Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2256
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 ever pressing his face vainly against those earthly windows allowing him to see a reality of beauty which the glassy barriers prevent him from passing beyond to have and to hold. (pp. 113-14)
Slessor's poetry is most striking in its inherent sense of form. He is an architect building his constructions with a special genius for poetic design. This is only to be expected, perhaps, since no other Australian poet has concentrated on experimenting in form as continuously and effectively as Slessor has done throughout his poetic development, drawing on all the resources quarried by modern techniques. Certainly none has displayed such creative originality in constructing novel forms fitting their special functions so felicitously.
Here my conviction is deepened, too, by the absence in his best work of any birth-marks tokening the pangs of poetic travail. The poem arrives as if without labour, as if it were a Topsy that had not been born at all but 'just growed'. Each piece is idiosyncratic, bearing eyes, hair, and quirk of nose different from the features of other children sprung from the fertile marriage of Slessor's intellect and sensibility. Yet there is no doubt about their ancestry. Other influences have entered into their composition, as varied family strains enter into any child, but these have been absorbed. The poems are Slessor's own, stamped with his individual idiom. No other poet in this country—or elsewhere, for that matter—would have so worded, shaped, and cadenced such striking achievements as his 'Five Visions of Captain Cook', the superb evocation of 'Sleep', or that surprising and satisfying elegy, 'Five Bells'.
His genius for form shows itself undeniably, moreover, in the fact that he is always in the Five Bells collection the master, and not the servant, of his form. In the earlier Earth-Visitors and Cuckooz Contrey volumes he had often, like Browning, let the verse run away from him and cut its own pyrotechnic capers for the sheer fun of the fireworks. In these first and middle periods of development he makes the preoccupation with form too patent, and even when the subject is treated with robust exuberance one senses that the performance is dictated by the head, not the heart. The influences on the formal side, too, are noticeable. In these respects Slessor never attained the natural gusto combined with extraordinary originality of...
(The entire section contains 2256 words.)
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