Kenneth Slessor Judith Wright

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Judith Wright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 his earlier and middle phases of writing, 'Gulliver' seems to point forward to Slessor's last long poem, 'Five Bells', with its quieter acceptance of annihilation. (p. 145)

The crowding imagery , the coruscating phrases of Slessor's earlier poetry, seemed to dazzle like fireworks…. But behind the fireworks we are always conscious of dizzying and empty blackness, the 'cracks between the stars'. As his poetry matures, the veil of imagery thins, the darkness becomes more and more insistent. Darkness, isolated glittering lights, and emptiness—this is the background scenery of 'Five...

(The entire section is 1,436 words.)