Reading Australia: 'One Hundred Poems: 1919–1939' by Kenneth Slessor

Peter Kirkpatrick Wednesday, 10 June 2015
Published in Reading Australia

People who go in for the arts are often advised Don’t give up your day job. But what’s a suitable day job for a poet? A century ago many Australian poets made a meagre living as freelance writers for newspapers and magazines. Some even took up journalism full-time, writing their verses on the side. The old Bulletin, one of the wellsprings of Australian literature, was populated by them. But, as most newspapers ceased publishing poems, by the 1930s the careers of poet and journalist began increasingly to seem like strange bedfellows. The combination was no more strange or contradictory than in the case of Kenneth Slessor (1901–1971).

As a poet-journalist Slessor reported on his beloved home town, Sydney, in numerous poems. Among the most well-known – not least because it’s been a favourite of high school curricula – is ‘William Street’, which evokes the thoroughfare leading up to Kings Cross; as louche a locale in 1939, when the poem was written, as it is today:

The dips and molls, with flip and shiny gaze
(Death at their elbows, hunger at their heels)
Ranging the pavements of their pasturage;
You find it ugly, I find it lovely.

C.J. Dennis had humorously celebrated the larrikin in The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915), but that Slessor could perceive beauty in the urban underclass, in the ‘dips’ (pickpockets) and prostitutes of Kings Cross, was something new in Australian poetry, so obsessed as much of it had been with images of hearty bushmen and sunlit plains. Yet Slessor allowed these people their ‘pasturage’ in this least pastoral place, recognising that there was human grace here too, sharply outlined by the ever-present prospects of death and privation.

‘that Slessor could perceive beauty in the urban underclass, in the ‘dips’ (pickpockets) and prostitutes of Kings Cross, was something new in Australian poetry’

As a younger poet, however, Slessor was less in love with Sydney, and less in love with journalism: like all day jobs, it got in the way of his poetry. At the age of twenty-two he wrote to his sometime mentor, the artist Norman Lindsay, ‘It becomes daily harder for me to arrange some suitable mental excuse or compromise for being on a newspaper’. He worked at the former Sydney Sun at the time, but was also heavily involved with Lindsay, his son Jack, and the publisher Frank Johnson in establishing Vision (192324), a literary magazine dedicated to nothing less than an Australian Renaissance. All bush ballads were to be banished, along with any mention of shearers, drovers or gumtrees. In their place the Visionaries substituted a delirious costume party of satyrs and centaurs, pierrots and pirates, mermaids and magnificos: supposedly ‘universal’ figures representing Life-with-a-capital-L and Art-with-a-capital-A unbounded by history or nationality. Slessor later claimed that he never adhered to the Lindsays’ elitist philosophy, but ‘Winter Dawn’ from 1924 indicates what he really thought of the Sun’s readership back then:

O buried dolls, O men sleeping invisible there,
I stare above your mounds of stone, lean down,
Marooned and lonely in this bitter air,
And in one moment deny your frozen town.

(Whatever you think of the sentiments, savour the vowels here – especially the o’s – nudging around those viscous n’s. Like his revered Tennyson, Slessor was a musician of language.)

Kenneth Slessor, Backless Betty, Angus & Robertson, 1983Backless Betty from Bondi, illustrated by Virgil Reilly, Frank Dunne and Joan Morrison (Angus & Robertson, 1983)

In 1924 Slessor moved south to work on the humorous magazine Melbourne Punch, but he didn’t enjoy his time in that city, calling it ‘this mastodon of bleeding stone’. He returned to Sydney in 1926, and by 1927 was installed at Smith’s Weekly, a brash new kind of newspaper that resembled what we’d now think of as a men’s magazine, with an emphasis on humour, sport and sensationalism. Known as ‘The Diggers’ Paper’, Smith’s was also dedicated to returned servicemen, and played a major role in creating the Anzac legend. Here Slessor found his ideal métier, taking pleasure in Smith’s racy bohemian atmosphere while keeping a fastidious distance from its wilder expressions. Here too he became court poet, being called on to produce popular verses on all manner of occasions. What became the Darlinghurst Nights series began in this way, and writing these jazzy rhymes of everyday life gave him a more down-to-earth perspective on Sydney – as in ‘Pay-Day’, from 1928:

Let’s blow all our bullion at Woolworth’s,
Or laze in the lounge like an earl –
Get thoroughly reckless and purchase a necklace
With pearls that might really be pearl.
We’re off in a cab to Romano’s
With rajahs too haughty to speak –
And nobody guesses that Payday Princesses
Eat kippers the rest of the week.

