Professor Thomas Shapcott AO

30 November 2009

Award of Doctor of Letters honoris causa
Professor Emeritus Thomas Shapcott


Professor Emeritus Thomas Shapcott AO is one of Australia’s major poets and a distinguished administrator.

He served as a Director of the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts from 1983–1990 and has also been a significant benefactor to the University through donations of his personal literary archives valued at $95,000.

Professor Emeritus Shapcott is credited with being a major protagonist in the rise of the “New Australian Poetry” during the 1960s and he continues to be an influential critic in the field of contemporary Australian poetry.

Throughout his prolific career, Professor Emeritus Shapcott has produced novels, poetry, short stories, libretti, dramas and reviews. He has written 15 collections of poems, seven novels for adults and four novels for children.

Born and bred in Ipswich as a twin and one of four brothers, he says discovering classical music at the age of 13 provided a refuge from a “very constricted suburban world of a petty bourgeois family in a small town”.

He says the first poem that spoke to his heart was Gerald Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover, read, rather ironically, as he was helping his older brother Bob burn his junior school books in 1947.

Emeritus Professor Shapcott has said: “It was magic. I had not realised language could be used in that way, and the sound values were what compelled me.”

But life as a full-time writer was not possible at that stage so after six months at business college, Professor Emeritus Shapcott joined his father’s accountancy firm in 1951.

Even though he had had his heart set on becoming a journalist, Professor Emeritus Shapcott said working in the family business did give him a certain degree of flexibility to be able to pursue his writing.

He published his first poem in 1956 and his first book of poems in 1961. By the time he sold his accountancy practice in 1978, he had published seven collections of poems, edited four anthologies, written a book on painter Charles Blackman and a number of libretti for composer Colin Brumby.

Professor Emeritus Shapcott completed a degree in accounting in 1961 and a degree in arts in 1967 at The University of Queensland with the latter completed as an evening student while working full-time and raising four children.

In 1971, he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to visit America. In 1973, Mr Shapcott was appointed to the newly constituted Literature Board of the Australia Council by the Whitlam Government and served as its Director from 1983 until 1990. He had become a full-time writer in 1978, supported by a number of literary grants and fellowships to continue his writing.

He was the Executive Director of the National Book Council from 1991 to 1997. In 1997, he became the inaugural Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, retiring from the position in 2005.

His prizes and awards include an Order of Australia for services to literature and arts administration (1989); the 1867 Sir Thomas White Memorial Prize for best book by an Australian; and the 2000 Patrick White Award. He also has a major poetry award, the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, named in his honour.

Professor Emeritus Shapcott serves as an inspiration to young writers and his main piece of advice is to be persistent as well as prepared for rejections as these are part of the process.

Chancellor, in recognition of his distinguished career, I present to you Mr Thomas Shapcott (Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Arts from The University of Queensland), for the award of Doctor of Letters honoris causa bestowed by the Senate of The University of Queensland.


Doctor of Letters honoris causa