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Introduction

[i]

KENNETH SLESSOR was born in 1901 at Orange in New South Wales. He died in Sydney in 1971. Most of his life was spent in Sydney, which he grew greatly to love—its Harbour, its streets and people, its eastern suburbs; some of these aspects he took as the subject-matter of a number of his poems.

He was educated in Sydney, and took up the profession of journalism in his late teens, working with Sydney newspapers (except for a short period in Melbourne) until he died. He was proud to be a journalist and wrote many memorable essays, articles and reviews, some of which are collected in an edition of his prose writings, Bread and Wine (1970). His reputation as a first-class newspaperman led to his selection as Australian official war correspondent during World War II with Australian troops in Greece, the Near East, Libya and New Guinea, from 1940 to 1943. Apart from his poetry, he made other distinguished contributions to Australian literary life, by editing various literary journals from time to time, and by serving as a member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund Advisory Board and the National Literature Board of Review for many years until his death. He is remembered with affection by many of our younger poets whom he helped with advice and encouragement whenever they needed it.

He began writing poetry in his early youth; his poems were substantially collected in three early editions Earth Visitors (1926), Cuckooz Contrey (1932) and Five Bells (1939). Subsequently he made a final selection himself, published as One Hundred Poems in 1944, which was reissued with the addition of two poems as Poems in 1957. Though this volume has many times been reprinted and his poetry has


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continued to be read and admired, so that his reputation grows even greater with the years, he seems to have stopped writing poetry early in the 1940s.

[ii]

There were three fairly well-defined phases in his poetry as we know it, each of which concludes with the volumes of verse listed above. First of all there was his youthful period, which extended through the 1920s and in which he came under the influence of the artist Norman Lindsay and his son Jack, who were outstanding figures in the cultural life of Sydney in those years. Between them they edited a short-lived but most important literary magazine called Vision which in its subject-matter illustrated the artistic and literary beliefs and aims of the group. Briefly, these were to cut adrift from the parochialism which was believed to dominate Australian society: to enter into a much wider scope of imaginative inspiration, taking in not only the literary past from classical mythology, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period to the exciting and romantic aspects of later centuries, but also the modern, artistic happenings in other countries. It might also be said that the Lindsays, Slessor and their friends were determined to pilot literature and art into the more exciting waters of cosmopolitanism: certainly they were determined to get away from the Australian outback, with its limiting world of stockmen, drovers, kangaroos and campfires.

The effect of all this on the young Slessor can be seen in such poems in this collection as “Earth Visitors”, “Pan at Lane Cove”, “Thief of the Moon”, the sequence called “Music”, and others, where he dabbled in exotic imagery, in stimulating colours and sounds, and strange and bizarre ideas. Never had there occurred before in Australian poetry such phrases as “kisses like warm guineas of love”, “the quiet noise of planets feeding”, “green cornelian tortoise-rows”, “wrought-pewter manticores”, “cannons that cry Tirduf, Tirduf”, and so on. Yet, this was a magnificent


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experience for Slessor, laying the foundation for his poetic mastery that was to follow. At this time, too, he was experimenting with all sorts of techniques in poetry, in rhyme and rhythm, in which he was stimulated by the Englishman Wilfred Owen's poetry which he read at this time.

[iii]

Slessor's second period extended to the early 1930s. During this time he was reading quite widely among the best-known poets of the day, including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, the Sitwells, Richard Aldington, E. E. Cummings and others, and traces and influences of these poets can be found in his poems in these years. But what was far more important was that he was developing his own style and enlarging his vision as a poet—and looking for new subjects for his verse. Living in part of Sydney where he had an uninterrupted view of the Harbour, it is not surprising that he turned to the sea and seamen for some of his inspiration. He has recorded that he watched ships passing below him by day and night—liners and colliers, tramps and tugs, ships “with smears of rust like the red gum of a eucalyptus tree”, and his friend and fellow-poet Douglas Stewart has written that “one sees him as a poet at a tower window, sometimes staring down at the water and grinning wryly at his reflection, sometimes gazing out, to the blue horizon beyond the Heads and seeing the wraiths of the great voyagers”. So after Slessor had written his delightful poem “Captain Dobbin” about a retired South Seas mariner, he wrote “Five Visions of Captain Cook”—a powerful and stimulating poem in five parts, on the theme of man facing the unknown in which technically and imaginatively he, and Australian poetry, reached new heights.

[iv]

With the poetry of his final phase, Slessor achieved his present reputation as a major Australian poet—some indeed considering him the most accomplished of all our poets to


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date. Certainly it was he who introduced into Australian poetry what the literary historian H. M. Green described as “modernity both in attitude and technique”. As I have already mentioned, Slessor chose to cease writing poetry for publication in the early 1940s, and this action seems to me best explained as an unusual and seldom exercised form of self-criticism: he simply felt that he had nothing more to say poetically and was content to let his reputation rest on what he had already written. Certainly by this time he had securely established his individuality as a poet—so much so that it can be said that of all Australian poets who have written during this century he can least be confused with any other.

Of his last poems three in particular must be mentioned. The first is “Sleep”—a masterpiece of poetic technique where Slessor demonstrates his complete mastery of words to marry sound to sense. The second, “Five Bells”, is the poem by which he is best known—a poem that some consider the finest Australian poem ever written. It is an elegy for a dead friend, Joe Lynch, drowned in Sydney Harbour—and apart from its emotional depths and impeccable artistry, in its descriptions of the Harbour itself Slessor has from the heart poured out his love for its beauty:

I looked out of my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon's drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each….

Slessor's few years abroad with the Australian forces prompted him out of pity for what he felt to be a useless slaughter to find a final occasion for poetry, to write an elegy for an unknown sailor. It is the simplest possible poetic statement—that soldiers die and are buried. But he has written words which convey something greater than their meaning, which give a sudden glimpse of the whole


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of experience, and in so doing make us, the readers, part of this momentary exaltation:

Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.

Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness….

CLEMENT SEMMLER

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