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Kenneth Slessor  1901 - 1971

 

Kenneth Adolphe Schloessor (Slessor) is recognised as one of Australia’s formative poets who, while drawing on European traditions and modern experimentalism and innovation, gave a distinctive Australian voice to Australians from 1920 to 1946. 

Born in Orange, educated at North Shore Grammar, where he edited an unofficial magazine, Printer's Pi, Slessor had his first poem published in The Bulletin at only 15 years.  Noted for his exalted writing style, he became a Journalist for the Sydney Sun at the age of 19.  Socialising with Sydney's Bohemian set, including Norman Lindsay and Hugh McCrae, Slessor was influenced by his creative energy.  After a series of journalistic positions with Melbourne Punch, Melbourne, Herald, back in Sydney at Smith's Weekly, he was appointed as the Official Australian War Correspondent.

Overall, his wide range of poetry covering our history, our lifestyles and preoccupations with the sea, time and life  documents a significant development of the national psyche.  Slessor becomes painfully aware of the anxiety of modern life; the chilly winds of an empty Australia and a pitiless universe and our lack of certitude.  He does not provide answers but presents the predicaments in a realistic and emphatic manner.  Like Lawson he is aware of the futility of much of the struggle but celebrates the defiance and pluckiness of Australians as they face the bleakness of existence. 

Features of Slessor’s Poetry

Initially, Slessor was influenced by a Dionysian trend of "liberating the imagination by gaiety"; the aim of his magazine - Vision in 1923.  This was a clear break from the Bush Balladists, Lawson and Paterson.  

Slessor was at the head of major developments of Modern Australian Verse:

Thematic preoccupations with  the sea, time, memory, and history.

Humanising of the landscape— using it to embody states of mind.

Sardonic use of humour to question and puncture illusions.

Celebration of the city, the modern metropolis

Drew on European cultural heritage, art, music, etc to give imagination wider horizons.

Language used with precision and cleanliness.

Aware of fragility and fragmentation of modern life, no absolutes and poetry not the forum for expressions of moral certitudes and national piety.

Slessor portrays an emptiness which underlies these sensuous feelings and ideas, a lack of inner solidity, a perception of the abyss that increases gradually into terror.

It seems that in Slessor’s poetry two conflicting forces meet: the Nietzschean cry that man must learn to suffice himself, must increase his capacities, must become physically and spiritually superior to himself; and the Nietzschean perception which underlay that demand, that when God is “dead” nothing can protect man from the malice of the universe. Judith Wright – Pre-occupations in Australian Poetry

Portrayed the sense of the absurd— the discrepancy between the beauty of surfaces and images of life and human behaviour.

tragic awareness of the futility and despair

Speaks from within a representative modern experience.

Fastidious urban experience reveals touches of fatigued elegance and languor

Expressed contemporary moods, feelings, states of mind yet aware of the lack of overall design and meaning.

Experimental in new poetic forms and expression

In many ways Slessor is very traditional:

Rejected disruption of normal syntax, punctuation and poetic logic.

Expressed contemporary precise, concrete and sensuous images in the idiom of man living in a godless universe.

In the end Slessor tells us that humanity is chaotically fragmented, isolated, unable to communicate with anything other than itself. This is not poetry written for the sake of communication, but the desperate talk of a man who “cannot escape those tunnels of nothingness, “The cracks in the spinning cross”.  Slessor can experience but not interpret. He does not seek for causes or solutions.   At the bottom, the note of hollowness and hopelessness is inescapable.   The voice has now fallen silent. Judith Wright

Sound inseparable from meaning.

Exquisite use of sounds of words to effect meaning through the mastery of rhyme, assonance, alliteration and rhythm.

Retained traditional sense of melody, harmony rather than dissonance

Created hypnotic, magical poetic effects through sheer verbal music.

 Poetic Devices:

Paradox:  mummied waves and gales fixed in print

Contrast: antithesis Cook compared with later captains

Oxymoron:

 sea as enemy lover,!
sweet dangerous countries.!
 Cemetery of sweet essences.
 Acid and gipsy sweet 
Grapes had a” harsh sweetness

Bathos: Of simple heroes taken by Turks or by dropsy.


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