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John Tranter reviews

Kenneth Slessor: critical readings, edited by Philip Mead. University of Queensland Press, 1997. 306 pages. ISBN 0-7022-2687-4

This piece is 1086 words or about three printed pages long. It was first published in Australian Book Review, May 1997.

More than thirty years ago Angus & Robertson, then reigning unchallenged as Australia’s major literary publisher, brought out a substantial two-volume hardback anthology of Australian poetry. The second volume, edited by Douglas Stewart, was titled Modern Australian Verse, and it began with Kenneth Slessor. T.Inglis Moore edited Volume One, and he titled it From the Ballads to Brennan. He included in it work from Hugh McCrae and John Shaw Neilson, and filed away Christopher Brennan in a section titled ‘Poets of the Nineties’, thus consigning the three of them to an ante-room, if not to the dustbin, of modern literary history. Most sensible anthologists have followed this lead.

Slessor, then, born almost with the century, is our first strong modern poet.

Slessor didn’t go through university; he became a cadet journalist instead. He had enough intellectual yearnings, though, to feel the need for a philosophy, and this led him to adopt the wrong heroes — the older artist Norman Lindsay and the older poet Hugh McCrae.

It was from McCrae that Slessor got his taste for historical costume dramas — the pirates, satyrs, wenches, and roistering cardboard figures that decorate his early work. Lindsay provided his ‘philosophy’, an anti-modernist (and anti-Semitic, as well as anti-German) mish-mash of hearty Nietzschean opinions about history, ethics and aesthetics.

‘It is the duty of all who respond to Life,’ Lindsay wrote in 1923, larding his text with capital letters, ‘to return to a Faith, not in Man universally (for thither lies the blackest pit), but in creative individuality.’ This drivel, published a year after Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, makes L.Ron Hubbard look like a deep thinker, and it is a dismal measure of Slessor’s sense of cultural inferiority that he swallowed it all. It’s only fair to add that many Australians at that time felt the same colonial insecurities; and that Lindsay was a highly skilled and successful artist, a strong-willed bully, and old enough to be Slessor’s father.

Kenneth Slessor. Photo from cover of «Kenneth Slessor: Critical Readings», ed. P. Mead, UQP, 1997, detail.

Kenneth Slessor. Photo from cover of Kenneth Slessor: Critical Readings, ed. P. Mead, UQP, 1997, detail.

There have been various books about Slessor since his death in 1971. Geoffrey Dutton’s 1991 biography and Dennis Haskell’s 1991 collection of Slessor’s poetry, essays, journalism and letters are informative and readable. This volume fills a specific gap — it is a collection of thoughtful essays by poets, scholars, academic theorists and teachers that range widely over theme and period and look at Slessor’s work from more than a dozen different perspectives.

Philip Mead’s introductory essay looks at Slessor’s poem ‘Nuremberg’ published in that vintage year for literature, 1922, the year the poet became an adult, and links it to Slessor’s German background, the artist Dürer, the Ern Malley hoax and the Nazi Party rallies of the 1930s.

The other essays — there are thirteen of them — range over the decades, and give us a map of how Slessor’s work drew different responses at different times.

Jack Lindsay’s 1952 reminiscence of Vision, the magazine he and Slessor founded in 1922, is couched in Hegelian terms, and drags in the founding of BHP, Federation, industrialisation, Romanticism and the young nation’s struggle to express its identity. ‘Brennan,’ says Jack Lindsay, ‘expressed the alienating process of a self-divided society moving into the primary level of industrialisation.’ (So much for the influence of Stéphane Mallarmé.) This thick gruel of socialist analysis and vitalism was Jack Lindsay’s answer to his overbearing father Norman; Slessor had to find other answers to that problem.

He countered Jack Lindsay’s memoir almost immediately, irritably distancing himself from his youthful enthusiasms in an essay for Southerly, also in 1952. His riposte is printed as an appendix to this volume. Jack Lindsay, Slessor complains, ‘repeats the wearisome cry that the artist must concern himself entirely with the “social struggle”, with the ephemeral political disputes of the period, instead of with the eternal simplicities and mysteries that have outlasted and will outlast every political “struggle” and every social transformation-scene.’

Vincent Buckley’s 1957 essay looks at Slessor’s underlying nihilism, and notes the frenzy with which Slessor threw up his screen of decorative and rhetorical effects. Buckley’s crucial observation is that ‘Despite the chatter of the critics, he [Slessor] is not really in “intellectual” poet.’

Judith Wright’s 1964 essay agrees, and notes that Slessor’s interest in form and experiment only went as far as seeking a form ‘which seems most nearly to reflect the shape of the emotion which produced it.’ This of course is an exact prescription for effective greeting-card verse.

John Docker brings a more exuberant analysis to the work. He draws out the importance of Norman Lindsay’s concept of the ‘image’ for Slessor, not only as a way of building poems, but as a type of concrete universal. He points out that in Lindsay’s philosophy there is a continuity between art and sexuality — the ‘image’ helps to create moments of ‘Life’ by mediating between the artist and ‘Life’ (bodied forth by women in their sexual aspect) in moments of ecstatic union. The ‘image’, in this formulation, sounds rather like a battery-operated sex aid.

Docker also links these vitalist ideas with Sydney itself — as Slessor’s poetry does, soaking itself in the atmosphere of Australia’s most vibrant city like an emotional mood or a kind of weather.

Other essays present diverse facets of the complex and highly refractive crystal that is Slessor’s life work. I enjoyed them all, especially the pieces by Andrew Taylor, Peter Kirkpatrick (who gives Slessor’s glittering ‘light verse’ its due importance) and Kate Lilley, whose stimulating focus on homoerotic and paedophile narratives, apotropaic challenges, and prosopopoeia superseded by reification is certain to set tea-cups trembling and provoke emotional debate in many an English Department Common Room.

If anything’s missing, for me, it’s a look at the way Michael Dransfield’s verse echoes Slessor’s in its use of decorative and historical effects, its avoidance of the risk of serious structural experiment, and its imagistic representations of Sydney bohemian life. And then Les Murray’s poems, with their pictorial surfaces and their suspicion of the intellectual life, reveal other debts to the earlier master. But then, perhaps all that would be labouring the obvious.

Slessor had an abundant natural talent. It’s sad to think what he might have done with it, given a more bracing and competitive cultural environment. In a talk in 1931 he showed that he had read e.e.cummings, T.S.Eliot, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Marianne Moore. This, over sixty years ago. Then he went on to say ‘I regard [Wilfred] Owen’s experiments as easily the most promising of this century, but no one has yet carried the idea on.’

Poor Kenneth — he just didn’t get it.

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