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,
(The entire section is 1816 words.)