary illuminations, odd angles of vision, odd acts of kindness or companionship. Actually the poem is made dynamic by a regularly reappearing emphasis on building and destruction. Cities are in a constant process of evolution so there is always the possibility that, in the future, they might evolve in a way which expresses the divine rather better. Blake also provides two styles or voices. Two of the poems mimic the quatrains of poems like those of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as well as using symbolism in a very Blakean way:

The tree that has a winding root
The faces brightened with desire,
These power wear down the stone of doubt,
There each man builds a spine of fire

And there he walks on layer thorn . . .

(that third line, which looks as though it should read “These powers” unless “power” is an adjective, has remained unamended in this edition). Other poems use the more oracular mode of Blake’s “prophetic books” although that tactic runs the risk of making a poem like number XXII sound a bit like Allen Ginsberg!

If Golden Builders seems to fail by being too open to new possibilities, The Pattern of 1979 is much more restrained and, perhaps, more successful – certainly it is a likeable book. Ireland (both the Ireland within the poet and the historical, sociological, geographical reality of the country itself) is the subject matter. Again, the search is for a satisfying form to contain all the responses and it is no accident that the book, like so many of Buckley’s, begins and ends with sequences: “Gaeltacht” and “Membrane of Air”. The poems are prefaced by a definition of the word “pattern” which prepares us for the fact that it will live in the book as a unifying feature through the exploitation of its different meanings. Ireland is a mould from which the genetic material of the poet emerged; it is a template, a decorative design and a precedent. There is also a little introductory poem which tells us that this will be a journey back to Ireland but also a journey in the reverse direction, back to Australia; it will oscillate like a sewing machine needle, stitching the two together. And “journey” won’t simply be a matter of trains and cars; it will also be trip back to water, to origins of life. And it will be made by a poet in emotional extremis:

And go to: and come back from:
the slow starved pattern
I follow with inflamed nerves
to discover, close to the beginning
of all, a tadpole barely
at movement in the clammy water.

“Gaeltacht” is an extended meditation on the experience of meeting one’s equivocal “homeland”. A set of visual images is preceded by “you keep looking for some way / into it, letting your mind bulb around one / image or another”, and Buckley finds that “the origin is not / one place but ten thousand”. “Membrane of Air” is a more difficult work, keen to expand the experience beyond the simply social. It begins and ends with water and the poet’s injunction to himself to “start low”. I’m not sure what was intended in the opening and closing sections: the sea is the source of life and blood; it connects Ireland and Australia and is the medium whereby a population moved from one place to another but ultimately, despite the enormousness of the connections, there remains a membrane between the two. This is only a crude, external reading, but I’m simply not sure of the implications of the focus on molluscs in these passages and the implications of one of the central poems which sees the sea as a symbol of psychic terror. Again, not to press a point, one feels that this may derive from Beaver, especially the iconic seawall of the poems of his second book, Seawall and Shoreline.

What makes The Pattern so attractive is that, inside these laboured-over structures there are poems where Buckley seems to be himself. That sounds stupid, but I mean that there is an acceptance that everyone, poets and readers, is the result of a complex of features, genetic and social, that we barely comprehend but which we want to understand. But it is possible, momentarily, to put the self-conscious sense of one’s presence aside and simply write out of it; to write, as the next book says, “a poetry without attitudes”. I find myself returning affectionately to poems like “Spanish Point”, having, despite a long exposure to Buckley’s situation, very little comprehension of what it is trying to do, but a strong sense that it was written under the pressure that produces real poetry:

That night the wind’s closed eye
opened inward, and the Atlantic
shivered, laying its salt reflection
on our windows. Indoors,
you squirmed in your soft blankets,
in the floorcot, neat
as a kitten in a butterbox. Where mouse
preyed: black, quick, he ricocheted
from nest to nest along your warmth.
You cried out, his rush
staring in your eyes’ drowsy vortex,
dragging a black hole into position
at the floor’s centre. At least
there was something
there we stepped over
or around, a minuscule abyss
close under the timber joists.
All day,
travelling in the chipped moon-landscape,
your eyes were
heavy as milk.

Yes, you could make a case for some kind of influence from Lowell – you can’t write about winds in the Atlantic without recalling “Quaker Graveyard” or of sudden meetings with vermin while in a state of psychic distress without recalling “Skunk Hour” – but the poem rings true. It is not totally comprehensible (whatever that might mean) and, with a bit of luck, might have been equally mysterious to its writer, but it feels whole. The features of Ireland which appear – the sea, the landscape – are givens, not opportunities to confront, experience and explain, and the pressure of the poem comes from the fear of the stability of things expressed in the vortex of the wind, the eyes of mouse and poet and the sense of the existence of an abyss which must be skirted or crossed. It seems a poem where the powerful drive to understand origins is by-passed in favour of something much more expressionist.

“At Millstreet” is another fine poem from the collection, also more relaxed. But the relaxation (in terms of questing for origins and structures) allows a genuine pressure of lived experience to enter the poem almost as though it arrives on its own terms rather than as an expression of something:

Barm brack, soda bread, its thickness
doubled with butter: fresh cut
ham, tomatoes, large hard strawberries,
all fresh as a rivulet. The only smell
came from their clothes, where fireside
smoke had been absorbed like sweat.
Lake-flat land that held the hoofbeats
of the Rakes of Mallow. The bog-cotton
shuddered in the breeze, touching
a scum of anemone-like small flowers.
Glass glittered . . .

