LITERATURE - AUSTRALIAN - KENNETH SLESSOR - REVIEW
Book Review Feb-March
1991, pp. 34-35.
Geoffrey Dutton will
not concentrate. Information relevant to his subject reminds him of
other tidbits, as in this cascade of irrelevancies. McKee Wright
deserves the credit for having first published Slessor, and he published
a remarkable number of women poets. However, some of his favourites
among the latter might have been better left in obscurity. Marie E. J.
Pitt, for example, in the issue for 10 July 1919:
‘midnight’, incidentally, is the old usage sanctified by Tennyson
‘Night hath climbed her peak of highest noon.’)
In a biography of
Slessor, Dutton should have made the first comma a full stop, unless the
point was to let us know that Dutton knows his Tennyson.
Dutton is no stranger
to self-control. In discussing the name of a boarding house mentioned in
‘Five Bells”, he stops just short of a history of the National
So busy does he become
supplying us with wayward trivia that he forgets which ones he has
already provided. Christopher Koch’s tenuous connection with the
aforementioned boarding house is told twice, as are the death of Ruby
Lindsay and Slessor’s practice of hiring a boat during the Christmas
On other occasions,
Dutton is so anxious to provide us with the breadth of his experience
that he misrepresents the material upon which he wants to hang his hat.
The Adelaide Register in 1923 accused Vision
of containing language that “would shock if merely scribbled on the
fence of a bush pub.” Dutton comments parenthetically at the
improbability of so genteel a public house: “What, no four-letter
words?” Obscenities might have been used around the bar but no, not
scribbled on the outside fence.
Had Dutton collated his
comments on Douglas Stewart’s critical remarks about Slessor’s
verse, there would have been no reason for yet more amazement at
Stewart’s inability to comprehend the theme of “time”. For all
Stewart’s eloquence on Slessor’s use of “bubbles” as a verb,
Dutton is the surer guide to the poems and the life.
Where Stewart was
inclined to see Normal Lindsay as a positive influence on Slessor,
Dutton is aware that something was wrong with the sage of Springwood but
lacks the subtlety to appreciate Lindsay’s attractiveness for male
Lindsay is always full
of surprises. Who would have thought that he was so familiar with Donne
that he would casually use a phrase from the Third Satire at the end of
his letter …?
The answer is anyone
who had done his homework. Because Dutton remains surprised at
Lindsay’s talents, his importance for Slessor’s development is left
at accusations about holding the poet back from his full achievement.
Dutton labels the
present work a biography, having analysed the verse in a earlier book
for an educational publisher. Dutton reminds us of what other critics
have missed. He is able to quote himself saying so.
ability to perceive more than most, Dutton is an uncertain guide. If
Stewart was dim-witted about Time, Dutton exposes his own superficiality
by attempt to link “Five Bells” with the current fad for chaos.
compounds Dutton’s difficulties. In discussing the unpublished
“Ophelia”, he writes that Slessor “had been looking at
Pre-Raphaelite paintings? Where had he seen originals in 1919? Dutton
does not ell us. Perhaps he meant reproductions?
The treatment of
Slessor’s style would have been improved if Dutton had paid more
attention to what he was writing. As a youth, Slessor learned
“Patience” and a lot of other Gilbert and Sullivan by heart. Further
down the same page, we are told that Slessor’s headmaster stressed
“analysis of rhythm and metre, the interweaving of vowels and
constants to establish the sound of poetry, and the poet’s search for
the mot juste”. Dutton concludes that these concerns “are all
intensely relevant to Slessor’s work.” Indeed, they are, but they
can also be learned from G&S, a possibility which Dutton cannot
consider because it opens the question of how we should interpret
Slessor’s commitment to comic verse.
Dutton worries a lot
about why Slessor stopped publishing, blaming the lack of critical
support. Is any torrent of praise ever sufficient for a poet? Dutton is
indignant that “the first significant essay on Slessor should have to
wait until 1939!” And yet 1939 was the first year in which Slessor
published an indisputably significant poem, “Five Bells”.
The problem of
Slessor’s silence needs to be stood on its feet. How did someone with
so limited an output acquire so great a reputation? One of the three
missing chapters in Dutton’s biography is an inventory of the inflated
assets of Slessor Promotions Pty Ltd. Other themes in need of
exploration are a study of Smith’s
Weekly to match Sylvia Lawson’s account of Archibald’s Bulletin as a print circus, and an even less hearty consideration of
Slessor’s sex life.
Dutton faces up to
Slessor’s failure as a husband, a father, a lover, as editor of Southerly
and in some respects as a war correspondent, but not as a poet.