A tribute to Vincent O’Sullivan (1937–2024)

He is one of us, he is one of our own.
He bears the coasts, the mountains for us,
He calls to the north and the south on our behalf,
To the east and the west, he carries the voice of his people.

Nō tātou ake ia, he tangata ia nō tātou tonu
Ka wahā e ia ngā takutai, ngā maunga, mō tātou,
Ka karanga ia ki te raki, ki te tonga mō tātou.
Ki te rāwhiti, ki te hauāuru rā anō, ka kawea e ia te reo o tōna iwi. 

(Translation: Piripi Walker) 

These words were written by Vincent for Requiem for the Fallen, a collaborative work with his close friend, the composer Ross Harris, which was performed at Old St Paul’s for the New Zealand Arts Festival in 2014. These lines seem apt, as the National Library shares its sense of loss to New Zealand letters, with Vincent’s death in Dunedin on 28 April.

Vincent O’Sullivan. Photo by Helen O’Sullivan

The relationship the National Library and Alexander Turnbull Library had with Vincent lies at the heart of our work, and evidence of this abounds. It includes his research here as pre-eminent scholar of Katherine Mansfield, notably producing his co-edition of the five volumes of Mansfield’s letters with Margaret Scott between 1984 and 2008. The Turnbull Library is also home to Vincent’s literary papers, at MS-Group-1526.

In 2013 Vincent was appointed New Zealand Poet Laureate. He made his intentions clear early on: ‘I don’t think many prescriptions for poetry stand up apart from one – if it isn’t individual, if it’s not “the cry of its occasion”, then why aren’t we doing something else’ His time as Laureate was marked by a generosity towards and recognition of fellow poets in New Zealand and around the world, with a special place reserved for the voices of the oppressed poet.

His volume of collected poetry Being Here, was launched at the National Library in April 2015 and we have chosen to include its title poem to represent his achievements, his profundity and elegance. The photo of Vincent was taken in Italy by his wife Helen.

Requiescat in pace, Vincent.

— Peter Ireland, for the National Library

Being Here

It has to be a thin world surely if you ask for
an emblem at every turn, if you cannot see bees
arcing and mining the soft decaying galaxies
of the laden apricot tree without wanting
symbols – which of course are manifold – symbols
of so much else? What’s amiss with simply the huddle
and glut of bees, with those fuzzed globes
by the hundred and the clipped-out sky
beyond them and the leaves that are black
if you angle the sun directly behind them,
being themselves, for themselves? I hold out
my palms like the opened pages of a book
and you pile apricots on them stacked three
deep, we ask just who can we give them to
round here who hasn’t had their whack of apricots
as it is? And I let my hands tilt and the plastic
bag that you hold rustles and plumps with their
rush, I hold one back and bite into it and its
taste is the taste of the colour exactly, and this
hour precisely, and memory I expect is storing
for an afternoon far removed from here
when the warm furred almost weightlessness
of the fruit I hold might very well be a symbol
of what’s lost and we keep wanting, which after
all is to crave the real, the branches cutting
across the sun, your standing there while I tell you,
‘Come on, you have to try one!’, and you do,
and the clamour of bees goes on above us, ‘This
will do’, both of us saying, ‘like this, being here!’

— Vincent O’Sullivan

Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems 2023 selected by Chris Tse

Since 2001 the International Institute of Modern Letters has been home to Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems. There is a guest editor for each selection and in 2023, this was our Poet Laureate, Chris Tse. Our Poets Laureate feature prominently in editors to date and Chris joined Laureate alumni Elizabeth Smither, Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan, Jenny Bornholdt, Selina Tusitala Marsh, and David Eggleton in accepting this rewarding if daunting assignment.

Of the 25 poems (from nearly 4000!) to make the cut, Chris observed:

‘Individually, these 25 poems are tender, aggressive, funny, angry, and contemplative. Collectively, they emphasise the power of poetry to communicate with an open heart without fear of retribution. These are the poems that surprised and delighted me the most, that made me pause to sit in my own discomfort or revel in another poet’s joy. Above all, they’re the poems I thought other people need to read.’

To read Chris’s full introduction and to read (and hear some of) the poems, and to spend time looking back down the years of New Zealand poetry in this century, have a look at the Best New Zealand poems website.

Thank you, Chris, a job well done!

Peter Ireland
for the National Library