Here was one way to make lyric poetry move with the times; there would be others. Slessor was chief film reviewer for Smith’s Weekly, and Philip Mead believes this led him to animate the static imagery of his early verse, influenced by the ‘concrete image’ of Norman Lindsay, into a more modern ‘cinematic’ style. In ‘Last Trams’ the sequence of house windows glimpsed at night from a passing tramcar are like the frames of a film:

So through the moment’s needle-eye,
Like phantoms in the window-chink,
Their faces brush you as they fly,
Fixed in the shutters of a blink.

On a much larger scale, ‘Five Visions of Captain Cook’ unfolds as a series of short, quirky documentaries. Though it looks like a ‘national’ poem – ‘so Cook sailed westabout, / So men write poems in Australia’ – the explorer is an elusive, almost supernatural figure: a periwigged daemon, ‘doling magic out’. Finally, however, in death he dwindles to a tale endlessly retold by a crewmate, the blind ancient mariner Alexander Home, which Slessor presents through a series of dissolves between Berwickshire and the South Seas: ‘His body moved / In Scotland, but his eyes were dazzle-full / Of skies and water farther round the world.’

Living in and around Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, Slessor’s own eyes were often ‘dazzle-full’ of Sydney Harbour. In a 1952 prose ‘Portrait of Sydney’ he wrote:

The water is like silk, like pewter, like blood, like a leopard’s skin, and occasionally merely like water. Its pigments run into themselves, from amber and aquamarine through cobalt to the deep and tranquil molasses of a summer midnight. Sometimes it dances with flakes of fire, sometimes it is blank and anonymous with fog, sometimes it shouts as joyously as a mirror.

‘Yes’, observed Herman Melville in the opening of Moby-Dick, ‘as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.’ Water is certainly a central motif in Slessor’s poetry. So prevalent are seas, coasts, and beaches in it, in fact, that Jeffrey Poacher has called it a ‘drowned world’, in which ‘metaphors of drowning … represent intense episodes of memory or imagination’. As a journalist, Slessor could link time and tide (they once meant the same thing) to the passing parade of daily life, and Sydney Harbour appears in many of his best poems. It shimmers in the background of ‘Elegy in a Botanic Gardens’ in the ‘thousands of white circles drifting past, / Cold suns in water’; it lies ‘like a sky that no one uses, / Air turned to stone’ in ‘Waters’; or it is as insistent as time itself, ‘piercing, like the quince-bright, bitter slats / Of sun gone thrusting under Harbour’s hair’, in ‘Out of Time’. And it is front and centre in two masterworks, ‘Captain Dobbin’ and ‘Five Bells’.

Poems A  R 1971 reprint smallerPoems (Angus & Robertson reprint, 1971)

For Captain Dobbin, a retired sea dog based on an uncle of Slessor’s first wife, the ships of Sydney Harbour now hang ‘suspended in the pane’ of his window as he watches them ‘Lugged down the port like sea-beasts taken alive’. The inveterate old mariner can’t help taking down their details, though, noting also the weather and tides, as if there was some underlying purpose in their arrivals and departures. Slessor, in turn, tries to find meaning in Dobbin, whose voyaging is now confined to his maps and library, ‘a chest of mummied waves, / Gales fixed in print’. What was it that attracted Slessor – a dapper, rather dandyish dresser who favoured bowties – to the grizzled Captain with his ‘eye of wild and wispy scudding blue’? No doubt he embodied the square-rigged heroism of old-fashioned sailing ships, so recently displaced by steam. Or perhaps it’s the free-spirited manhood that sea-faring represented for a desk-bound, domesticated journalist. We’re inclined to imagine that masculinity has only lately been ‘in crisis’ but, like others of his literary generation, Slessor was troubled by the impact of modern life, regulated by clocks and the rectilinear conformity of the suburbs, on the prospect of a life more richly lived. Indeed, Kate Lilley has suggested that by ‘projecting himself backwards’ in so many poems, ‘Slessor is mourning the apparent extinction not simply of the past, but specifically the past as vanished masculinity.’

The Captain foreshadows the very different hero of ‘Five Bells’, the roistering wild boy Joe Lynch. Slessor had worked with Joe, a cartoonist, on Melbourne Punch, and subsequently on Smith’s Weekly, where Lynch was the youngest member of the art staff. On the evening of Saturday, 14 May 1927, Joe fell overboard from a ferry en route to a party – whether by accident or design is still a matter for conjecture. Slessor may not have been close to Joe in life – it took him ten years to complete ‘Five Bells’ – but he sidles up to him in death, trying to understand how memory can seem to reanimate the dead into fragmentary being. Cinematic images of Joe play out in the poet’s mind ‘Between the double and the single bell / Of a ship’s hour’ marking 10:30 at night, and the poem is a meditation on the relativity of time as experienced by human consciousness compared to the fixed increments of the clock, the ‘Time that is moved by little fidget wheels’. But Slessor is also like Walter Benjamin’s backward-looking Angel of History, seeking desperately to put the shattered past together again, and by reassembling its pieces to find some kind of meaning in the disorder of modern life. Inevitably, though, that life continues to propel the poet into the future:

I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The Nothing that was neither long nor short;
But I was bound, and could not go that way,
But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.

