Kenneth Slessor , selected Poems: Texts and Human experieriences
Kenneth Slessor’s suite of poetry delves into the complexities of the human experience; focusing on our insecurities, the anguishes associated with living, the questions which remain, but also how the viscerality of feeling pain and doubt reminds us that we are human. His images are vivid and immediate, leaping off the page in a confrontational way to transport us into various settings through various explicit and anonymous personas in order to invite us to challenge presumptions and engage in a process of introspection – what does it mean to be human and to experience emotions that may be unsettling?
His poetry represents individual and collective human experiences by tapping into universal feelings that we all share as well as zeroing in on specific personal subjectivities. He captures the passing of time, a sense of discomfort and the reduction of humanity to its vulnerabilities while also revealing our perseverance and grit. He urges us to see the world differently by not retreating from the ugly, the sordid and the unpleasant but rather to acknowledge that it exists. His poetry sheds light on human motivation and behaviour as a way of highlighting the paradoxes and anomalies present within the experience of living.
“Wild Grapes” embodies a tone of decrepit abandonment, evoking images of overgrowing unkempt vines sprawling and reaching out through a now unattended orchard. While it visually conveys the image of despondence, it articulates the idea of passing time; creating a haunting memory of lost potential and the unsettling human experience of lingering regret.
We are immediately confronted with a setting that is not supposed to be pleasant. The orchard is old and “full of smoking air.” Here Slessor creates a visceral taste of bitterness; a hazy obscurity that metaphorically and physically settles upon the orchard. The “sour marsh” and “broken boughs” adds to decrepit surroundings now infertile and unsuited for growing fruit. Slessor transports us into the wet, murky undergrowth in order to accentuate a lack of hope – the grounds are unsalvageable having already fallen into obscurity. He points towards the idea that the orchard was once well tended to and pruned by families long gone. These families themselves have been buried deep down under the swampy marsh – “drowned,” evoking a feeling of suffocation that has replaced the flourishing sense of life that had once characterised the orchard. The fruit is bitter, it is both literally and figuratively hard to swallow; symbolic of the inherent human experience of regret and despair. However, the gentle rhyme of air/ there/ care lends a musicality to the first stanza and softens the harshness of the content.
The first two lines in Stanza Two brings us into the past where the orchard once held bourgeoning life of cherries and apples, full of hope and promise – bright and almost incandescent. Time has passed as now, not a single apple or a cherry remains. The semi colon pushes us into the present, the use of terse literal language is blunt and abrupt, shaking us out of the pleasant imagery established in the first two lines of the stanza. The wild Isabella grapes are characterised as almost deadly, like small bullets, black and pointed.
The imagery turns darker, untamed and cannibalistic – the grapes are described with animalistic characteristics; furry and rather threatening. They burst with acid and the shock of the taste almost stings but is however, compounded by its gipsy-sweetness. The poet is referring to the girl too, the memory of Isabella herself lingers and lurks alongside the Isabella grapes. Her memory leaves the same aftertaste as the fruit, it remains “defiantly” while she is dead. The word “defiant” gives a sense of determination and tenacity. The grapes also remain long after people have moved on and gone away – nature continues to dominate. Here we are left with an image of emptiness with the orchard being a place that even swallows have abandoned. This articulates an unsettling stillness and an all too unnatural quietness. Swallows, migratory birds which ordinarily return to their nests annually and mate for life do not “stir” in the old orchard. The stagnancy of the orchard is unnerving and almost nightmarish, reinforcing the potent human experience of hopelessness and dread.
The grapes are described as being misplaced, like the girl herself, existing in the peripheral of society; shunned and outlawed. There is a paradox in the “harsh sweetness” of the grapes, accentuating a gentleness that is simultaneously grating.The synecdoche of “dark hair swinging and silver pins” gives an abstract depiction of the girl. It provides a snatch and glimpse of her that is incomplete and perhaps not very accurate. Thus, an ambiguity characterises the poem, lending it a sort of murkiness and ambivalence. The girl is “half-fierce, half-melting” her image strengthening, becoming vivid and also receding; slinking away. The poet questions her fate – whether she was kissed or killed there, he does not know. Either way, such an image is charged with passion but is completely contradictory – “kiss” connotes affection and love while “kill” suggests sinister intent. Here memory is questioned – how could something so different become so blurred; almost melting into the same thing? Here lies the inconsistency of human experience, the uncertainty that surroundings us and the unreliability of truth.
“Gulliver” is written in a dramatic monologue form, and uses an allusion and extended metaphor of the narrator as the protagonist of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and imagery of imprisonment to dwell on the pain and discomfort of human experience.
Slessor compares being human to being incarcerated – using paradoxical imagery of prisons to give insight into the pains of human existence. He says that even if a person is free, they are trapped by the very materials that constitute the body – the visceral imagery of “sinews” and “nerve” and “bone” introduces this idea.
