It occurs to me that since I’m an English speaker this project focuses on poetry in English, and though I’m an American, I do give a fair amount over to it to poetry from England itself. But that said, even when I’m not working on a translation* some of that English language poetry is written by writers for whom English is a colonial language.
Irish writers certainly lead that contingent here. If only for Mr. Yeats, this is unavoidable. English language South Asian writers have appeared here too, though South Asian musical influences on me contribute more often. Jamaican Claude McKay reminds me of the easy intersection of colonialism and racism. Afro-American writing in general, even for the native-born American, is often concerned with the issues of colonialism, since it’s more than a metaphor to say that Afro-American communities are treated as colonies in America. If I offend or irritate some white readers with that statement, let me offer this question as a small balm: to what degree does American literature and American poetry, taken as a whole, have aspects of dealing with colonialism?
Those bearded Smith Brothers of American poetic independence Longfellow and Whitman both had to plead that American subjects and American civic ideals were worthy along with their verse. Emily Dickinson didn’t seem to care that she didn’t write quite like her British influences, but to not care in one’s independence is an anti-colonialist stance inherently, isn’t it? Even into my century, Eliot and Pound got to have the immigrants’ revenge: to sit in Europe and reform poetry in English, while obscuring their Missouri and Wisconsin roots. The eventual 20th century American hegemony obscures this accomplishment, but I’ve got to hand it to those two cheeky fellows.
So, who’s left out in the former English colonies here? It seems odd that I haven’t found an in-the-public-domain Canadian to present, given that I live in Minnesota—or Baja Canada as it’s been called. A single Leonard Cohen parody doesn’t seem to be enough. Well how about Australia? Irish-New Zealander-Australian-American quadruple bank-shot Lola Ridge can’t cover all this by herself! Well, there is one other, one that I’ll present again today: Kenneth Slessor.
Does this look like a sensualist to you? Kenneth Slessor, shipboard “With my hands in my pockets and my coat collar high”
What would one have to overcome to be a Modernist Australian poet in the first half of the 20th century? As an American I can only guess. For starters, remoteness would be a significant issue. These days, when I post around midnight here in the American Midwest, folks read these posts in Australia right off in their afternoon before my North American neighbors have awakened. But 100 years ago? As an American I can suspect there was little interest in London literary circles in that time about what they might be missing in the antipodes. If the Irish, descendants of enslaved Africans and Bengalis had to worry about being seen as inferior human species, the descendants of European settlers in America and Australia had the lower but still significant prejudices that they were rubes from the sticks who didn’t know enough to do anything worthwhile.
I’m not going to say that Slessor is Yeats, Pound, or Eliot to the world, nor is he Tagore to his homeland. I said this month you might not have heard of Lola Ridge, but I’ll guess Slessor is even less well-known to world-wide English speakers. He doesn’t seem to have had a particularly interesting life. There aren’t juicy stories about who he rubbed elbows or other bodily parts with. His poetic output is modest: his career poetry collection published in Australia is 100 poems. As far as his typewriter’s mileage reports show, he was a working daily journalist for most of his life, though that includes a very important to his poetry stint as the official embedded Australian journalist to cover his country’s participation in WWII.**
I don’t know how many of his poems are as remarkable as “Sensuality.” As I’ve apologized this month, my scholarship, such as it is, includes a shocking lack of wide/deep reading. What little scholarship I’ve read on Slessor doesn’t even care much for this poem of his. I may have a bad or non-representative taste, but to me it’s a remarkable poem formally, emotionally intense, and for an apparently heterosexual middle-class male the just-as-it-says-on-the-tin sensuality of it (expressed within the Modernist manner of largely avoiding labeled emotion-words) still surprises. I suspect that’s part of the poem’s lack of esteem problem, for even if it’s entirely Modernist in it’s word-music; Imagism and the Modernism that followed most often reduces the senses to sight with a side-dish of sounds. Taste, smell, and touch are numbed. If one of the singular symptoms of Covid-19*** is that taste and smell go away, then poetry has been suffering from this for a long time. Sight seems high ruler of sense in much poetry, the intellectual sense allied with visual art, reading and higher learning. So, a poem without that seems to have failed in presenting compelling images. I joke here a lot about the patriarchal assumptions positing “lady brains” that are not up to vigorous art, and yet now I must suggest that the male sensorium of a lot of English-language poetry is lacking in being able to draw meaning in from most of the senses.
It’s been more than 10 years since I first encountered Slessor’s “Sensuality,” and the performance of it I present today is from shortly after I came upon it. Open yourself to feeling it as you read the text linked here, or listen to my performance of it with the player gadget below.
*As I am right now: one from German, one from French—as well as catching up on some overdue work with a small circle of poets who’ve read each others’ work for some decades now.
**I’m not certain, but “Sensuality” may have been written during that WWII stint. Some of the imagery (“Boilers and bells” “Petrol and sea”) make me think of the closed-in setting of a troop ship. If so, this poem bears a kinship to one of the most popular pieces in this entire project, my revised version of Rupert Brooke’s fragment about being on a troop ship heading to a WWI rendezvous with the doomed ANZAC landing at Gallipoli.
***The phrase in “Sensuality” about “touching Plague” has a currency today. If Covid-19 takes away taste and smell for some of those who get it, our necessary preventions take away touch too.