Val Vallis a memoir

It is fitting that some of Queensland's finest poets: Judith Wright, Val Vallis and Thomas Shapcott - should be honoured and commemorated in eponymous awards to encourage an emerging generation of poets. Like many former students of the University of Queensland's English Department, I remember Dr Val Vallis, Reader in English, with abiding warmth and affection.

Having first encountered Val through his poems in 'New Land, New Language', an innovative collection of Australian poetry that appeared on the Queensland Secondary School syllabus after publication of the Vallis collections 'Songs of the East Coast' (A&R, 1947) and 'Dark Wind Blowing' (Jacaranda Press, 1961), I was awed by the prospect of meeting the author of two of my favourite poems: 'Michael' and 'The Net-Maker', both inspired by his fisherman father. However, I needn't have worried. Val had the happy gift of putting all manner of folk at ease. He was (and is) a gregarious soul, taking pleasure in the company of friends and students, with whom he generously shared his experiences of life and art in inimitable, often outrageously funny anecdotes which many remember but only he could tell. He was both a Romantic and an anti-Romantic, who could segue at will from lyrical digression to salt-of-the-earth yarn. Both tendencies may be traced to the impact of the port of Gladstone and its fishermen on an impressionable imagination: the romance of the sea and exotic ships; the vernacular lives of the locals. The sea and its moods that pervade so many of the poems were also in the blood: Val's forebears included Cornish fisherfolk, and Cornwall is a kingdom by the sea.

Dr Vallis, Reader in English, lectured on the Romantic poets; W.B. Yeats (with whom he shared a Celtic heritage); Aesthetics; and Australian poetry, as part of a course in Australian literature. Some sessions of the Aust. Lit. course were conducted jointly by Val and Cecil Hadgraft, a grand old man of Australian letters and Val's esteemed friend and colleague. They sometimes sparred good-naturedly, Cecil maintaining that poetry resided IN the lines, Val asserting that poetry lay BETWEEN the lines. Val received his doctorate for studies in Aesthetics at the University of London. He was a philosopher as well as a poet, and Plato was one of his exemplars. Val was also a distinguished opera critic, at home and indeed in his element at Covent Garden, the Bayreuth Festival, the Arena di Verona, La Scala, and other shrines to the art. Recordings of legendary operatic voices were cached at Val's numerous residences, and guests who were lent house keys were exhorted to play something during their stay.

As one of many guests who over the years partook of Val's hospitality, in the form of a house-key to 'Abydos', his retreat on Mount Tamborine, I associate Val, the discreetly absent host, with the mountain as much as with the sea. In and of and around that house was spun many an anecdote of the intense friendship between the poet of 'Abydos' and the poet of 'Calanthe' (Judith Wright's residence): reminiscences which kept his students spellbound, and somehow pervaded the atmosphere of the house on the edge of the rainforest. Warmed in winter by the wood stove kept for that purpose, 'Abydos' was like an ark amid a tossing sea of trees vocalising wind-inspired polyphonies. On the living-room wall was an old black-and-white photograph of one of the Vallis family boats. (Val's father's boat was the 'Jean', and Val's boat, built for him by his brother Paddy, bore the imposing name of 'Valhalla'.) Sometimes I played the Shaliapin records that formed part of the 'Abydos' hoard, but more often on winter nights the crackling stove and the wind in the leaves were the most evocative soundscape one could wish for.

Somehow for me that house became synonymous with Val, although he was never present when I stayed there. His warmth and bonhomie, the lyric impulse, laughter, a sense of being among friends: all this was part of the house's aura. I never felt lonely there; I always felt safe, and was quite often inspired to write poetry during my frequent stays.

Val Vallis, by personal example and through his influence as a teacher and anthologist who co-edited (with R.S. Byrnes) 'The Queensland Centenary Anthology' (1959), described by Robyn Sheahan-Bright as 'a landmark text in its documentation of Queensland literature', did much to put Queensland poetry on the map 'when even Australian poetry was struggling for recognition' (Robyn Sheahan-Bright, ed. 'Kookaburra Shells: Port Curtis Literature'. Justified Text Press, 2006, p. 130). Following the advice of W.B. Yeats's painter father, Val wrote of what he knew and loved, thereby inscribing Gladstone on the literary map and setting a precedent for others to follow in writing of regional places.

In 'Songs of the East Coast' Val wrote:

In our town all men are brothers.
No man has marked a little plot of ocean
As his domain and jealously enclosed it;
Each fisherman rules a kingdom without end.

'Drawing in hauls that mocked the night of stars', Val's lyric poems evoke the winds, the sea in all weathers, the bustling life of his hometown harbour and the lives of its fishermen and their families, charting journeys through archipelagoes and across meridians that leave enough space between their lines for the many poems that bear witness to a richly experienced life.

It is indeed fitting that this generous, witty, charismatic, and, to those who knew him personally, unforgettable poet of his time and place should be commemorated in the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award for Unpublished Poetry.

Note: Many of Val Vallis's poems were republished in 1997, under the title 'Songs of the East Coast' (Central Queensland University Press).