The light verse that Slessor wrote for Smith’s Weekly is full of people – usually young flappers – but elsewhere his poetry is strangely unpopulated, especially after the Vision carnival passed by. Captain Cook, Captain Dobbin and Joe Lynch haunt rather than fully inhabit the poems dedicated to them, becoming ‘guessed-at ghosts’, to lift a phrase from another poem. But the most haunted places in Slessor’s work are his rural landscapes. Even ‘Country Towns’, for all its nostalgic humour, is so inundated by its past as to be wholly, if blissfully, comatose. Elsewhere the empty, uncanny bush hides a history of ecological and human violence. ‘North Country’ teeters into gothic: here the forests of ringbarked and felled trees resemble a massacre site, ‘a fool’s battue’ (the image is of a shooting party with beaters, or the slaughter thus produced), so that the timber industry which sustains the ‘butter-works and railway-stations / And public institutions’ seems to be dripping with sap like blood. Unidentified murder might also have taken place in the Monaro high plains of ‘South Country’, with the ‘dwindled hills’ emerging like ‘a knob of skull’, ‘rebellious, buried, pitiful’, under the great arch of sky with its ‘Bruised flesh of thunderstorms’. These extraordinary pieces are among the first modern poems to hint at the cost of white settlement.

Selected Poems Angus & Robertson modern poets 1994Selected Poems (Angus & Robertson modern poets series, 1994)

Never prolific and always pernickety, Slessor garnered his best work as One Hundred Poems in 1944; with the addition of three extra pieces, it reappeared as Poems in 1957, and subsequently as Selected Poems. Though his manuscripts show that he still attempted to write poetry, nothing new was published after ‘Polarities’ in 1948, an artistic silence that his biographer, Geoffrey Dutton, among others, have put down to a deep-seated despair coupled with the enervations of middle-age. Certainly he’d had an unhappy Second World War. Recruited from ‘The Diggers’ Paper’, at first he relished his appointment as Official War Correspondent, but conflicts with the military authorities proved so unpleasant that he eventually resigned. Other than ‘An Inscription for Dog River’, which mocks the pretensions of General Blamey, and the exquisite ‘Beach Burial’, Slessor relinquished his role as witness to history. Instead, he returned to the Sun and to the local beat, later transferring to Sir Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph, where he wrote conservative editorials to order, as well as unprompted and encouraging reviews of young radical poets.

Most poets write more than is worth reading. Maybe Slessor thought that he had said enough in that way. Or perhaps he thought there were other things to be getting on with, the pleasures of the table not least among them. With fellow bon vivants, late in life he formed the Condiments Club, dedicated to fine dining and extensive drinking. ‘To Myself’ from 1930 concludes with a picture of his foppish English great-uncle, Harry Trower – ‘the Great Harry’ he calls him – who left behind him only ‘The memory of a cravat, a taste in cheese, / And a way of saying “I am honoured”’. But good style always counted with Slessor, so that:

Such things, when men and beasts have gone,
Smell sweetly to the seraphim.
Believe me, fool, there are worse gifts than these.

References

Benjamin, Walter. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ in Illuminations. trans Harry Zohn, ed, Hannah Arendt, Schocken, 1969.
Dutton, Geoffrey. Kenneth Slessor: A Biography. Viking, 1991.
Haskell, Dennis. ‘Hyperborea vs Uninteresting Facts: Kenneth Slessor’s Journalism in the Early 1920s,’ Southerly 52.4, 1992.
Haskell, Dennis, and Geoffrey Dutton, eds. Kenneth Slessor: Collected Poems. Angus & Robertson, 1994.
Lilley, Kate. ‘“Living Backward”: Slessor and Masculine Elegy,’ in Kenneth Slessor: Critical Readings. ed. Philip Mead, UQP, 1997.
Mead, Philip. Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry. Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Harper & Brothers, 1851.
Poacher, Jeffrey. ‘The Drowned World of Kenneth Slessor,’ Australian Literary Studies 20.1, 2001.
Slessor, Kenneth. Bread and Wine: Selected Prose. Angus & Robertson, 1970.
Slessor, Kenneth. Darlinghurst Nights. Angus & Robertson, 1933.
Slessor, Kenneth. Selected Poems. Angus & Robertson, 1993.

Published in Reading Australia

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