It is a poem about position, of course, as almost all of Buckley is, but perhaps it is no accident that this poem concludes with a memorable image of awkward distance, far more memorable than the laboured ideas behind the sea and membranes of air:

They served me: “that’s right all right”,
agreeing with everything I said,
creaking like leather with my strangeness.

In a sense, the best of Last Poems is made from poems like these in The Pattern. The Foreword to the original printing of Last Poems by Penelope Buckley, describes how the book was pieced together. Buckley had imagined making a MS out of these poems, largely found in a computer file. I think it’s possible that the poems were lucky that Buckley’s death meant that this intention was not entirely carried through. The MS Buckley selected would, after all, be highly patterned. One of the strengths of the poems of Last Poems is the impression they give of being a little raw. They perhaps haven’t been entirely polished and they haven’t been set in the kind of context where their charms can sparkle. This may be imagination, but I feel it again, now, rereading the poems. The result is wonderful: puzzling, powerful works written without a theory or, at least, without a worked-out intellectual position. This is what I understand by “a poetry without attitudes” in the little poem that prefaces the collection:

. . . . .
That would be worth it:
friend without envy,
love without bile,
a life’s work without guilt,
a poetry without attitudes.

It can’t, after all, mean “poetry without prejudices and opinions” because these poems are full of those.

It is fascinating to compare poems like “The Good Days Begin” and “Spring’s Come” with “Autumn Landscape” and “Winter Gales”, the first two poems of this Collected. In the early poems, good as they are, you can feel the work that has gone in to stiffening them up and making sure that the allegorical significances are clear to a good reader. “Spring’s Come” is quite a different business:

Spring’s come, but not the cleanliness,
the wind brushes dirt in corners,
and the tiny black seed pods
seem covered with drapes of cobweb,
leaf-slivers, and dried matter,
the whole growing like a set of mobiles.
Time to enter, Botticelli-woman,
with the light on your shoulder
and the strong leg forward
protecting the sacred place.

There is a poetic freedom about this in that the poem moves on the elegance of its two sentences with their related length (six lines, four lines) and contrasting modes: the first is an expository list, the second a disguised imperative. There is also a gestural quality about it: you hope (though I may be out of order here) that its writer might have said of it “It’s a poem I like though I’m not sure why. I’m not even entirely sure what I thought I was saying and so I don’t mind if it gets omitted.” This touches a quality of the true lyric which has often been lost with the rise of literary studies and canons: ephemerality. There is also a lot that could be said, analytically, about the poem’s meanings but it seems a poem that might be reasonably casual about its own implications. The “sacred place” must be the Primavera’s genitals as much as the flower-strewn ground she walks on and, yet, in a way, these are the same. Once we get genitals into our heads, how does that connect up with the lack of cleanliness and are the cobwebs symbolic of pubic hair? And so on and so on, but freely and pleasurably, a play of possible readings ad perpetuum rather than a hunt for the planted seeds of meaning. And then the Botticelli reference leads us to think of the notion of allegories in his own paintings, the elusive significances that no-one is fully agreed upon, and this thinking suggests that here may be a poem which contains fragile clues to its own reading . . . and so on, even further!

Two other poems will serve to illustrate this combination of rawness, accomplishment, mystery and openness. The first is “The Curragh in Cold Autumn”:

The punters in the stand spoke like spitting.
“Fockin’,” they said, and “fockin’, eh, fockin’,”
through the fagends hoarse as eucalyptus.
In the Members this speech was more drawn,
less committed, as the fieldglasses hung
below the halves of whiskey. High Style,
by Interest out of Nonchalance.
You’d almost think they’d won without betting.
All the same. The wintry wind, the air
unravelled like a rope, belted so hard
it sliced clods from the ground. And the three-year-olds,
slicing too, came awkwardly, their silks
rain-coloured, no-coloured, in the blast,
their shoulders struggling, down the interminable straight,
their hooves dripping, as if running at us
from the black caves of County Meath.

I won’t labour the obvious here, but just try to describe what I like in this poem. It is largely the matter of contrast, of the poem going in a direction that is not entirely predictable. The first part, the first five sentences (which get progressively shorter), is well-observed social comedy concluding with an arch irony that makes you think of Dawe or Murray, “You’d almost think they’d won without betting”. At first you think that this will be contrasted to the physicality of the wind and of the horses and that mere social comedy will be put in its place by visceral sensation. But the end of the poem twists so that the horses seem more like psychic demons, spinning out of the kind of vortex that we met in “Spanish Point”.