The idea of human experience being inherently a prison is further evoked through the imagery of incarceration. The symbols of “walls”, “dungeon”, “tyranny”, “dock” and “manacles” represents things that restrict physical movement and personal autonomy. The word “tyranny” is used in the phrase “tyranny of sinews” and “rope” is used with the phrase “hundred ropes of nerve and bone” – a reference to Gulliver being tied down by the tiny Lilliputian people in the book Gulliver’s Travels. Which is perhaps a clever way of saying that we are prisoners to the tiny versions of ourselves in our minds that make us obsess over our insecurities and frailties.
The uncommon connection between the figurative meaning evoked by imagery of the body and imagery of incarceration is an effective way of Slessor to push his point that no one, individually or collectively, is free from the mind-forged manacles of our psychology and physiology.
The dramatic monologue – shown using the word “I” and the focus on the persona’s subjective experience – is a way for Slessor to put the reader into the perspective of the narrator, making the feelings of pain and visceral imagery of “I’ll kick your walls to bits, I’ll die scratching a tunnel” more immediate.
The changing emphasis and irregularity of the rhyme throughout the poem creates a sense of urgency, giving the dramatic monologue the quality of an unhinged rant, which parallels the imagery of idea of the chaos and fear and pain of embodied human experience
The repetition of “too” in “stuff too cheap, and strings too many” emphasizes the disdain and the frustration of the persona who seems overcome by the physical and psychic pain of existing as a human.
The many prisons of human experience are highlighted explicitly through the use of cumulation in “Love, hunger, drunkenness, neuralgia, debt, Cold weather, hot weather, sleep and age” – as he begins to try to encapsulate the many, varied things that Slessor claims causes pain.
The rhetorical question of “but what can you do with the hairs?” is then indirectly answered by the jarring, paradoxical statement of “for God’s sake, call the hangman” suggesting that the only freedom from the many pains of human existence is death.
Out of Time
Slessor represents the human experience of time in “Out of Time” on several levels, weaving from abstract metaphors to natural imagery. He attempts to capture the subjective human experience of a time passing rushing our consciousness to oblivion, and the paradoxical feeling of eternity and immorality in the moment.
This paradox challenges our assumptions about time being experienced by humans as a constant – and is primarily shown through the personification of “Time” and the “Moment” as forces in conflict. This personification is suggested by the capitalization. Time is depicted as unrelenting, violent and destructive through the imagery of “the bony knife” and “takes me”, “drills me”, and “drives through blood and vein” and the repetition of “me” highlights the subjective and negative experience of time, emphasizes Slessor’s idea that time is what wears our physical bodies down.
The Moment is then presented by Slessor as an opposing force to time. The persona of the poem finds comfort with the Moment in the personified “I and the moment laugh,” and “leaning against his golden undertow”. The violent imagery associated with Time is contrasted to the positive and warm imagery of golden and the imagery of “sweet meniscus”. The imagery used for the Moment evokes growth and life, providing the reader with a tonal difference and respite from the unrelenting symbolism of death at the start of the stanza in the haunting imagery of “pale and faceless host” and “funeral, to be ghost”.
The repetition of the rhythm and rhyme in “dark and light”, “Nows and Heres”, “mistress might”, “million years” – creates a chanting, meditative quality, suspending the feeling of the poem rushing forward, providing the reader a brief respite and making them feel a seeming Moment of eternity.
The repetition of “-less” and the resonance of the repeated ‘e’ sounds in “fleshless and ageless, changeless and made free” links the words and their underlying concepts, which Slessor uses to suggest the ability for the Moment to liberate the persona from Time, and grant the persona, the reader and consequently humanity – a fleeting but true sense of immortality.
The personification and symbol of the heart, crying “Fool, would you leave this country?” is a way for Slessor to explore the desires of humans who want to be free from the ravages of time and mortality.
However, the repetition of the line “And Time flows past them like a hundred yachts” that is introduced at the start of the poem brings the reader back to the harsh truth, that time is unrelenting and while moments may offer brief respite, it seems that as always “the body dies and rots”, striking at an anxiety at the core of human experience – the impending doom that time brings us closer to death.
Out of all the poems presented in this unit, Beach Burial most belies Slessor’s experiences as a war correspondent – explicitly exploring the human experience of war through a depiction of an aftermath of conflict.
The repetition of the ‘wa’ and ‘der’ sound in ‘sway and wander in the waters far under’ evokes the sense of the tides lapping the beach, immersing the responder in the sense of space. By using this imagery of melancholy and stillness he creates a setting for the reader to reflect on the human experiences of loss of life and the collective experiences of the futility of war.
This melancholic tone is further highlighted by the personification of ‘sob and clubbing’ of the gunfire. It is the only mention of violence in the whole poem, before the focus of the poem shifts to the unknown figure who is burying the bodies on the beach. The use of indirect, gentle language evinced in the verbs of ‘pluck them from the shallows’ and ‘tread the sand upon their nakedness’ instead of using the words ‘drag’ or ‘dig’ reflects Slessor’s larger intention of writing about spaces between and after conflict – paradoxical for a war poem, suggesting that the loss and destruction is more keenly felt after, rather than during, the conflict.
The symbols of ‘blue’ and ‘purple’ further stir a strong sense of loss both in an objective level, but emotionally. Blue represents sadness and purple, used in the Catholic church during Lent, represents holiness and reverence for the dead. By using this highly emotive language and symbolism, Slessor uses sadness to challenge our understanding of conflict. In doing so he brings us a strong, evocative subjective experience of war that can allow us to consider the futility of conflict that costs human life.
