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 than poetic. In such poems as 'Pan at Lane Cove', 'Marco Polo' and even the more substantial 'Realities', the paraphrasable content is trivial and banal: Slessor's art here is found largely in his disposition of pictorial elements, of leaning statues, dark hedges, and formal pools touched by moonlight, or those remarkably intensified details which arrest the reader's attention in the first stanza of 'Pan at Lane Cove'…. Slessor is not interested in the respective values involved in the worlds of Pan and of Lane Cove; he is interested in the picturesque possibilities which their juxtaposition raises. (pp. 343-44)
Where the picturesque was his sole concern, Slessor's talents were undeniable. There is something of permanent value in the vividly patterned images of 'Nuremberg' and 'Next Turn', for all the remoteness of both lyrics. But where he sought to be explicit and give voice to an attitude, he merely revealed the crude simplifications of adolescent escapism…. (p. 344)
A much finer poem from this period is 'The Night-Ride'. It is successful not because Slessor has bluntly set out to find a viable analogy for his vision of life, but because it starts from a clear definition of local and specific perceptions. His magnificent verbal gifts are no longer wasted on the erection of pleasure domes in Neverneverland, but are devoted to recording the colours, shapes, surfaces of familiar things. (pp. 345-46)
We can account for the accelerating intensity of 'The Night-Ride' by regarding it as a sustained metaphorical account of Slessor's view of life as a process. His language focuses so hard on the train journey that the journey becomes the whole direction of a life…. And the direction is consistent with that which can be found in a great deal of Slessor's poetry: life is a rapid journey towards oblivion; other people and the bright surfaces of things are perceived through an intervening pane of glass; memorable experience consists of transient flashes amid a general obscurity of 'grey, rushing rivers of bush'.
The progression here, a progression from vivid perception towards a drugging sleep, is finally reversed—reversed, that is, without being negated—in one of Slessor's most brilliant late poems, that rhythmical and syntactical triumph, 'Sleep'. The swaying, evocative lines of this lyric carry the developing logic of three kinds of human situation. A voice speaks with soothing authority,… and in the course of the poem the voice seems not only Sleep addressing the sleeper, but also woman to lover and mother to foetus. In all three cases, the implied listener is held, enveloped, in a harmony of pulsing forces. And in each case these forces are protectively maternal, holding the listener back from the harsh facts which await him, and which are realized in the new, stark rhythm of the last stanza:
Till daylight, the expulsion and awakening,
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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.
But experiment, he says, did not interest him for its own sake. In a radio talk … he said: 'The practical considerations that have guided me for many years have been those of form and experiment', form being defined as 'that shape of a work, whether in music, words or design, which seems most nearly to reflect the shape of the emotion which produced it.'
It is interesting that, in his choice of Owen as a master, Slessor took a path that English poetry, on the whole, during those years, rejected…. Clearly, in his admiration for Owen, Slessor's chief reason was that, in Owen's work as nowhere else, he saw the emotion behind the verse working to alter the shape and sound of the verse itself. 'The emotion of a poem', he says …, 'must make the experiment, not the experiment the poem.'
This interest in experiment not only provided a fresh channel for the verbal virtuosity of his early phase, but gave him a new impulse for his poetry. (p. 143)
['Five Visions of Captain Cook'] was the first of many later treatments of the theme of early sea-explorations. Other Australian poets took up the subject gladly, for its historical and rhetorical bearing on Australia's nationhood, but no one has treated it either with Slessor's inventive brilliance and lightness, or with his intrinsic melancholy…. The half-farcical, half-ironical note [upon which the poem ends] makes us recall Slessor's own disillusion and his denial of the city of humanity.
The note continues in Slessor's later poetry, growing in fact sharper, bitterer, more unendurable; as in 'The Castle of Glubbdubdrib', where the vision is of all the great minds of the past reduced to the status of mere slaves of the Glubbdubdribians, the cohorts of stupidity and greed…. (pp. 144-45)
[In 'Gulliver'] Slessor probably discovered the most precise and eloquent image of the plight of modern man that Australian poetry is ever likely to produce. Like his 'Stars', it is a pivotal poem. Where 'Stars' apparently marked the watershed between...
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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....
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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...
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