Stralian Strories – Kenneth Slessor a reluctant master by Neil Boyack
Kenneth Slessor wrote some culture defining Australian poetry and is still considered as one of Australia’s great poets. Aside from poetry however, he was a decorated journalist and “writing industry” leader having a hand in managing peak industry bodies, editing, writing criticism, and seeing action as a war correspondent in WWII. What makes him very unique however is that he quit writing poetry as the top of his game as an artist. This act reveals more about the man, and his attitude to the worth of artistry, than his work ever could.
Kenneth Adolf Slessor (1901-1971), poet and journalist, was born on 27 March 1901 at Orange, New South Wales. German-Jewish in origin, the family name was Schloesser, yet Ken’s father changed the family surname to ‘Slessor’ on 14 November 1914, just after the outbreak of World War I. An early influence on Slessor’s writing was Norman Lindsay and his exuberant posse. Slessor’s themes in earlier works were flavoured by gods, myths, and pagans, identifying strongly with Lindsay’s artistic style and content, yet Slessor “had none of Lindsay’s giant egocentricity, and was as devoted to experiment as Lindsay was opposed to it” (Haskell, 2002). Lindsay’s woodcuts appeared in Slessor’s first book of poetry, Thief of the Moon, published in 1924, “printed on a hand-press by J. T. Kirtley in his Kirribilli bathroom” (Haskell, 2002). Then followed Earth-Visitors in 1926, also illustrated by Norman Lindsay. Lindsay and Slessor edited a short-lived literary journal entitled Vision (4 issues)which aimed to “cut adrift from parochialism” in the Australian arts climate at the time, which celebrated the outback, Australian flora and fauna, stockmen and pioneers, Slessor being dismissive of all the bush balladeers including Lawson and Patterson (Semmler, pvii, 1944).
From: Five Visions of Captain Cook
….Those captains drove their ships
By their own blood, no laws of schoolbook steam,
Til yards were sprung, and masts went overboard-
Daemons in periwigs, doling magic out,
Who read fair alphabets in stars
Where humbler men found a mess of sparks.
Who steered their crews by mysteries
Slessor’s literary route was esteemed to say the least, if at times contradictory. His first poems were published in the Bulletin in 1919, and in the same year he joined the Sydney Sun as a graduate journalist. He wrote and contributed to other publications over his time such as Punch (where he met artist Joe Lynch – whose drowning inspired 5 Bells) Smith’s Weekly (at a time when Rosaleen Norton was contributing horror stories), and the Melbourne Herald amongst others.
From: 5 Bells
In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
Your angers too; they had been leached away
By the soft archery of summer rains
And the sponge paws of wetness, the slow damp
That stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
Having influential friends, colleagues and engaging dinner party partners, Slessor took Australian poetry somewhere new. This is a credit to his skill and desire to think and invent. His subject matter was very much Australian a lot of the time, some dedicated to regional settings, yet always with a twist here and a slash there he managed to bring further value to his already personal and poignant pen. Importantly in most of Slessor’s major works he is not intimidated by either a European cultural cringe (which must have been pervasive at the time), or the referred domestic pressure of unpacking of local pioneer myths and legends. Instead he manages to straddle this ground with originality and simplicity. “He raised all the problems about the relationship of the Australian poet to European culture” (TLS, 1976). Slessor expressed a “uniquely Australian language which so many Australian poets sought, and still seek” (TJS, 1976).
From: Beach Burial
“Unknown seaman” – the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of the wet season has washed their
As blue as drowned men’s lips
‘Australian-ness’ is elusive for many a writers and poets still. Some writers are still ashamed of it, others are overawed by trying too hard, punctuating work with nationalistic or nostalgic sentiment. Others still milk the clichés of popular myths with prawns on the barbeque, shearing sheep and endless roads, incorrectly assuming a loyal religiosity to such subjects from discerning readers, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Yet others are inspired by the endless supply of material in the Australian wilderness and landscape, sometimes folding Indigenous cultures in, again, assuming that introspective, lovely, self-indulgent descriptions of the functions of nature and the habits of birds will seal the deal and win Australian poetry prizes. Lamentably, in many cases and for aesthetic reasons I am yet to understand (I am not sure if I want to), this is correct. ‘Australian-ness’ and it’s worth, it’s palatability, it’s importance, is all a matter of taste, of course, leading us to an intractable debate around values and beliefs. A poetical, towering, figure that springs to mind is Les Murray, whose word combinations are sublime yet taste of the local earth. Deeper still, and managing to circumvent the usual traps that all writers and poets have fallen for in an attempt to capture that essence, is the lesser known Philip Hodgins (1959-1995). A local, Central Victorian, who lived in Bet Bet, near Maryborough, up until his death in 1995. Hodgins is well known for his poems on illness and hospitalisation. His poems about personal experience with a life on the land could have so easily been lame clichés, but he had the skill and grit to dig deeper with his observations, giving new life to subject matter that many have made plain. His legacy is mostly solid, insightful poetry and pieces weaving myths, symbols, and nature together in a classless, at times tough, and beautiful way.
A marked feature of Kenneth Slessor’s life was that he stopped writing poetry. He must have been sick to death of people asking him why. Imagine the time it must have taken for the message to disseminate through his circle of friends and associates, and beyond (…but why Ken? Why? Why? echo echo). Perhaps today there is a greater pressure to continue, greater pressure from product and turnover. Slessor certainly had nothing to prove by this time. There must have also been a sense of disappointment in the fan base, eliciting romance-rescue fantasies from fans and admirers (Imagine the headlines in the minds of those fans … ‘Love Gets Ken Back on Track’ or ‘Rhyme and Reason returns to Ken’s Pen’). Clementine Semmler, who wrote the forward to Slessor’s Selected Poems, claims he ceased writing poetry as an act of “self-criticism” because he felt he had “nothing more to say poetically” (Semmler, ix, 1944). Some argue Slessor lived his station as a respected poet as “a problem” and that he was “restricted by it” (TLS, 1976). I have read much of Slessor’s poetry and personally, I don’t care for a lot of it, especially the earlier works. Their themes aren’t attractive to me, and there are deliberate explosions (the sign of a writer experimenting and searching for a ‘voice’). I am, however, in awe at Slessor’s outstanding poems. Especially his signature works like 5 Bells, Beach Burial and Five Visions of Captain Cook. These are poems that can never be read often enough. Whatever the real reason Slessor stopped thinking and seeing things in this world as poetical challenges, he loved to write, suggesting that the category of poetry was too limiting for him. His war correspondence, it was suggested, “far outstrips Hemingway’s in the evocation of battle” (TLS, 1976). There is also, I suspect, the love of a working life in the mix, possibly being weighed against the worth of a “poet” in the world, especially after his experiences of WWII.
Some artists, like boxers, probably go on too long, yet this is their prerogative (cue images of Lester Ellis). “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” (TLS, 1976). Slessor showed honesty, integrity, and a sense of balanced professionalism when he decided that he had nothing left to say as a poet, maybe the fire wasn’t burning hot enough to begin with.
Neil Boyack is a poet, writer, welfare professional and commentator. He is also the founder and director of the Newstead Short Story Tattoo www.newsteadtattoo.org .
Check www.neilboyack.com for more.