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TEXT ‘SLEEP’ � KENNETH SLESSOR


1. The Context in which the piece was composed and the intended Purpose and Audience.


It has been said that Kenneth Slessor’s work basically falls into three consecutive periods, beginning with the first in pre 0th century Australia where poetry was dominated by images taken directly from the convict experience and from the struggles of pioneers carving out their lives in the Australian bush. It was at this time that Slessor’s poetry was dominantly concerned with legend, history and fantasy. The second period of work was a transitional stage where Slessor developed a more modernist approach to expressing his ideas, and started to concentrate his work on topics that his readers could relate to more easily. In the third period of Slessor’s poetic career Sleep was created. Sleep uses Slessor’s fully developed themes and techniques to create contemporary and vivid images with change, the passing of time and impermanence referred to throughout it.


Historically, Sleep was written at a time when Kenneth Slessor had turned his vision from the bush to the city for inspiration. Slessor aimed Sleep at an audience longing for sensual images out of ordinary things they could relate to. Australia had become almost accustomed to reading celebrations of the Australian landscape. Slessor knew that post-war Australia in the 150s and 160s was in need of a heightened consciousness that focused on a new reality. Poets turned away from the social forces, which consumed Australian society in a post-war reconstruction boom that emphasised consumerism and conformity. Kenneth Slessor found an answer in the poetic expression of a personal vision. The truth of the individual was now the focus of his work. Slessor wrote Sleep at the time he realised this truth was to be found in a fresh examination of the link between man and woman and their environment and between themselves. From this link came a special harmony, an understanding of life that took poetry away from the mere documentation of society and war to a plane, which saw social structure and historical events as a part of a broader dimension. Human history, not just social history became a new focus for Slessor and all of this he placed in the context of time and the cycles of birth and death, of creation and chaos, which were its essence.


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. The different aspects of Change that are explored in the text.


The poem Sleep is explained to a point by its title � it is a re-creation of the attractiveness and pleasurableness of a central human mystery, our giving up of consciousness of factual reality in favour of the unconsciousness of sleep, the state of complete selflessness. The giving up of oneself to sleep is likened to the willing subjection of self to a human lover. The state reached through this process is that of the unborn child held securely in its mother’s womb in a state of unconsciousness of self and of the world. The act of birth � the gaining of consciousness on the part of the newly born child and the regaining of consciousness in the case of the sleeper � is a harsh crossing of a boundary, changing from a world blissfully free of awareness of pain to one in which fear and pain are commonplace.


Themes, ideas, attitudes, feelings and philosophies all relating and linking to change are littered throughout Sleep. As one gradually drifts into sleep, their physical state as well as their feelings and mental state all gradually change, the mind and body are both altered over the time it takes to become fully asleep. Slessor captures the changing from the consciousness to the unconsciousness or the change and transition from being in control, alert and aware to the abandonment of oneself. The subject of the poem changes and alters in one sense by the way they give up all control and submit to sleep taking over. On the other side to Slessor’s metaphor of falling asleep being like a child in the womb, changes associated with the mother and the birth of the child include the physical changes undergone by the mother during pregnancy. As the baby grows and develops inside her, the woman’s body changes as it prepares for the baby, endures the pregnancy and then finally delivers the baby. Her body alters, as she appears different physically (in shape and form) and mentally (she has not only herself to think about now). With the coming of a baby, the mother’s entire life undergoes change, so do the lives of the people around her, for example, other family members.


In Sleep, Slessor shifts his ideas through two cycles, each consisting of four separate stages. He moves through the stages of sleeping, waking and the separate states of the body, Awake, Slumber, Sleep to REM Sleep (or Rapid Eye Movement, the deepest known form of sleep) and finally Wakefulness. This cycle is expressed through four stanzas, one for each state and is likened to the four stages of birth and death through the mother talking to her child. Conception, Development, Birth and Death. There is an obvious element of change in the transition from one to the next in each of these.


There is also a subtle change in mood and atmosphere from stanza to stanza. Soft vowels and consonant give us a feeling of comfort, of the gentleness of sleep and of being loved and nurtured. This is up until the fourth stanza when harsh vowel sounds and crisp consonants come into play to give us the image of violence and awakening. This is a physical change in the writing of the poem itself and can be directly related to physical change in humans (or the mother), previously discussed. There are changes in the physical presence of the listener (that is, the person falling asleep) that are worth noting too. Initially, sleep itself is a bystander, and is seen as it’s own being, apart from the listener sleep stands and poses the question “do you give yourself to me utterly?” Once the listener submits to and gives in to sleep, replying “yes, utterly”, the change in closeness becomes obvious and by the third stanza sleep has taken over. The two are so close now and Slessor includes the phrases to show this “beat with my bloods beat” and “hear my heart move”.