Something similar can be said of “Iceland Foxes” in that it is a poem of lovely twists which prevent it ever being the writing-class poem that it might have been. It begins with a portrait of “poet in old age” but, while speaking of his freedom (or mental obligation) to read, suddenly moves into the kind of animated description of a scrap of his reading that suggests that his mind has moved, in the poem, from grumbling about old age to a fascination with the expectations immigrants have of a new country:

Boring as a cuckold
I find all the same that I need to
keep up with my night reading:
all the mind-triggers of our decade
from Historical Geography
to Dolphins, ESP, the Saints of Cornwall.
The first people to arrive in Iceland,
I read, found there only one mammal,
the fox. The Iceland Fox. Laying a musk,
giving birth, in the stench of volcanoes

while the impulsive, panicky invaders,
peering from ships bent like a riddle,
tried to see, to descry, wolf-stag,
lynx-bear, running jerkily on the sulphur slopes,
chased by half-men, screeching, with their knifestones
pelting the air. Eyes full of old habits.

At about this point, we think we are perhaps encountering a general observation about invaders that will go on to slip in a subtle allusion to Australia. But the poem goes on to see old age as a new existence to which we bring the wrong expectations:

Reading, imagining this, I say to myself:
Now, you’ve lasted through forty years
of universities, those correct pun-loving islands
with their soft grievances, their clubs, their baby-talk,
their low-rust landscape of the soul
where watchfulness is normal -
a gauntlet of islands – and you’ve come
into a new life, skilled in Agecraft,
free to think anything, tell any truth,
scotch any lie; and yet you sit there
doling your last years out to yourself
as if they were mogadon or heart-pills
while the organisation-persons hunt
confidently past libraries, carrying on
as if the jungles were not a form of culture
in which to invent new species,
not something learned and trained for,
but pristine things, native, imperative,
the most natural of enclosures.

There is an ironic bitterness in finding that one treats one’s own experience with the same conceptual timidity that one always despised in ambitious but second-rate academics. And again, as with “Spring Comes”, one is tempted to go on hermeneutically and to say that the structure of the poem, which is one of surprising twists, is an attempt to demonstrate that what the content of the poem says we don’t do (look at new landscapes with new, not old, eyes) a poem might be able to do. Not a bad description, in poetry, of one of poetry’s immense capabilities.

What kind of impression does one get of Buckley from this Collected Poems and John McLaren’s biography? It is dangerous ground for an outsider like myself since there are excellent readers who were his intimate friends and who know both work and man infinitely better that I do. But, sometimes an outsider’s view is useful. The central issue for man and poet seems to me to be about position. He seems, as I’ve said periodically through this essay, positionally awkward. Our first picture of him is as a brilliant boy reading outdoors at night in rural Victoria. He is someone with a strong Irish background in genes and culture but who is never able to access this unequivocally. A Catholic who jibes against the various complexities of dogma and against the power politics of the church in which he is also a participant. An academic who would rather have been a poet, and so on. The abrasions and irritations seem continuous, but they must have been, to some extent, self-inflicted.

But “position” is a lot more complex in its implications than this. So much of Buckley’s narky manner in debate seems to be about an exact definition of his position and to be informed by a dislike of anything that he could construe as misrepresentation. Cutting Green Hay is a brilliant memoir, partly because this exactitude of defining position goes on at such length. There is a kind of weird pas de deux between Buckley and the writings of Santamaria which touch upon Buckley’s activities: they are continuously quoted and quibbled with – like one partner nibbling the other’s ear. It’s a bizarre and fascinating book which had the effect on me, when I first read it, of making my own country seem like a foreign place (not a bad thing when you come to think of it).

And then there is Buckley’s criticism. Essays in Poetry Mainly Australian (MUP, 1957) is an easy book to admire and a very difficult book to like. It has early essays on important figures like Slessor, Wright, Hope and McAuley but its tone is appalling. This is because it wants, all the time, to position these poets. It never shows any tendency to operate inductively – that is, from the poems to generalisations – but always moves from general statements about the poet’s poetic locations to valuations. I know that brief essays such as these can always claim that the intense engagement with the poems lies prior to the judgement about position and that superior criticism doesn’t need to show this preliminary work. But I don’t get any sense of an intimate response to the poems: those quoted seem merely to illustrate a generalisation about position. And the real problem is that if you are worrying about someone else’s exact location you are, willy nilly, positioning them vis a vis yourself. As a result Essays in Poetry has a tone that is hard to forgive: it seems snide and self-inflating by denigration where good criticism should always be open-minded and open-hearted. Its overall sense of the young writer who finds himself drowning in the shoddily imprecise and unacceptable contributions of his elders and setting out (together with a chosen crew) to add some rigour and raise the intellectual standard of debate, can be a successful way of beginning an academic career but it is not a good way to begin a poetic career. And that poetic career, in Buckley’s case, is about finding ways to turn the awkwardness he felt as to his position (conceived in every possible way) and his search for an arcadia in which there were no abrasions between himself and the world, into good poetry. Many poets have an essentially megalomaniac mind in that they can’t reconcile their vision with the world as they see it. Sometimes they just don’t look at the world too closely, sometimes they snipe away at the world. To do him justice, Buckley, I think, thought the failing was largely in himself. In the last part of his career, as I read it, he achieved wonderful poems by accepting himself as a complex of intricate difficulties and simply (or not so simply) writing out of this position. If you can’t cure it, or even fully express it, you can exploit it. And this produced the best poems of his career.