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...
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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 Bells'; the Harbour itself, the 'midnight water' that covers the bones of the dead men and is scarcely distinguishable from the air. And the darkness with its scattered lights seems also symbolic of the loneliness of men whose contacts are so transitory and far apart. This makes the final image of the harbour-buoys, 'tossing their fireballs wearily each to each', so obscurely moving—more moving than the bells themselves with their double reference, to time and to mortality.
This is a closely-linked and complete poem; and it is to all intents and purposes Slessor's last important communication. (p. 149)
Looking back over Slessor's poetic life, it seems as though silence was always in the background of all he has said, and has finally triumphed over his brilliant and feverish imagery. There is something about nearly all his poems that makes them seem skeletal—a construction of scintillating words, like a neon sky-advertisement against darkness. They have about them something rootless and desperate; even the increasing mastery of technique does not quite disguise their lack of content.
In the end, what Slessor tells us is that humanity is chaotically fragmented, isolated, unable to communicate with anything other than itself; (and communication between individuals is equally fragmentary and chaotic, subject to the whim of time and death). Lights spring up, glitter, seem to form a pattern, but blink out; we cannot say 'why you were here / Who now are gone'. This is not a poetry written for the sake of communication, but the desperate talk of a man who 'cannot escape those tunnels of nothingness, / The cracks in the spinning Cross'. The voice has now fallen silent. (p. 150)
[For] Slessor, it seems, activity is negated before it is undertaken. His poetry is essentially static in its nature; it is not stoic,… but epicurean. If human contacts are temporary and incomplete, if the glimpse of 'the moment's world' vanishes and 'the body dies and rots', what is left? Feeling certainly….
But feeling too is momentary and chaotic, and may lead to cruelty, perversion, and disgust…. (p. 151)
[Nothing] is worth seeking, except perhaps a certain elegance in living….
Perhaps this is the chief mark of Slessor's poetry—an elegance, a brilliance, that do not even seek to conceal the emptiness beneath, but describe their graceful figures as a skater does on ice.
In spite of his interest in technique and his twentieth-century despairs, Slessor is never an unconventional poet: that is, a poet who uses obscurity or jarring dissonance, or violence of rhythm or language, to express his personal distress. (pp. 151-52)
Yet the despair and the lack of direction beneath the poetry are authentically twentieth-century, and they stem, not from the Australian scene, but from European civilization and the rootlessness of the city. Pound's condemnation of 'the old bitch gone in the teeth', Eliot's 'Waste Land', find their echo in Slessor, though his preference for more traditional poetic methods and his lack of depth mask the immediate likeness. Slessor's is a poetry of the surface of life; what he cannot grasp by means of sense and intuition does not exist for him.
But this very lack of thought and emotion means that despair, when he discovers it is part of himself and of the world, is all the more irredeemable. He cannot … widen and deepen his world-view; he can experience, but he cannot interpret. There is a sense, indeed, in which Slessor's poetry is something very like inspired reportage. He does not seek for causes or solutions; he does not try to look into history or into the human soul…. (p. 152)
[Slessor] ended as the most nihilist of Australian writers—nihilist, as it were, in spite of himself and in spite of his rejection of the advance-guard of European writing, of the experimental work of Joyce, Pound and their followers. For the true nihilist is not the man who affirms the end of traditional modes of thought and feeling and the beginning of the reign of chaos; but the man for whom the meaning and significance of life are already negated by despair, no matter how elegant and technically accomplished its expression. And for Slessor, in the end, experience is rendered meaningless by its discontinuity, and communication between human beings is momentary, limited, and corrupted by time and death. Only 'the moment's world' can hold beauty and freedom and changelessness; and the moment is no more than a moment; it is not, as it is for Eliot, the guarantee of anything beyond itself….
[In] Slessor's poetry the abyss is finally triumphant. (p. 153)
Judith Wright, "Kenneth Slessor-Romantic and Modern," in her Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1965, pp. 140-53.