To fully grasp the context of Kenneth Slessor’s “William Street,” it is important to first visit the Australian genre of poetry known as “bush ballads” or “bush poetry.” Originating in the late nineteenth century, bush ballads were written in traditional rhyming verse and celebrated life in the Australian countryside or “bush.” The most famous of these are popular even today—such as “Waltzing Matilda” by Banjo Paterson, in which a swagman is caught red-handed eating the meat of a sheep he stole.
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his “Billy” boiled,
“You'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me.”
Like many ballads, the tone of some bush poems could be sentimental, with verses tending towards unquestioning valorization of rustic themes. Slessor, a professional journalist profoundly influenced by imagism and modernism, was critical of what he considered bush poetry’s preoccupation with the pastoral. Slessor’s views have since been debated, especially because the oeuvre of bush poems, an indigenous Australian genre, goes far beyond Slessor’s assumptions. However, his radical departure from the prevailing poetic climate in Australia in the early twentieth century led Slessor to create some of the most inventive Australian poetry of his time, as seen in “William Street.”
“William Street” is conceptualized as an ode to the city and an antidote to the rustic tone of bush ballads. The city in question is Slessor’s beloved Sydney, and William Street is an actual alley that leads to Sydney Harbor. In “Notes on the Poems,” Slessor’s own commentary on his poetic works, the poet affirms that “William Street” was intended as a “defense of metropolitan fascinations against those who considered the city ‘ugly’ and found beauty only in the outback.” Slessor’s strategic use of syntax, form, and poetic devices in “William Street” illustrates this defense beautifully.
The poem’s use of rhyme creates melody, but this melody is more improvisational and jazz-like than regular—as if to mirror the city’s milieu, which keeps throwing surprises. Following a roughly abac rhyme scheme, each four-line stanza (or quatrain) ends with an internal rhyme in the refrain “You find this ugly, I find it lovely.” Although this refrain lends the poem a relatively formal quality (as in a villanelle or other repetitive poetic forms), the matter-of-fact assertion contained in the line neutralizes the structured effect. The poem’s meter follows an irregular iambic pattern and often digresses into the spondaic—as seen in the refrain, where two stressed or long syllables follow each other (“You find” and “I find”). Such variations deviate from the lulling heartbeat like effect of iambic pentameter, an impression reinforced by the poem’s use of stark sounds, such as “rasping” and “hiss” in stanza 3, and its use of figurative language.
Slessor opens the poem with a description of the city street come to life.
The red globe of light, the liquor green,
the pulsing arrows and the running fire
spilt on the stones, go deeper than a stream;
You find this ugly, I find it lovely.
In the lines above, streetlights are “globes,” little illuminated worlds, and the variegated lights of the city’s billboards and electric signs shoot like “arrows,” “spread” like fire and “split” on the stones. By animating light till it “pulses” and “runs,” the poet invigorates the cityscape in one swift motion. In stanza 3, the personified grease “blesses onions with a hiss,” adding an unusual layer to the idea of benediction.
Slessor also utilizes synesthesia as a poetic technique: for example, in the opening stanza, the metaphor of light as water evokes this mixing of senses—the light can be seen, while water is felt—and adds to the impression of a common street as a far richer, more complex place than...
(The entire section is 1,220 words.)