The shift in language and rhythm – and the use of a blunt expository style and varying line lengths – in the last stanza, challenges the reader. The responder, like Slessor, snaps out of the lapping, gentle quality of the previous stanzas, and is faced with a direct commentary on the futility of war. Without the push and pull of syllables in the previous stanzas, the sentences become more speech-like, Consider “dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall’ and the brusque and clipped rhythm of ‘Enlisted on the other front’. The narrative has changed voice drastically, depriving it of music, giving it more authority – and we are faced with a direct comment on humanity’s futile and terrible relationship to war.
Vesper-Song of the Reverend Samuel Marsden
The title of this piece the “Vesper song of the Reverend Samuel Marsden” is another example of Slessor using dramatic monologue from the perspective of a troubled persona. Meaning is layered through the use of highly disturbing and connotative language – and presents through irony the human experience of the abuse of power and the potential for sadistic behaviour.
The word “vesper” is an old word for evening or the evening prayer, creating a sense of irony, because the persona of Samuel Marsden is using the vehicle of prayer to express a sadistic pleasure in inflicting punishment of sinners. In the poem Marsden is appealing to his god, asking to flog those who have wronged him.
The jarring use of song-like lyric in the regular rhythms of the poem, highlights the disturbing nature of the persona’s desires. By claiming in the title that it is a prayer-song and giving the poetry a melodic, sing-song quality, the responders expectations are challenged and unsettled when confronted with imagery of whipping and damnation.
The insertion or religious connotative language in “sacramental”, “Paradise” and the play on the words in “Have graved another Testament” and the farcical, disturbing image of “A scarlet Grace for holy meat” illuminates the persona’s twisted and sadistic idea of religious righteousness.
The rhetorical questions in the symbolism of the priest as a cobbler, saving the souls, and metaphorically the soles of those who “wear the boots of Hell” claiming “shall I not welt a soul as well”. The multiple meanings of welt – as in fix – can also refer to the welts that emerge from a beating.
The visceral imagery of “jewelled blood repeat” is jarring when it is next to highly loaded, religious language – and again Slessor uses contrast to highlight this disconnect between the intentions of Samuel Marsden and the grace and compassion that we usually expect of holy figures.
By presenting this dramatic monologue – Slessor challenges our idea about the motivations of people in power and those who are saying they are acting on God’s behalf. The paradox of a member of the clergy who would prefer to whip the damned but still uses the words of the Good Book and God is an indictment to the human experiences of abuses of institutional power.
“William Street” is Slessor’s way of representing human experiences of urban living especially in the chaos of the 30s. He challenges our assumptions about city life and invites us to reflect personally on images that we may previously have negative associations with. He does this through a clever presentation of his rich experiences and subjective perspective of William Street on Kings Cross. The constant refrain of “you find this ugly, I find it lovely” and the structure of juxtaposing positive and negative, urban and pastoral assist him in doing so.
Slessor uses elemental imagery to draw links and attempt to destroy the demarcations between the human-made and “artificial” features of a city, and natural objects. The “red globe of light” and the “liquor green” is a multifaceted symbol of lights and energy and action – suggesting the vices of drinking and consuming sex work- are actually a beating heart and flowing energy of a city spilt on “stones” and that go “deeper than a stream”.
The confronting phantom of death conjured by the imagery and simile of “Ghosts’ trousers, like the dangle of hungmen” is then followed by the strong assertion that “none inside to suffer or condemn;” saying to the responder that there is nothing to fear.
By confronting the readers with death imagery and dismissing the power of it, and revealing a certain peace in non-existence, Slessor furthers his jarring idea of the beauty to be found in what many consider the “ugliness” of city living.
The lively evocations in the rhyme and repetition of “rich and rasping” paired with the constant and comforting rhythm of “smoke and fat and fish” and then finished with “puffs of paraffin” gives life to the mundane and often unpleasant physical sensations that the persona encounters on William Street. The religious connotation of the word “blesses” before the repeated refrain of “You find this ugly, I find it lovely” challenges our assumptions about the sights, smells and sounds of city life.
In the final stanza, he explores the human characters and agents of the city in the “dips” (pickpockets) and “molls” (sex workers) in Kings Cross. While the connotations of death and hunger in “death at their elbows, hunger at their heels” are striking, Slessor uses pastoral imagery through the words “ranging” and “pasturage” in a jarring and wry way to challenge the reader – suggesting that these people are just the natural inhabitants of William Street and they must do these things to survive, like livestock grazing in a pasture – and challenges the reader, again in the refrain, to find beauty in the urban and justify the morality of activities in the city. Australian readers with experiences of the bush poetry that preceded the modernist poets like Slessor may find this jarring use of pastoral imagery particularly effective and humorous – the challenging of human experiences of aesthetic on a meta-textual level.
Slessor’s personal experiences with the city life are used to challenge the reader’s personal experience – inviting them to have another perspective on the human experience of city life as an individual and also collectively.