. The Techniques and Devices used by the composer to express their ideas and the Structural Features of the text.


Before reading Kenneth Slessor’s Sleep, it might help to think about and consider different feelings encountered as you drift into sleep, consciousness and unconsciousness and how persuasive a voice might have to be to coax you into sleep. This coaxing tone and the powerful mood of the complete surrender to selflessness is established especially by the repetition of certain vowel and consonant sounds, which are ‘sleepy’ in effect. Kenneth Slessor draws us in with Sleep using the attractions of escapism and by the involvement of the reader directly in the poem by the poet’s confronting and often use of the word “you”. Slessor creates vivid images of giving up self-control and of dissolution and establishes parallels between the state of the sleeper and of the foetus and that of the conscious person and the newly born child. The poem is built upon the dual personification of sleep as the speaker who interrogates its addressee and persuades him to enter oblivion, and as a lover promising the oblivion of sex to the lover and then nurturing the child, the result of their lovemaking.


The first question sets the tone of the first three stanzas, “do you give yourself to me utterly…” Then in the other lines of this and in the next two stanzas Slessor includes a clever use of soft vowels and gentle consonants to capture his subject � the comfort of sleep and of being loved and nurtured. The use of the vowel and consonant patterns creates soft, sleepy sounds in the poem, especially the long ‘ou’ and ‘u’ sounds, for example, “bear you down my estuary”, “…you to burial mysteriously”, “consume you, engulf you” and “in the huge cave… huger waves continually”. This poem aims for intensity not only in the pattern of its sound though, but also in the repetition and reinforcement of ideas. The opening question is uttered in the form of a challenge, an all-encompassing demand for total giving. The speaker (sleep) requests trust because it understands the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual changes the listener much go through and also the implications of the breadth of the demand. The speaker uses the simile of a child in order to illustrate the approach to be taken to the abandonment of self because young children are vulnerable, impressionable and generally carry only simplistic cares. He uses this simile also to stress innocence of purpose, trust, curiosity and the desire to explore the mysteries of the universe.


Slessor is incredibly clever in his referencing to the sea throughout Sleep. The image of the “estuary” as used by the speaker/sleep, compares the coming of sleep to the waves of the tide flooding a bay. Waves of the sea are also likened to the physical movements of lovemaking, the waves of energy and waves of water. “Ferried” too, carries forward both the sea imagery and sexual imagery.


The alliterative effect of the use of ‘c’ at this point in the poem, for example “cling and clamber” with their heavy vowel and consonant sounds represent a contrast to the more relaxed imagery of the previous stanza. Use of ‘d’, the heaviness of the ‘l’ and the ‘ss’ and ‘o’ sounds, the nature of the image described in “Delve in my flesh, dissolved and bedded” � all these contribute to a change in the mood and tone of the poem, because Slessor now concentrates upon a closer view of the child/sleeper. By the fourth stanza Slessor has brought about feelings of pain, in “harsh birth”. This pain derives from the nastiness of consciousness and existence. Towards the end of Sleep, the vowel and consonant sounds have become harsh and striking for example “expulsion”, “awakening”, “riving/driving”, “forceps beckoning” and the words shorter.


4. How the Medium of Production affects the way we respond to the material.


Since the days of the birth of Kenneth Slessor’s poems, but particularly Sleep, the way we are entertained has changed dramatically. Poetry is no longer considered by the masses as a major form of entertainment. It used to be that a person would pull a poetry book from the shelf and loose themselves in the immortal words of poetic masters for hours. But now, our way of life, our priorities, technologies and expectations have undergone a complete transition. Video, computers, the Internet, DVD and the cinema have all contributed to the slowing of the popularity of poetry for pleasure. Sleep delivers its message of birth, life, death and the giving up of control not through state of the art computer graphics, Oscar winning performances or clever cinematography but through the mysterious world that Slessor creates with his imagery, words and use of poetic devices.


5. How the text develops your understanding of Change.


Changing worlds are explored in Slessor’s Sleep and the responder finds they see from the perspective of ‘sleep’ to a world of human conception and development - involving the responder totally and being absorbed in the concepts of human change, physically and spiritually.


Reading the poem initially, I felt it related to sleep and its physical nature. On the second reading I changed my perspective to a poem about the conception and development of a child, the mother, through to birth and ultimately death.


With self exploration and change, I understand now about the human elements of growth and development on an intimate level. Slessor invitingly cajoles us into the physical process of sleep and the physical processes of development. A new respect for woman and motherhood develops in the responder, for example “life with remorseless forceps beckoning”, “expulsion” and “riving” � words that incite the responder to feel respect to the “brave” woman giving birth and going through all the changes associated with this process.





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