Vincent O’Sullivan (b.1937, Auckland, New Zealand, d.2024) lectured at Victoria University, Wellington (1963-1966) and Waikato University, Hamilton (1968-1978). In the following years he was the literary editor of the New Zealand Listener (1979-1980) and Writer in Residence (1981-1987) at several Australian universities and at Victoria University where he taught as Professor of English Literature from 1988 till his retirement in 2004. He also served as Director of Victoria’s Stout Research Centre from 1997-2004. O’Sullivan’s literary career spans half a century and his oeuvre comprises more than a dozen collections of poetry, several novels and plays and five short story collections. He has also written on New Zealand authors, edited Oxford anthologies of the country’s poetry and short stories and, with Margaret Scott, Katherine Mansfield’s letters in five volumes (1984-2008). Recipient of many literary awards and the ‘Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship’ in Menton, France, in 1994, he was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000, received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature in 2005 and received an honorary Ph.D. from Auckland University in 2008. He was Poet Laureate in New Zealand between 2013 – 15 and Knighted for Services to Literature in 2021.

Vincent O’Sullivan died in the early hours of 28 April, 2024, in Dunedin, New Zealand. I heard the news from his wife Helen who emailed me as I was on a train on a Sunday afternoon from Scotland to London hurtling south through the spring air but not fast enough to catch up with the Autumn dawn in New Zealand where already the country was waking up to mourn the loss of one of its most important poets – though one who wore his status, his gravitas and erudition so very modestly you might have missed it. Vincent will be remembered for his many honours, prizes, publications and a wide range of literary achievements, not least of which was his singular contribution to the development of a New Zealand poetry that was international and deeply embedded in a classical past as it was also highly local and demotic.’ – Kirsty Gunn, author, winner of the New Zealand Book of the Year Award for “The Big Music”

O’Sullivan’s poetry can be called both learned in its references to diverse Western cultural items or traditions, as is noticeable in ‘Blame Vermeer’, ‘In times of thanks and praise’, ‘Talking of stone’ or ‘1919’, and as thoroughly familiar with and sharply observant of the particularities of his homeland, as demonstrated in ‘July, July’, ‘River road, due south’ or ‘Late praise for Nurse Smythe’. Though at times handling the connotative power of a theme, of language or a word in a playful mood, as in ‘Check-up’, ‘Saying begins it’ or ‘The monastic life’, his poems never become flippant or assume the arbitrariness of postmodernism because they derive from an essentially philosophical and sceptical mind, which becomes manifest when a poem addresses fundamental questions like life and death (‘Right on’), love and time (‘Seeing you asked’, ‘Simply’) or religious belief (‘Dark night on the lake’). Structured in the characteristic O’Sullivan manner, realistic and descriptive openings are very often followed by an interjection, a speculation or a reflection lending them depth, and in turn leading to a summarizing conclusion, as in ‘Small talk’ or ‘Blond ink’. No preference is given to a particular form as four-line stanzas, often rhymed, or two line-stanzas with an even rhythm stand next to free line examples. Such mentally unfolded and formally organized images and thought processes often underpinned by employing opposites convey the poet’s moral stance, yet this at the most ends on a warning note such as: “It will happen next”, in ‘Blame Vermeer’, or: “The moon is gone and the axe grows bigger and bigger”, in ‘No time for portents’. However, one would miss a central aspect of O’Sullivan’s poetry if one does not note their cleverness, their wit, as is found in the allegorical bathos of ‘The monastic life’ or the employment of kiwi-phrases, epithets and similes in ‘Check-up’ or ‘The grieving process’, the latter two being of a more personal nature. In the poet’s reading a strong male voice comes across that hardly varies in sound, tone, speed, emphasis or musicality, inviting the reader to attentively follow the narrative lines and their structures, a poem’s conceits and spontaneously evoked images as well as sudden shifts of phrase or tone. The poet holds his own personality as much back here as in his work and still speaks in a unique and unmistakable voice.

Vincent's recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 9 September 2008 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.

Poems by Vincent O’Sullivan

Vincent O’Sullivan in the Poetry Store

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Books by Vincent O’Sullivan



NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry

Prize website

Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship

Prize website

Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry

Prize website

Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit

Prize website

Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry

Prize website

Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement

Prize website

onoured New Zealand Writer