With all that matters of him occupying no more than two not very bulky volumes — one of verse, called Poems, another of prose, called Bread and Wine — Kenneth Slessor nevertheless continues to be one of the really substantial Australian poets. Substantial and, beyond that, promising even more: hinting towards greatness. He lived his full three score and ten years and died five years ago, yet somehow seemed still to be only on the verge of accomplishing what was in him.
Slessor’s was a remarkable gift. Between Christopher Brennan, for whom the claims made are usually too high but whose individuality was unmistakable, and A. D. Hope, who was an international poet from the beginning even though resolutely chauvinistic, Slessor’s is the bridging talent. He raised all the problems about the relationship of the Australian poet to European culture. He never found Hope’s solutions but on the other hand he did not succumb to Brennan’s neuroses: he wrote to the limits set for him by an insoluble dilemma, and then stopped. You cannot read his poems without pondering the might-have-beens. On the other hand, what he did achieve is of permanent value.
Graham Burns’s little book Kenneth Slessor is a commendable introduction. Without presuming to answer it, Mr. Burns knows the abiding question about Slessor: why does his poetry so often suggest that the full force of his imagination has not been committed? It is easy to go overboard about Slessor’s work, but finally it is more edifying to stay disenchanted, since a full appreciation of his achievement depends on realizing that to some extent it remained potential. Mr Burns is always ready to withhold astonishment, paying Slessor the larger tribute of treating him as an artist who was rather beyond the lyric poems he left us, even when those lyrics were masterpieces.
And masterpieces some of them are, even though generations of Australian schoolboys—it was already happening while Slessor was alive, to his great embarrassment — have been told to think so. Slessor’s language at its easy height has an unforced richness, an understated but pervasive musicality, that must be any young poet’s ideal. ‘Five Bells’, his most famous poem, has every kind of interest in its ambitious design, but the first thing that always strikes any sensitive reader is the confident originality of its local imagery, carried forward by a deceptively natural iambic pulse — quite literally unforgettable.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid—
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair....
Ducking under the breakers and watching their shadows on the sand below, there must have been scores of times in my student years when I recalled that last line. The first two lines might have been written by Wilfred Owen or indeed any latter-day Georgian who had learnt Owen’s lessons, but that last idea is Slessor’s very own, and seems to me even now to be expressed in the uniquely Australian language which so many Australian poets sought, and still seek, in vain.
‘Australianness’ has always been the philosopher’s stone, or poet’s stone, of Australian culture. Every means has been tried in order to attain it. Incomprehensible vocabularies composed of arcane references to flora, fauna and aboriginal folkways have burgeoned, withered and died. The arbitrary symbolism of the apocalyptic 1940S in British poetry was a miracle of tautness compared to its Australian equivalent, which had all that plus home-grown totemism. The aim has always been to make a fresh start free from the dragging weight of the European heritage.
Language is a continuity and in a continuity there can be no such thing as a fresh start, but for a long time the fact could not be faced — the nationalistic urge was too powerful. As Mr. Burns points out, Slessor managed to break free of this bind. His early poetry shows a certain amount of European culture being absorbed, without any doomed attempts at transcendence. Pretending in a dramatic monologue to be Heine, he sounds more like Browning, but even more than that he begins to sound like himself.
All kinds of influences are detectable (Mr. Burns might have mentioned Flecker, whose sickle moon surely provides the illumination on much of the early romanticism about the sea) but the important thing is that when Slessor turned towards Australian subjects he was already maturing beyond the self-destructive ambition to talk about them in a nationalist language. At first he strained for effect, trying to achieve it as most gifted (and all giftless) young poets do, by novelty of expression. But he soon grew out of that, to the point where his originality of diction emerged naturally out of his originality of observation — the desirable order of events, since if originality of diction is the first aim then originality of observation tends not to happen, being usurped by mannerist posturings.
Slessor began as a King’s Cross bohemian who worshipped Norman Lindsay and ended as a leader writer for The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper of stridently conservative views. It was not a particularly distinguished intellectual record. He was never a scholar as Hope is a scholar. All the more extraordinary, then, that he should have surmounted his early pretensions, fighting his way free of them by creative instinct.
‘Five Bells’, ‘Captain Dobbin’ — most of Slessor’s finest poems are about Sydney Harbour. Yet when we look into Bread and Wine we see that his prose on the same subject is at least as wealthy in vision, and often more so. His dispatches from El Alamein—war correspondence which far outstrips Hemingway’s in the evocation of battle — make his anthology-piece poem about the war in the desert, ‘Beach Burial’, look a bit impoverished. The transfigurative potentiality of Slessor’s poetry was never fully realized, perhaps because he was not notably interested in society as such — he was a lyric poet by the circumscription of his personality.
But over and above that consideration there is the fact that his full resources as a writer were for some reason held back from his poetry. When a poet’s prose manifests qualities that his verse is starved of, we are entitled to suspect that he has not taken his final risks as an artist. Why Slessor did not take those risks is still something of a mystery, which Mr. Burns’s pamphlet does not pretend to clear up. Ultimately, I am convinced, Slessor’s diffidence had something to do with the uncertainty of his role as an Australian poet — a role which he was too intelligent to fulfil uncritically, but not intellectually formidable enough to transform. He lived it as a problem, and was restricted by it. Nevertheless he left us a generous legacy, which Mr. Burns is well qualified to discuss, although no educated man should ever use the expression ‘life-style’ except in jest.
(TLS, 9 April 1976)