Slessor, Kenneth 1901–1971
Slessor was an Australian poet, journalist, and critic. His poetry is imaginative and lyrical, frequently showing evidence of his Australian heritage in its themes and imagery. Time, memory, and the sea are frequent themes in these poems, though often overcast with a sense of despair and melancholy. Critics have cited Wilfred Owen as an important influence on Slessor's style. Five Bells is generally considered his most important work. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 89-92.)
The characteristic Australian poem is one in which there is just enough art to hold the job together: whether it gives voice to prophecy, belief or intimate emotion, it is unlikely to be remarkable for delicacy and precision.
In the midst of such a climate, Kenneth Slessor looks very much an odd man out. Reading his later poetry, in particular, one might easily believe that he had strayed to these shores from some more verbally sophisticated milieu, from the United States, say, or even New Zealand. And in surveying the full body of his work, as represented in Poems (1957), one could only be reinforced in such a judgement. For that collection charts the career of a man who acquired his artistic confidence first, and only slowly gained a measure of experience with which his art could be confronted. The verbal dandy appeared first: the poet followed after. (p. 342)
[In his early poetry Slessor] is already making of his diction a fine and flexible instrument which will be capable of transforming all manner of material into poetry. He is also, we might add, tightening his grasp on one thing he knows to be real, so that he may have some means of evaluating the ephemeral spectres of life. In the later poetry, one often feels that nothing but Slessor's verbal precision could salvage anything from the temporal flux.
Much of his early writing leaves an impression that we might define as painterly rather...
(The entire section is 1816 words.)
When we read the few poems Slessor has preserved from the ['twenties], certainly two conflicting impressions are left with us; the first of a … lustiness and decorative excess where image jostles image and texture is crusted with over-richness; but the second, which seems, as the poems succeed each other, to move nearer and nearer into the foreground, is an emptiness that underlies these feverish sensuosities, a lack of inner solidity, a perception of the abyss that increases gradually into terror.
It seems that in Slessor's poetry two conflicting forces meet—the Nietzchean cry that man must learn to suffice himself, must increase his capacities, must become physically and spiritually superior to himself; and the Nietzschean perception which underlay that demand, that when God is 'dead' nothing can protect man from the malice of the universe. (p. 140)
[In an address in 1931, Slessor] acknowledged his debt to Wilfred Owen and to Eliot, and stated his belief in 'experiment in rhythm … as a sort of hypnotic agent which will urge the mind to vibrate at a deeper level of consciousness than that of the superficial world'. He quotes his own experiments in rhythm changes and in 'analysed' rhyme and syllabic rhyme, 'The Country Ride', and 'Fixed Opinions' (a title altered in his latest collection to 'Fixed Ideas') to illustrate how he has attempted to carry on the experimentalism of Owen.
(The entire section is 1436 words.)
T. Inglis Moore
Among Australian poets Kenneth Slessor emerges today as the finest craftsman of them all. He has mastered poetic form most completely, using it with the greatest brilliance and originality. In his skilful hands it moves like a gentled brumby, still vibrant with high mettle yet responsive to the light touch on the rein or the pressure of the knee. In his Five Bells each poem has its own individual shape and moves to its own distinctive rhythm. These fit the conception so closely that we feel the poem could have been written in this way only, and in no other. Subject and treatment have merged into the happiest of unions, integrated seamlessly, compelling us into conviction that the unity is indissoluble. (p. 113)
[Slessor enjoys] a variety of qualities. Gifted with an exceptional acuteness of the senses, he renders both inward feelings and outward objects with a nervous sensibility or intensity of perception akin to those of D. H. Lawrence. He gives even the inanimate chronometers of Captain Cook an almost Dickensian vitality by witty and vivid re-creations. As a satirist he can compass a Swift-like savagery. As a lyricist he modulates his rhythms to novel yet fitting effect, catches the tempo of colloquial speech, and launches his lines off with dynamic dactyls. He surprises with wholly original images, and delights with the sharp pungency of pictorial words…. Finally, we have Slessor the tragic poet of disillusionment, for...
(The entire section is 2256 words.)
A. C. W. Mitchell
Close examination shows that Slessor's poetry is in fact characterized by … the grotesque, an element which appears in the early poems … as a garish and superficial ornamentation, a precious style, and a deliberate search for the unconventional, but which he learns to control and utilize with considerable effectiveness about the time he writes 'Captain Dobbin'.
A likely origin of this grotesque element can be found in Slessor's association with the 'Vision' school, despite the fact that he himself discounts the significance of this association. His poetry shows the influence of this school in a number of ways. One of the dominant influences on the group was the art of Peter Rubens …, and it becomes evident that Slessor's imagery is in part a conscious imitation of the grotesque as it appears in Rubens's paintings and consequently in [works by Slessor's associates]. (p. 131)
[Much] of Slessor's imagery can be understood as a poetic rendering of the grotesque, not in any concern with a play on conventional imagery, although there are examples of this, but in the incongruous combination of 'unlikely elements'. And while the following discussion tends to concentrate on Slessor's imagery, his themes can also be considered in the light of the grotesque. In his imagery we can see this effect operating in two distinct ways. The profusion or agglomeration of images characteristic of his early poetry is in many cases...
(The entire section is 1381 words.)